Simon Firth’s new book Côte d’Azur:Exploring the James Bond connections in the South of France offers readers new insights into the region and relates the experiences of the author’s sojourn there. As Bond fans are aware parts of Diamonds Are Forever, Never Say Never Again, and GoldenEye were shot on location at the South of France. Both Roger Moore and Sean Connery each owned homes there as well. I decided to conduct a print interview with Simon via email to learn more about this idyllic place and find out more about Simon’s new book, which incidentally is being published by Martijn Mulder of On The Tracks of 007 who has previously published what many fans consider to be the definitive guide to Bond locations.
Jack Lugo: In your bio, you mention that your father first got you interested in James Bond when he called you downstairs to watch Dr. No on TV and subsequently Thunderball. Do you remember how old you were and what was it about those films that drew you in as a child? When did you first become interested in discovering and exploring Bond locations? Had you visited any Bond locations prior to your stay in South of France?
Simon Firth: Hi. Firstly, many thanks for the questions and interest in the book.
Grief, I had to actually research the dates for the first showings of Dr No and Thunderball and just hope we had an authentic timeline. Dr No was shown in ’75 and Thunderball, early ’77; so, I must have been nine and 11 respectively. It is quite possible the inauguration to Bond has been cloaked in a romanticized version of reality but imagine a sleepy nine year old, blurry-eyed and disoriented, being asked to pop downstairs for some more father-son time, and then being treated as An Adult to watch something Adult-like. It was intoxicating. In terms of what must have attracted me to on-screen events to shore up that initial event, memories are faint but certainly include the exotic Jamaica and the battle on what I now know to be the bauxite mine. For Thunderball, and with the advantage of advancing years and a more assured memory, it was everything that happened under water, which might explain why I have never associated this film with the maybe slightly negative connotations of a slower pace.
As for locations, I remember as a 19 year old, on an Inter rail trip with friends which, with the purchase of a fixed price rail ticket, one could travel around Europe for one month in an unlimited fashion, if not in any style. And thence, after a loose aim for the Eifel Tower, I found myself at the steps on the River Seine where Sir Roger Moore and the crew had been creating merry hell in a Renault 11. I remember a slightly surreal feeling overcame me as I figured that only a few months previous to my being there, so too had Roger! The fact that 11,000,000 other people had also been there, before, during and after, did nothing to dampen that feeling of exclusivity to…something. It is difficult to really quantify in words, those feelings experienced as a 19 year old where, as a 54 year old, those feelings are only marginally lessened through hardened maturity.
And so, while I was not writing about them, and indeed I was not really searching for them in the way that I have for this book, or others do by way of daily exercise, amongst the most special to me, I have specifically been to Chateau de Chantilly, Corfu, Abu Simbel, Bahamas, Piz Gloria, Khao Phing Kan and Venice. I have lived opposite Hong Kong’s The Bottom’s Up Club and I held a black tie affair for my 50th party at the sublime Stoke Park.
JL: What qualities and characteristics would you say makes the South of France more than just a beautiful place associated with several Bond productions? Tell us a little about the history, the culture, and architecture of the French Riviera and why the place lends itself naturally to the world of Bond
SF: I might only be offering a personal opinion, and a not very informed one at that, but at a very generalist level, and one that I proffer in the book, the amalgamation of the world’s most famous card-playing spy at the world’s most famous casino, is too intoxicating an association to pass up; even if it is a little obvious. But this was specifically at a time when two films in two eras had their own artistic and commercial hurdles to overcome with a world’s press all too eager to sharpen their pencils in spiteful glee. Bond in Monaco. To the casual observer, what is there not to entice and enjoy?
The architecture is predominantly belle époque and the old-town colours are pastel shades of terracotta, yellow ochre, red, pink and orange, which are all very soft on the eye, and a world away from the slab-sided walls of red brick one can find in other housing parts of the world. Just beautiful. And then of course in Cannes, Nice, Beaulieu sur mer and Monaco, there are the celebrations in white and pink architecture in all things hotel and casino. But I think it is really the Mediterranean Sea and how the French ‘do’ their coasts. Speaking only about the UK, we don’t celebrate our coast lines in the way the French do. Theirs is a refined exclusivity and polished beauty. Ours, by way of depressing comparison, is largely stale chips in unwelcoming venues that inspire only an early demise.
So, in trying to answer your question about the South of France naturally lending itself to the world of Bond, I fear the association might be an all too obvious one based on a natural beauty and the appeal to the monied. While current day Film Bond’s wardrobe and accoutrements are becoming more and more exclusive, perhaps he is better fitting in this environment now than in times past. But I wonder, now being asked this question, whether this appeal was so obvious that the Producers shied away from it…
JL: The Côte d’Azur wasn’t frequented by Bond very much in the Fleming novels. Casino Royale takes place entirely in northern France. Despite this, the character has become closely associated with the region. Is this only because of the films that emerged from there?
SF: Which segues naturally into your next question… I am not sure it is successive to what happens in the films, or the books. It might actually be the winsome memories of the area being first, the playground and inspiration for the incoming artists, and later, the playground and showmanship potential for the film stars that might subliminally ‘suggest’ that Bond has more often frequented the area. After all, three Bonds have lived there. And in styles definitively unbecoming to the aforementioned likes of the UK’s Folkestone.
