From the very outset of the James Bond film franchise, it was abundantly clear that one of the films’ selling points was the promise that the protagonist, British secret agent James Bond 007, would travel the many foreign, exotic, romantic and dangerous locales around the globe. From the more familiar yet legendary European cities, such as Paris (A View to a Kill) and Venice (Moonraker, Casino Royale), the famous metropolises other continents are known for (New York in Live and Let Die, Tokyo in You Only Live Twice) to the roads less taken which lead to lesser known territories (Jamaica in Dr. Do, Haiti in Quantum of Solace, Iceland in Die Another Day), 007 has fought the forces of evil in just about every corner and every climate. However far and wide the iconic protagonist has ventured in his many adventures, there is one place he is almost certain to visit in every film. Before hopping into a plane for San Francisco, Macau or Nassau, Bond needs to at least be informed of where his next assignment shall land him. For that, a quick visit to a place very close to home is in order: M’s office.
It begins with the office used by the actor who is frequently regarded as the best M, Bernard Lee, who portrayed the character from 1962’s Dr. No up until 1979’s Moonraker. Lee was played him as a gruff, inscrutable man who often barked orders or answered queries with harsher than necessary tones. He possessed a no nonsense personality and never shied away from making it clear. Because he was the first cinematic translation of the character, it is reasonable that the filmmakers thought it best to adhere as much as possible to the traits of the character as found in the source material. This M is not exactly a modern man, but that does not imply that he lacks taste for decorum, only that his inclinations are very classical in style. While there is little about the early version of his office that one would consider ‘eye popping,’ there is also no denying its vintage charm, vintage even by early 1960s standards. A beautiful wooden desk with a simple lamp resting on on his left hand side, chairs also made of wood with either red or green leather padding, the former being the color utilized in the very first few films, substituted for the latter in the 70s. Even the various desks and chairs located around the room are wooden and quite modest in design.
Arguably the most amusing aspects to the room rest in the finer details, such as the many finely crafted ornaments that lay about, many of which are related to naval ships, such as a golden telescope. Closer inspection of the paintings which adorn the walls also reveal a love of sea vessels. This affinity with the navy is no pure invention on the part of the filmmakers, but rather a respect to the character as created by Ian Fleming who occasionally referenced M’s career in the British Navy. Of course, one of the more obvious hints that this M is from an older era would have to be the huge, oddly located safe right behind his chair in the Dr. No. No attempt to hide it whatsoever, it just stands there in the corner of the room. A curious but nevertheless fun little detail.
Even though the office is quite handsome, the filmmakers recognized that when compared to the often awe inspiring quarters the villains had, even in the very first film, they would need to occasionally up the ante for M as well, hence MI6’s decision to temporarily relocate their base of operations for certain missions depending on where Bond was in the world. These are the more flamboyant and, truthfully, less believable incarnations of M’s office, although it is hard not to find them really cool purely from visual and production design standpoints. In The Spy Who Loved Me, Bond’s mission briefing occurs inside a pyramid in Egypt. In The Man With The Golden Gun, it is in a half sunken British ship in the Hong Kong harbor. The slanted angle at which the vessel rests means that all the rooms inside, including M’s office, have slanted floors and walls too.
Robert Brown next played M for the duration of the 1980s following the passing of Bernard Lee. A competent actor, Brown emulated Lee’s version of the character to an extent, although whereas one could detect that there remained a bit of the old sea dog fighting spirit in Lee, Brown comes off more as a temperamental bureaucrat. By no means a poor interpretation of the character, it certainly lacked some of the vim and verve the previous actor brought to the role. For the mission briefing scenes that transpired in the traditional London MI6 headquarters, the office’s style remained mostly true to what it had been since the outset of the series. ‘Same old, same old’ cannot apply for very long in the Bond franchise, hence twice the relocation of this second M’s base of operation, the more ludicrous being the hangar bay of a military carrier plane at the start of The Living Daylights. Once the door is opened to allow three double-oh agents to parachute down onto the island of Gibraltar for a training exercise, is it really all that surprising when M’s papers take flight off his desk? Less an example of an office relocation per say, M turning up at the Florida home of famous author Ernest Hemingway in Licence to Kill is a bit more clever and, to be honest, a lot cooler intellectually. It also serves up a great line, as when M announces to 007 that his license to kill has been revoked, Bond (Timothy Dalton), before making his getaway, bitterly retorts their meeting is a ‘farewell to arms.’
