007 MAGAZINE - The World's Foremost James Bond Resource!

From the Archive
Issue #19 (Winter 1989)



ANDREW PILKINGTON conducted his investigation into the man who was M, for 007 MAGAZINE Issue #19

Bernard Lee as M in Dr. No

The late Bernard Lee - the definitive M?

Sir Miles Messervy - M  the man with 'damnably clear grey eyes'

‘James Bond felt a quick warmth of affection for this man who had ordered his destiny for so long but whom he knew so little’. This quote from YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE accurately sums up Bond’s feelings for his chief. There are of course exceptions, such as his letter of resignation drafted whilst motoring through France at the beginning of ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, but generally Bond holds M in high regard. It is not surprising, however, that he should know so little about M, as Fleming was never very forthcoming about his private life. In Fleming’s first novel CASINO ROYALE the author sets the scene for Bond’s visit to the eighth floor and his briefing in a very business like way and tells us nothing about M himself. In fact, it is not until THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN – the last novel in the series – we learn that M’s full title is Admiral Sir Miles Messervy, KCMG.

His enigmatic character also causes problems for the Russian Generals searching for an assassination victim in FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE: ‘He is an Admiral. He is known by the letter M. We have a zapiska on him, but it contains little. He does not drink very much. He is too old for women. The public do not know of his existence. It would be difficult to create a scandal round his death. And he would not be easy to kill. He rarely goes abroad. To shoot him in a London Street would not be very refined.’ Not much to go on so far! Still, with a little careful digging we should be able to get a clearer picture. Although M’s age was never specified it must be close to sixty, as he was a retired Vice Admiral. Throughout the novels Fleming’s description of M changes, but he is variously described as having a hard, lined, weather beaten sailor’s face, the skin which is luminous with health, pink and scrubbed. He has iron grey hair and eyes which are variously described as cold, commanding, frosty, quiet, shrewd, uncompromising and watchful.

Bernard Lee as M in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) | Robert Brown as M

ABOVE: (left) 007 (Roger Moore) with M (Bernard Lee) in his Egyptian H.Q. in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), flanked by General Gogol (Walter Gotell) and Major Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach). (right) Robert Brown - a believable M?

However, they are always damnably clear. His clothing reflects his bachelor status and Victorian upbringing. Dark grey conservative suits and shirts with stiff white collars, usually complimented by a spotted bow tie. He smokes a pipe which he fills from a tobacco jar made from the base of a 14 pound shell case, and lights with a match – never a lighter. He also allows himself two thin cheroots a day and has a sailor’s meticulous observance of midday.

When Fleming started to write ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE it is quite possible that he was tiring of trying to find new things to write about Bond and decided instead to concentrate on M. We learn more about the ex-Admiral in the content of two pages than we have in the preceding ten novels. We are told that M would have liked to have lived by the sea, but due to the nature of his job in London. He had therefore decided on the next best thing to water – trees, and had a small regency manor house on the edge of Windsor forest. He earned £5000 a year (don’t forget this is the early fifties to mid sixties) as Head of the Secret Service, with the use of an ancient Rolls-Royce and driver included. His retirement pay as a Vice Admiral would bring in an additional £1,500, which after tax would leave him £4,000 a year.

M’s naval career seems to have had a lasting effect. His chauffeur is ex-Leading Stoker Smith and his country hideaway is named ‘Quarterdeck’. The door knocker is a ship’s bell taken from M’s last sea going appointment aboard HMS Repulse, as is his butler ex-Chief Petty Officer Hammond, whilst Mrs. Hammond handles the rest of the domestic chores. M has a number of hobbies, some of which are connected with his seafaring days. The walls of his study are lined with naval prints and the walls of the dining room ‘glittered with M’s other hobby, the evolution of the naval cutlass’. M also dabbled in painting.

Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), M (Bernard Lee) and 007 (Sean Connery) in From Russia With Love (1963)

ABOVE: (left) Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), M (Bernard Lee) and 007 (Sean Connery) in From Russia With Love (1963). (right) In the Sixties Daily Express comic strip, M was depicted as a lean, hard man by artist John McLusky. But when illustrator Yaroslav Horak took over the strip in 1966 M became more portly - but his temperament didn't improve.

