Spotlight On Dame Judi Dench

Spotlight On Dame Judi Dench

From GoldenEye to Skyfall

At precisely 11.30am on February 7 1995, Judi Dench stepped onto C stage at Leavesden Studios to begin playing M opposite Pierce Brosnan in GoldenEye. It marked the start of a spectacular incarnation of the character, a seven film tenure – plus a cameo in 2015’s Spectre – cemented by Dench’s gravitas and steely intelligence, leavened by a dry wit. As befits such a skilled performer, Dench also conveyed M’s unspoken affection for her operative, without a hint of mawkishness or sentimentality.

After portrayals by Bernard Lee and Robert Brown, the series shift to a female M had its origins in real life. In 1992, Stella Remington was appointed head of M15. “There is now a woman at the head of the British secret service and this Bond film reflects that – quite rightly, in my view,” Dench said. 

Described by Bill Tanner as “the evil queen of numbers”, Dench’s M gives the spy an impromptu reprimand during their first tense first meeting:

M: “You don’t like me, Bond. You don’t like my methods. You think I’m an accountant, a bean counter more interested in my numbers than your instincts.”
Bond: “The thought had occurred to me.”
M: “Good, because I think you’re a sexist misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War, whose boyish charms, though wasted on me, obviously appealed to that young woman I sent out to evaluate you.”
Bond: “Point taken.”

In a tense confrontation, M sends Bond to investigate the theft of the GoldenEye weapon system. She tells him to “come back alive”, Dench adding an understated touch of warmth.

For 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies, M sends Bond to Hamburg to investigate media mogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), playfully asking 007 to “pump information” from his old flame and now Carver’s wife Paris (Teri Hatcher). The World Is Not Enough provided a more significant role for any M up to that point. “I loved playing the part. On the first Bond film I had three days, on the second one I had five days, and this time 14 days,” Dench said. “What is lovely about the Bond films is that it has got a family atmosphere, because a lot of the same people are used each time. That’s really very nice, because it is like working in a company.” 

Following the death of her fellow Oxford alumni Sir Robert King (David Calder), M is approached by King’s daughter Elektra (Sophie Marceau) to provide protection from anarchist Renard (Robert Carlyle), the man who previously kidnapped Elektra. At the time, M advised Sir Robert not to pay the ransom so, when M arrives in Baku, she is kidnapped by Elektra, who is now in league with her former captor.

Screenwriter Dana Stevens was brought in to rewrite this kidnapping plot-line and add texture to the relationship between M and Elektra. The result saw M thrown into the midst of the action, rewiring the clock to supply power to a GPS locator card Bond had given to her. Dench also became the first M to go head-to-head with the main villain of the film.

Dench presided over a change of 007 actors, appearing in Pierce Brosnan’s final mission Die Another Day (2002) and Daniel Craig’s first adventure Casino Royale (2006).

“Judi Dench can say a hundred words and make them sound wonderful, but can also give one look and break your heart,” Craig said of working opposite her.

In her first film with Craig, Dench portrays M as a mentor-figure, overseeing Bond’s initiation into the 00 programme. She guides Bond’s transformation from a skilled but blinkered, raw recruit to a battle-hardened agent who can see the bigger picture. “She slaps his wrists and sends him on his way,” Daniel Craig said.

Following 2008’s Quantum Of Solace, Skyfall (2012) became the character’s most rounded iteration. It would also become her swansong. The idea of M’s death first appeared in a treatment by writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. Director Sam Mendes, who had worked with Dench on the stage, immediately latched onto the bold notion and encouraged Purvis and Wade to start writing a story that built up to M’s passing.

The plot involved cyber-terrorist Silva (Javier Bardem), a former agent who M traded to the Chinese for six agents, looking for revenge over his former boss. To keep her safe, Bond takes M to sanctuary in Skyfall, his old family home in Scotland.

“We wanted to mine the relationship between Bond and M because it is the most significant relationship he has in his life,” says producer Barbara Broccoli during production. “We have two extraordinary actors, and we thought ‘Let’s go all the way,’ and it’s worked extremely well.”

Broccoli and fellow producer Michael G. Wilson broached the character’s demise with the actor over dinner at London restaurant The Wolseley. Contrary to reports in the press at the time, Dench didn’t start crying at the news.

“When I found out M was going to die, I said, ‘Of course she’s got to go but it’s good to go with a bang and a good script’,” said Dench.

The story starts in Turkey, with M ordering Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) to shoot assassin Patrice (Ola Rapace) but she hits Bond instead and he seemingly falls to his death. After an attack on MI6, Bond returns home.

“Emotion cannot come into their relationship,” said Craig. “In the story M has to make sacrifices, Bond being one of them. So, it’s quite difficult for them to have a touchy-feely relationship with each other. In better times and difficult circumstances, they could be very close to each other and that’s the tragedy of that relationship.”

The crucial scene of Bond confronting M at her home was shot at Pinewood Studios. Yet once it was put together, it was decided to restage the scene again two weeks later.

“The scene between M and Bond worked the first time we shot it but it wasn’t quite right,” recalled Mendes. “The relationship was too resolved by the end of the scene so it lacked tension. Their relationship needs to be permanently unresolved, in the same way that your relationship with your parents can never be resolved. It’s never going to be, ‘Good. Now we know we love each other, we can live the rest of our lives peacefully.’ It doesn’t happen so I reshot the scene.”

On March 30 and April 2 2012, Mendes and the crew shot the final confrontation between Silva and M which takes place in the chapel at Skyfall.

 “It really is a gift for an actor to be close to Judi Dench and to be able to play even one scene with her,” said Bardem. “I was afraid because there was some physicality in the scene and of course I didn’t want to hurt her. But she was such a delight. She was doing something very difficult which is to maintain her concentration while I was going through the scene to find different ways of playing it. She was there and just doing her job – such a lady.”

After Bond saves M from Silva, M dies from sustained wounds cradled in Bond’s arms. Shooting the scene was a difficult day for everyone.

“We joked most of the day but it was actually very tough to do because Judi had been part of Bond for 17 years,” remembered Craig. “In the end, during the scene Bond and M genuinely connect and show weakness to each other for the first time.”

“It was really sad,” recalled Mendes. “It was sadder for Daniel and Barbara. Certainly for Barbara. Judi had been part of seven movies, so it was the end of an era for her and Michael. For me it was an opportunity to be directing Judi Dench again, the finest actor I’ve ever worked with, in a scene that was pretty moving. It felt very different on Spectre without Judi’s presence.” 

Following her death, M bequeaths Bond her Royal Doulton Bulldog, revealing her true name to be Olivia Mansfield. A poignant goodbye ending a perfect character arc, beautifully realised by one of our finest actors. 

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