Things get very interesting, complicated even, with the third M, played with true English wry energy by the fantastic Judi Dench. It has been written and is even mentioned once or twice in the films featuring her character that M is something of a motherly figure for Bond, especially in the episodes starring Daniel Craig. She is a craggy, nearly unforgiving mother figure, but a mother figure nonetheless. Curiously, of all the offices, hers is the one that most lacked consistency. There are even some films for which her quarters are practically an afterthought to the point where it is either not featured at all or just barely, such as Tomorrow Never Dies and Die Another Day. Casino Royale is another odd example in which the room is shown a few times, but the cuts between her location and wherever Bond is (Bond, played by Daniel Craig, never physically appears in her office) are very quick, in addition to each shot of M being a medium close up, all of which prevents audiences from ever getting a good feeling for its aesthetics, dimensions or the mood it exudes. In the Judi Dench era, it seems the filmmakers worked harder at having M appear elsewhere than establishing a consistent look and identity for her office. This, it may be argued, actually fits in with the lack of an identity for her office. As a proverbial mother figure, she sees it as her duty to rush to wherever Bond may be in order to either reprimand or congratulate him, usually the former however.
Despite the attempt at avoiding too many office scenes, at least one of the pay-offs is absolute aces, that being in the aforementioned Casino Royale when the new Daniel Craig Bond surprises his new boss by infiltrating her London condo, a trick similar to the one a previous M, Bernard Lee, played on Roger Moore’s Bond by arriving at his home in the near the beginning of Live and Let Die.
To further prove the point that M’s office during the Judi Dench era lacked consistency, in only four of the seven films does the audience have a good look of her room and said room is given an entirely different design three times! The only carry over is from Goldeneye to The World is Not Enough, both of which involve Pearce Brosnan having a sit down for briefings with Dench in a similar looking looking office, very much a sleeker, more modern update of the original Bernard Lee room: black leather chairs, various paintings along the walls (although there are no clear shots of them, thus removing any sense of character they might have otherwise provided), glass covered desk, walls of a clean if slightly boring beige colour. The only bit of character the viewer can extrapolate from the room is the rather large and beautifully presented library in the corner, each section stylishly protected with glass windows. A nice touch to be sure, but overall the office has a bland, modern to look to it.
Quantum of Solace, a film most people stubbornly prefer to forget, incidentally offers the most creative and amusing M office the series has possibly ever featured. A balance of minimalism of intricate complexity, the room is seemingly nothing but a series of either metallic grey or see through glass walls, yet one of those glass walls one is actually a holographic and interactive databank computer. Digital images and files can be pulled up via dictation by M herself or even her Chief of Staff Bill Tanner (Rory Kinnear). The system even has its own phone service for both incoming and outgoing calls, as exemplified in the scene when Bond calls MI6 headquarters to inquire on the mysterious Dominic Green (Mathieu Amalric). Even thought this is one of the rare times in the Judi Dench era that the production design put significant effort into concocting office space for the character, it nevertheless plays in to her very ‘hands on’ approach as head of MI6. All the intelligence and lines to liaisons in other secret service agencies she could possibly ask for are literally at her command.
Skyfall of course changes things dramatically in the Bond universe with respect to M and her working quarters are no exception. Following the terrorist attack on the MI6 offices in London, the team venture into the metropolis’ underground to set up shop. M is given a slightly more private space in that she overseas everybody else from a story above through her large window, although her own room is nothing more than a bunker of sorts, with boxes and papers spread about (the arch structures that support the ceiling look swell, however). Still, the fact that she gets the one room higher up is a nice choice on the part of the filmmakers, keeping in touch with the notion that despite the secret service having to create a temporary makeshift home, M, as leader of the operation, is given a degree of preferential treatment.
Lastly, things comes full circle once Ralph Fiennes takes up the mantle as M. In the film’s final scene, Bond enters a room that eerily resembles that of Bernard Lee from 1962’s Dr. No, complete with a grand painting of an old sea war vessel. Whether this is merely homage or that this new M is supposed to be a literal update of the original is unclear given that we do not know much of this new character as of yet. Some may denounce the decision as pure pandering, many true blue fans cannot help but feel a rush of excitement in Skyfall‘s closing moments.