‘He painted in watercolours, but only the wild orchids of England in the meticulous but uninspired fashion of the naturalists of the nineteenth century’. Other forms of relaxation included two weeks trout fishing on the river Test at the end of September, and perhaps a game of Pique at Blades. M is not a heavy drinker, but will have a whisky and soda at his club, and possibly half a carafe of an Algerian red wine too dubious of origin to be allowed on to the wine list.

So much for his personal life. But what was he like to work for? M had been Head of the British Secret Service for some time and jealously guarded its interests. The following extract from Fleming’s short story RISICO explains M’s foul temper at having to assign 007 to something he considers is a Special Branch matter. ‘There was nothing that made him more angry than having to divert his staff from their primary duty. This duty was espionage, and when necessary sabotage and subversion. Anything else was misuse of the Service and of the secret funds which, God knows were meagre enough.’ Later in the same story we discover that M has little idiosyncrasies.

Bernard Lee as M On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

ABOVE: (left) The original M was played by Bernard Lee [1908-1981] in every James Bond film from Dr. No (1962) to Moonraker (1979). (right)  In On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), we are given a rare glimpse of M (Bernard Lee) at his country home ‘Quarterdeck’, when 007 (George Lazenby) visits him to discuss ‘Operation Bedlam’.

‘M had certain bees in his bonnet. They were famous in the service, and M knew they were. But that did not mean he would allow them to stop buzzing. There were the queen bees, like the misuse of the Service, and the search for true as distinct from wishful intelligence, and there were worker bees. These included such idiosyncrasies as not employing men with beards, or those who were completely bilingual, instantly dismissing men who brought pressure to bear on him through family relationships with members of the Cabinet, mistrusting men or women who were too ‘dressy’, and those who called him ‘sir’ off-duty; and having an exaggerated faith in Scotsmen.’  Despite his foibles M has the respect and loyalty of the men under his command. In DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER Bond explains his predicament to Tiffany Case. ‘I’m almost married already. To a man. Name begins with M, I’d have to divorce him before I tried marrying a woman.’ A call to M on the transatlantic telephone was a thrill ‘Yes’ said the cold voice that Bond loved and obeyed.’ M was the man who held a great deal of his affection and all of his loyalty and obedience.’ Insubordination was an uncommon occurrence and apart from Bond’s letter of resignation there were very few incidents, but I doubt if kind thoughts were uppermost in 007’s mind when he was sent to Shrublands health clinic. In spite of everything Bond respects his Chief and knows he will back his agents to the hilt, whatever the consequences. 

In the later novels it seems M had a strange way of showing his appreciation of Bond’s services over the years. M had already asked Bond a personal favour in MOONRAKER when he persuades 007 to discover how Hugo Drax is cheating at cards.

robert Brown as M The Living Daylights (1987)

ABOVE: (left) M (Robert Brown) gives James Bond (Timothy Dalton) his orders to kill General Pushkin in The Living Daylights (1987), and (right) is worried by 007's extravagant taste in champagne.

Despite his aversion to people misusing the Service’s resources he goes a stage further in the short story FOR YOUR EYES ONLY. He asks Bond to carry out a private little murder on his behalf. In fact in this story we see a very different side to M’s character for the first and only time. ‘James has it ever occurred to you that every man in the fleet knows what to do except the Admiral? Some people are religious – pass the decision on to God. I used to try that sometimes in the Service but He always passed the buck back again.’ Bond makes a comment about the cause being just and sets M off again. ‘Dammit! That’s just what I mean! You rely on ME. You won’t take the responsibility yourself. I’m the one who has to decide if a thing is right or not. Oh well. I suppose it’s what I’m paid for. Somebody’s got to drive the bloody train.’ Not surprisingly Bond is taken aback by this outburst. M’s violent reaction was possibly the result of guilt at having to ask 007 to take on such a job. In his two books The James Bond Dossier and The Book of Bond, Kingsley Amis does little to disguise his animosity towards M, and highlights MOONRAKER and FOR YOUR EYES ONLY as examples of what a devious, cunning and heartless character M really was. He later qualifies this criticism by stating that he would not have M any other way. It is interesting to note that in Amis’ own excellent Bond novel COLONEL SUN, M is put through sheer hell at the hands of the title villain. Perhaps this was Amis’ way of getting his own back on the character after suffering years of Fleming’s crusty ex-Admiral.

