pay attention


By David Morefield

The character of Q has been called one of the "constants" in the Bond series. One of those things you could count on to stay the same even though film styles, fashions, technology and even the face of Bond changed and changed again. But a closer look at the character reveals an evolution of sorts, which depending how you look at it was actually quite profound by the end.

Boothroyd 1

TBall Rebreather

It began back in Dr No, which as many a trivia-test taker will tell you, didn't even feature Desmond Llewelyn! In that first Bond film, 007 is summoned to the offices of MI6 for a mission briefing, and while there he has his beloved Beretta .25 automatic taken from him, and replaced -- on M's orders -- with the now-legendary Walther PPK. The fellow (played by Peter Burton) who outfits Bond with the new sidearm is referred to only by the title "Armourer," though in the credits, he's "Major Boothroyd," just as he is in Ian Fleming's original novel (having been named after a real-life acquaintance of Fleming who suggested the switch to the Walther).

Desmond Llewelyn arrives on the scene the following year, in From Russia With Love, popping into M's office to outfit Bond with a surprise-packed attache case. But even though we now have the right actor on the job, all the pieces have still not quite fallen into place; there is no repartee between Connery and Llewelyn, and the character is not referred to as "Q". "M" calls him simply "the equipment officer," although we do hear the series' first mention of "Q Branch" as a department. In the film's credits, Llewelyn's character is named "Boothroyd," just like Burton's was, though once again the name is never uttered in the course of the film.

In fact it's only fifteen years later, in The Spy Who Loved Me, that someone finally does say the name "Major Boothroyd." It happens when Anya Amasova greets Q. Thus the math seems to add up as follows: Burton was Boothroyd, Llewelyn was Boothroyd, Llewelyn is Q, therefore Burton was Q.

Or maybe not. In both Dr No and FRWL, "Boothroyd" is essentially a nameless, nondescript government bureaucrat who's more plot device than character. He exists for the sole purpose of getting those gadgets in the hands of 007, then disappearing with as little fuss as possible. In fact, he's so dry you could make the argument that the "Boothroyd" here and the "Q" we later come to love are barely even the same guy. There is, however, one neat little difference between the two portrayals, if you want to study these scenes in ridiculous detail (as I seem to!). Where Burton performs his entire scene with British efficiency and never shows an emotion, Llewelyn injects a bit of character over and above what was in the script. Notice that when Bond finishes successfully opening the case (and avoiding a tear gas blast), Boothroyd cracks a smile and says, "Got it?" He is obviously pleased with the ingenuity of the device and the look of wonder on Bond's face as the "extras" are explained. In this little flash of pride (and perhaps even mischief) we have the seed from which the familiar "Q" personality will grow.

It's not until Goldfinger that we have a "Q scene" in the classic sense. We get our first-ever look at the famous workshop where so many wonders are assembled, and Bond addresses the gadgeteer for the first time by his code-letter ("Good morning, Q"). For his part, Q seems less than impressed with our hero. This is due to a suggestion from director Guy Hamilton, who instructed Llewelyn to play Q as a dedicated professional fed up with Bond's cavalier attitude and history of destroying government property.

Needless to say, this was an inspired idea that worked on many levels. First -- and most obviously -- it added a whole new dimension to what had been a flat character. Q becomes more than a dutiful civil servant here; suddenly he's a human being with his own personality, fascinated by his work and disdainful of anyone who doesn't take it as seriously as he does.

Second, the friction between the characters reinforces the audience's identification with 007. Despite his vocation as a government employee, Bond is portrayed as something of a free spirit, with a fierce independence and a strong streak of hedonism. He is not your typical by-the-book, all business civil servant, and we often get the feeling it's all he can do to sit still at meetings and briefings. Like us, he's eager to get to the action. In this context, "M" and "Q" play the "straight men," filling the necessary role of conservative, "tweedy" authority figures who are forever reminding Bond to follow the rules, fill out his paperwork and observe protocol. " pay attention!"

Third, and most importantly, the new dynamic between Bond and Q provides an element of continuity between the films, and helps round out the classic "Bond family" at MI6. Just as the audience comes to expect in every film a tense moment or two with "the boss" M, and a flirtatious scene with dear Moneypenny, we also wait eagerly for the briefing from the fussy, slightly befuddled Q with his gadgets running the gamut from super-cool to utterly daft. Even so, Goldfinger is still early days, and so Bond takes more abuse than he dishes out. Q is still enough of an authority figure that 007 seems to bite his tongue rather than show blatant disrepect. When "Q" promises he won't keep Bond for "more than an hour or so," Bond wears the exasperated but helpless look of a husband dragged to church on SuperBowl Sunday.

By the time of Thunderball, the Bond/Q relationship is fully established. Q tries to impress Bond with his inventions while Bond plays with switches and goofs around in a deliberate attempt to irritate the gadgeteer. Most of the films that followed would recreate this scene, with slight variations, for decades to come.

Even so, there were a few twists and turns along the way. For example, in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, director Peter Hunt turns his back on gadgets and returns Bond to his roots as a "live by your wits" hero. In fact, the whole gadget tradition is lampooned as the film opens, with Q trying to sell M on the ludicrous notion of slipping radioactive lint into an enemy's pockets. But if Hunt had little use for gadgets, he couldn't deny the vital importance of Q himself. At Bond and Tracy's wedding, Q is in attendance, bringing good wishes and an offer to bury the hatchet: "Look, James, I know that we haven't always exactly seen...well anyway, don't forget if there's ever anything you need..." Caught up in the emotions of the day, Q fumbles a bit with the wording, but the meaning is clear enough: deep down, where it counts, he really likes this rowdy "kid."

