Ian Fleming romance points up ambiguous attitude to spying

Why did Edward Snowden's revelations about state surveillance not rattle us? Fleming has the answer

Column LAST UPDATED AT 10:02 ON Thu 20 Feb 2014

WHY are the British so blasé about being spied on? When Edward Snowden spilled the beans about the wholesale surveillance of our digital lives, Germany erupted and we barely mustered a shrug.

The answer, or part of it, lies in programmes like Fleming, Sky Atlantic's new war-time drama about Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond.

In last week's opening episode we saw him as a young man, gadding about Europe as the Nazis rose to power. Ian is, in his own words, "the lesser Fleming", overshadowed by the literary success of his older brother and, according to his only client, "quite the worst stockbroker in London".

Then Naval Intelligence comes knocking, attracted by the keenness of his mind and not too discouraged by his insubordination. "My father told me only two people should be called sir: God and the King," he tells the Rear Admiral. "And I have my doubts about the King."

We can warm to a man like that - a handsome, arrogant bad boy who's fighting the good fight. Dominic Cooper plays him perfectly, his good looks hardened by a lip curled in disdain. It's tough to imagine someone less like the earnest, nerdish Snowden.

Last night's second episode did not quite match the verve and pace of the first, but it was still tremendous fun. Fleming, in full proto-Bond mode, was sent off to Paris to prepare the British embassy for the fall of France. Then, on no one's authority but his own, he set about trying to stop the French fleet falling into German hands.

How much of it is true? Some of it, probably, but the disclaimer flashed up at the end of each episode is unusually broad: events, people, places and other inconvenient truths have all been changed.

But it brings us to another truth, if only in passing. In Britain, espionage conjures Fleming and Bond, sex and danger, dark deeds done for fine reasons. If short-cuts are taken along the way, they merely hasten the path towards a greater good.

In Germany, though, spying and surveillance provoke darker thoughts - of the SS and the Stasi and the crushing fear of state tyranny.

If the Germans were to make a modern-day version of Fleming, the hero would look a lot more like Edward Snowden.

Part 2 of Fleming is repeated on Sky Atlantic at 11pm, Thursday 20 February. Part 3 will be shown on the same channel at 9pm, Wednesday 26 February · 

Read more about