About that Bernard Lee/Robert Brown M thing

Portrait of the Bernard Lee M in The World Is Not Enough. Thanks to Ben Williams.

One of the ongoing debates in James Bond fandom is whether Bernard Lee’s M (1962-79) is the same as Robert Brown’s M (1983-89).

The answer: You can argue they are the same or they are different characters, with Brown’s M being Admiral Hargreaves from The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).

The available evidence is, at best, inconclusive.

Background: Bernard Lee played Sir Miles Messervy for the first 11 James Bond films.

In Ian Fleming’s novels, the character name was not revealed until Ian Fleming’s final Bond book, The Man With the Golden Gun. “Miles” was mentioned briefly by General Gogol in The Spy Who Loved Me movie.

Lee died in January 1981. He wasn’t available to participate in the production of For Your Eyes Only. In that film, it was stated that M was on leave and that the chief of staff was running operations.

Octopussy script: In the first draft by Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson, dated June 10, 1982, there isn’t a hint that M is another person.

(over intercom)
Stop fishing for compliments, Double-O-Seven, and get in here.

as BOND enters. Fanning is a scholarly looking slightly pudgy man in his late thirties. SOTHEBY CATALOGUE and the FABERGE EGG lie on M’s desk

The rest of the scene is more or less what we got in the 1983 movie. Again, there was no hint that M was a different character than in the first 11 movies.

From that, you can conclude that a simple change in casting took place. Bernard Lee died. Robert Brown replaced him. But the character is the same.

Judi Dench’s M lectures Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond with the portrait of Bernard Lee’s M in the background.

However, in 1999’s The World Is Not Enough, things may have changed.

In the pre-titles sequence, there is an explosion at MI6 headquarters in London. British Intelligence is forced to regroup at another headquarters in Scotland.

The art department (Peter Lamont? One of his deputies? One of the lowest ranking blokes?) included a portrait of Bernard Lee’s M.

Was this a “retcon,” or retroactive change in continuity?

There are certainly signs that the view of Lee/M and Brown/M being separate characters has taken hold with many fans. The MI6 James Bond website conducted a vote on Twitter this weekend, with the view that they are different characters winning the day.


5 Responses

  1. I’ve always gone with the different characters approach. Not sure if “M” is derived from a name but we can just call it M for Management of the 00 section. Station C, Canada or Station Y, Yugoslavia would deplete the letters pretty fast by country. Must be nice when a book or script doesn’t have to explain the whole system.

  2. I am of the mind that Bernard Lee and Robert Brown played the same character. John Gardner’s novelization, written to fit into his own literary canon, more or less (by having Felix’s encounter with the sharks the second time that occurred to him in his life, while seemingly ignoring the fact that Bond had already met a Milton Krest before), did not feature a replacement for Sir Miles until the end of his run, by having him get sick in SeaFire and mention of him retiring with a replacement waiting in the wings in Cold Fall. I think the fact that it was a woman was mentioned in the book, but I could be wrong. In his novelization of GoldenEye, published in fall of 1995, Judi Dench’s M is clearly meant to be the replacement for the old man. Cold Fall was published in the summer of 1996, but it is fairly clear that it took place before GoldenEye. Raymond Benson expanded on a female M, with IFP’s blessing, giving her a name of Barbara Mawdsley and even featuring Sir Miles in The Facts of Death, enjoying his retirement. Now, having said all of this, I am fairly certain that the official Eon produced Interactive Dossier which came out in 1996, which, while probably quaint by today’s standards, stated that Lee, Brown and, obviously, Dench playing three different heads if MI6, but whether that is meant to be absolute canon, I am not sure. One of these days I will have to ask Lee Pfeiffer, who I believe helped to put the Dossier together, what exactly the deal was with that.

  3. The point of the post is whether the “M” character (regardless of actor) is intended by production to be the same character. And how to explain the change in title. Through clues offered, they don’t seem to be. Which questions either continuity or the failure to rationalize the change.

    The picture is a nice tribute (respect) for the actor who comprised the original character. Perhaps in deference to the fans with a particular preference. The production maybe didn’t want to signal the change, keeping “M” as the symbol of authority. So “who” M is/was isn’t as important as the existence of the position, and the power emanating.

    Personally, am a believer that certain actors own the character, the result of their interpretation and a melding of their own personalities. Some actors claim to be disassociated from doing so in their roles. Very few are really skillful enough to mean it. While most invest so much of themselves (into the interpretation) it just adds a realism that fans truly appreciate and honor!

  4. The tradition of the head of MI6 signing their name with a single letter came from Mansfield Smith-Cumming, who would sign his initial “C” navy-style, with green ink. Head of SIS in WWII was named Menzies who signed “M”. Brown did not replace Lee as Messervey, he was a new character who we could assume just coincidentally also had a name that began with the letter (like Dench’s character – Olivia Mansfield).

  5. We have certainly seen evidence of M being a codename given to multiple persons in a position of leadership. In Goldeneye, Zukovsky quips “I hear the new M is a lady!”

    We now have Ralph Fiennes, introduced in SkyFall as Mallory during Judi Dench‘s tenure, inheriting Dench’s moniker.

    I think Brown was Hargreaves, inheriting Lee’s M’s position, duties, and codename.

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