Q beats the casino

broom phone

This provides another piece to the puzzle of Q's character. He seems to relate much more easily to gears, wires and microchips than to flesh-and-blood human beings. He practically skips with glee over his professional successes, but finds it hard to express what he feels for his colleagues. Often it looks as if Q's whole universe begins and ends in the four walls of his workshop, and at times he seems not to connect his tinkerings with their real-world ramifications. In The Spy Who Loved Me, for example, he develops a magnet-powered tea tray that decapitates enemy drinkers. "Have that ready for Achmed's Tea Party," he calls out cheerily, so delighted with the success of the gadget that he doesn't spare a thought for poor "Achmed." In Diamonds Are Forever, another magnetic device enables Q to beat the Las Vegas slot machines, but he's so tickled with his toy that he walks away uninterested from the piles of coins spewing from the machines.

Even so, all that time spent in the company of 007 does eventually relax Q somewhat, and it certainly broadens his horizons. In the early days, Q is all-business and has little use for adventure outside his shop. When he's dragged to the Bahamas to outfit Bond in Thunderball, he grumbles that it's "highly irregular." Nonetheless, the next time we see him, he's travelling to Japan to deliver "Little Nellie" in person. What's more, in the later films he seems to have set up "franchise" workshops in Egypt, South America, India and other exotic corners of the globe. Could it be that Bond's influence is having an effect on Q? That he's picking up Bond's own love of travel and adventure?

It would seem so, judging by the late Roger Moore period. In For Your Eyes Only, Q rather unexpectedly shows up disguised as a priest so he can pass 007 information about the villain's hide-out. This task has nothing to do with gadgets and would seem more suited for a field agent, but Q obviously enjoys it and so do we. In Octopussy, Q completely takes the plunge, going from "office wallflower" to full-fledged action hero sidekick. In India, he surveils Octopussy's Island in alternating shifts with agent Vijay (again, doing the work of a field agent...and dangerous work this time!), and at film's end he even accompanies Bond on the customary raid of the villain's stronghold. For a guy who once actually complained about being pulled from his office for a trip to the sunny Bahamas, Q has certainly done a dramatic about-face. He also seems to have loosened up a bit around the ladies. When Octopussy's girls surround his balloon to kiss him, he grumbles "Not now!" but then softens it with, "later perhaps...."

By the time Timothy Dalton hits the scene in The Living Daylights, Q has evolved into a pretty happy fellow. He gleefully demonstrates his "ghetto blaster" and laughs out loud when a lab technician is swallowed up by his trick sofa. Is this the same guy who once said, "I never joke about my work?"

Having proven his action chops in Octopussy, Q returns to the field in 1989's License To Kill. Learning that Bond is on a personal vendetta against Sanchez, and probably in over his head, Q takes a sudden "vacation" and flies out to assist 007 with as many gadgets as he can stuff into his luggage. It's likely this is the first "leave" this workaholic has ever been on, and it's hard to imagine that M wouldn't have known exactly what he had in mind. This film settles once and for all the question of how Q feels about Bond. Here he's putting his own career on the line as much as Bond is.

Of course the nature of the relationship between these men makes it impossible for Q to express his concern directly. "Moneypenny," he explains, is "worried sick about you." Not that Q will admit to any of this sentimental rubbish himself. No, he just wants to make sure 007 doesn't muff the job. "I know exactly what you're up to," he tells Bond, "and quite frankly you're going to need my help. Remember, if it wasn't for Q branch you'd have been dead long ago!" Bond rolls his eyes a bit, but he knows full well the real reason Q is there: 007 is his friend and he's not going to let him down.

Bond is grateful for the help, if understandably concerned about Q's well-being. At one point, he tells Q he makes "a hell of a field agent," and Q seems immensely pleased, even though there was a point in history when he would most certainly not have been. Q seems to take delight in his active role here, and at one point he fully adopts the cavalier attitude of Bond himself, discarding his "radio broom" after a single use! Surely this qualifies as a lack of respect for government property, but when in Rome...

Advancing age meant less action for Desmond in the Brosnan years, but his repartee with the latest Bond star was often as good as anything that went before. In Tomorrow Never Dies, there is a particularly fun bit where Q describes to Bond his "beautiful new car" and bites off every word with irritation, knowing full well that the vehicle is doomed.

Which brings us, finally, to The World Is Not Enough. For once there is a melancholy twist to the proceedings as Q discusses leaving the job he's loved for so long. With a wonderfully sincere look of concern, Brosnan/Bond asks, "You're not retiring soon, are you?" Q's only answer is the cryptic line about having an escape plan ready. With that he's lowered into the floor and makes his final exit.

As we continue to mourn the loss of Desmond Llewelyn, we can take some solace in the knowledge that his 17 Bond films are forever committed to celluloid...and videotape...and DVD. In a way, he'll live on forever. But that may not be much consolation when we sit down to Bond 20 and witness a "Q branch" scene without the actor who brought them to life for so long.

Now we have the wonderful John Cleese brining his own talents to the mix, and at this point the direction his character will develop is anyone's guess. Maybe he'll remain the fumbling klutz we saw in TWINE, or maybe when thrust into the top spot at Q branch he'll become more confident, even stuffy like the early Q. Maybe he'll be short-tempered with Bond, or maybe they'll be great friends. Maybe he'll ruffle some feathers by changing Q's workshop around to meet his personal standards, or maybe he'll suffer from self-doubt in the shadow of a man he feels unable to equal. Perhaps his designation will upgrade from "assistant" to "Q." Or maybe he'll take on a new title entirely.

Two things are certain. First, as long as there are Bond films, gadgets and technology will be a vital ingredient. And second, it doesn't matter what they call future gadget-masters any more than it mattered what they called the fellow in Dr No. For millions of fans around the world, there will only ever be one "Q."

And we miss him.