Bernard Lee as M Goldfinger (1964)

ABOVE: In Goldfinger (1964) James Bond (Sean Connery) is given a ‘dressing down’ by M (Bernard Lee) for ‘borrowing’ Auric Goldfinger's girlfriend.

Apart from sending Bond on personal Missions of his own choosing, M also becomes very callous in Fleming’s last two novels. In YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE M holds the following conversation with the Service physician Sir James Molony. ‘Have you tried him on any tough assignments in the last few months?’ ‘Two’, said M drearily. ‘He bungled them both. On one he nearly got himself killed, and on the other he made a mistake that was dangerous for others. That’s another thing that bothers me. He didn’t make mistakes before. Now suddenly he’s become accident prone.’ ‘Another symptom of his neurosis. So what are you going to do about it?’ ‘Fire him’, said M brutally. ‘You’ll be losing one of your best men.’ ‘Used to be. Isn’t any longer’. In THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, M goes one better. ‘If the KGB has the nerve to throw one of my best men at me, I have the nerve to throw him back at them. 007 was a good agent once. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be again. Within limits, that is. After lunch give me the file on Scaramanga. If we can get him fit again, that’s the right sized target for 007.’ The Chief of Staff protested, ‘But that’s suicide, sir! Even 007 could never take him.’ M said coldly, ‘What would 007 get for this mornings bit of work? Twenty years? As a minimum I’d say. Better for him to fall on the battlefield. If he brings it off, he’ll have won his spurs back again and we can forget the past. Anyway that’s my decision.’ The Chief of Staff looked at the retreating back. He said, under his breath, ‘You cold hearted bastard!’ At the end of the book M sends 007 a cable expressing his entire satisfaction with the agent’s handling of the affair, something which ‘secretly delighted’ Bond. As Mary Goodnight observes, ‘I’ve never seen him (M) so complimentary’. So once again M keeps Bond on his side, duty overcoming everything else.

The character of M in the series of Bond movies has been faithfully recreated. Apparently the original actor considered for the role was Trevor Howard, who I feel would have been perfect. Witness his performances in The Liquidator (1965) and opposite Sean Connery in The Offence (1972) and I think you will agree. However, Bernard Lee was a most acceptable alternative. During his long film career Lee had played many army and police roles, so his established authoritarian image was ideal for the role. In Dr. No his reprimanding of Bond over the use of ‘that damn Beretta’ is far more testy and abrasive than his literary counterpart. The love/hate relationship between Bond and M is further enhanced by the playing of Sean Connery, and as the films progressed the witty repartee between the two men increased.   It is particularly evident in Goldfinger when 007 and M visit the Bank of England. After spouting forth on the origin of the brandy they are drinking, Bond is told rather curtly by M, ‘Colonel Smithers is giving the lecture 007’.

Robert Brown as M Licence To Kill (1989)

In Licence To Kill (1989), M has to fly to Florida to order 007 to return to London, however 007 refuses to obey orders and sets out to avenge his friend Felix Leiter. Unbeknown to M, Moneypenny (Caroline Bliss) is secretly sending information to Bond.

With Roger Moore’s arrival as James Bond the relationship between 007 and his Chief became more like the headmaster scolding the wayward pupil, but entertaining nevertheless. After Bernard Lee’s tragic death in 1981 it seemed he would be irreplaceable, and subsequently the character of M did not appear in For Your Eyes Only. The release of Octopussy in 1983 introduced us to a new M in the guise of Robert Brown. In his first two appearances as the Secret Service Chief he made little impression, but with the introduction of Timothy Dalton as the new 007 he seemed to have found his feet. Dalton’s no nonsense approach to the character of Bond in The Living Daylights seemed to fire the enthusiasm of everyone working on the picture, and the scenes between 007 and M were the best we had seen for a long time. We could then believe Robert Brown really was the Head of British Intelligence.

In Licence To Kill, M has the tough job of recalling 007 from Florida after his friend Felix Leiter has been made a widower, tortured and maimed, and left for dead by the villainous Franz Sanchez, but Bond disobeys his orders and his Chief revokes his licence. It seems Bond might have the last word yet!  


PLEASE NOTE: This article was written prior to 1995 and the introduction of Pierce Brosnan as 007 and Judi Dench as M.


FACT FILES ‘The Old Guard’