JL: Tell us about some of the people that you met during your stay. Do you get a sense that they feel a connection to the world of Bond? How so?
SF: Good question. Answering the middle question first, No! I actually feel the people have a greater connection to and celebration of all the artists that came, and stayed, and painted. All the towns and villages along the coast have galleries. Many of them. But when you consider that the Cote d’Azur offered home and inspiration to Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, Auguste Renoir, Fernand Léger, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Jean Cocteau, Paul Cezanne, it is little wonder I think that Bond might be playing second fiddle to such art alumni.
One of the restaurants we visited was the Colombe d’Or in St Paul de Vence. Back in the day, artists would frequent to sate their hunger and quench their thirst and, if times were tough, by way of recompense, they would ‘pay’ for their fare with a painting. Pablo Picasso had a favorite seat at the bar and the walls drip with art. The ambiance, now under the control of the Roux family, is part rustic inn, part Tate Modern. And, to bring the answer back to the world of Bond, Sir Roger Moore lived for a time in St Paul and, on occasion, would holiday at the Colombe d’Or.
As to whom we met, frequenting the same bar and restaurant would put us on first name terms with a few people. I can cite Leslie who runs a perfect little wine bar called La Grande Cave which straddles a steeply falling path in Villefranche sur mer. I think we were to be found there most days and I mention this in the Instagram promotions for the book. We also dined a few times at Le Corderie which is situated very close to the Darse, the area in which ends the Never Say Never bike chase.
But absolutely definitely, the most amazing encounter we were afforded was with a Finnish couple who, even subsequent to misunderstandings of interests over a telephone, charmingly invited us to their home in Domaine du Castellet. This is the very private and ridiculously expensive domain in which sits Connery Bond’s NSNA villa, La Maison Rouge, as it is officially known. The Finnish couple were neighbours to this house and, having invited us to look around outside and take some pictures and, presumably assuring themselves that we were a) not dangerous and b) able to string a sentence together, invited inside for champagne and the husband’s birthday celebrations. They were in their 70’s, and since buying their house in the 80’s, they spent their time equally between Finland and their house in France. They were both independently successful and, due to their wealth and business standing, were invited to all the society dos along the Riviera. And indeed, they had some stories, some of which are in the book.
I recently tried to contact them but the ‘phone seems only to offer a telephone networks message. I hope they are ok…
JL: Villefranche features a great deal in Never Say Never Again. Can you tell us a little about what it was like to seek out these Never Say Never Again locations? Were the locations easy or difficult to find? How much have those locations changed since filming?
SF: Very easy. Villefranche is tiny. The Citadel plays host to Largo’s lair and is always open either for a walk around or open air concerts, films and theatre. Darse, where Bond is asked to spread his legs, is a working chantier for boats and so is very accessible. Only Domaine du Castellet presents a challenge and, again, as one will see in the book, will forever prove to be problematic to access. In this last, we sort of made our own opportunity, but we were also very fortunate.
Actually I should add that, while Villefranche is tiny, it is also very hilly. Steep steps and steep paths wend their way through the old town. In the book, I give James Bond Radio a small mention when honouring the sheer number of steps in Villefranche and wishing that I had had these on which to train before joining the JBR guys on the Broadgate Tower Challenge.
JL: Although much of Diamonds Are Forever was shot elsewhere, the notable pre-titles sequence where Connery strangles a woman named Marie with a bikini was shot in France. Can you tell us about that location? I read somewhere that Denise Perrier, the actress who portrays “Marie”, was actually the daughter of the mayor of Nice at the time and the winner of Miss World 1953. Do you know anything about that?
SF: In this, I am deeply indebted to both Martijn Mulder and Thomas Gleitsmann. I remember when submitting my words to Martijn by way of collaborative introduction, while his response was very positive, he suggested, can you Edit this, this and this, Add, that, that and that. And Correct this! ‘This’ is this.
In Antibes, and by this time confidently fueled with champagne cocktails, I was running all over the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc trying to find within in a vastly remodeled sea front, where on earth Denise might have been unveiled. In the end, I had to admit to only a couple of possibilities but the result was less than satisfactory. Enter please Thomas. This chap is the Sherlock Holmes of location hunting whose scouting abilities would find a random footprint were it deemed of interest, and it is with much kindness that he allows me to save face by offering His find in our book. There is a video on YouTube searchable under Thomas’ name and on the promotions for this book at OnTheTracksof007.com and I think everyone should see this first.
As to Denise, yes, we do talk at length about both her and her role, and indeed, how her scene came to be filmed in France at all. This bearing in mind the rest of this sequence was all comparatively drably filmed in hastily erected studio space.
JL: Both Sean Connery and Roger Moore owned homes in South of France. How close of a connection did each of these men have to the region? Do you think there’s something about their residences that encouraged them to relive their time as Bond?
SF: Sean Connery’s house was newly put on the market in 2020. While the neighbours still apparently call it, Sean Connery’s house, he had not lived there since the ‘80s before moving to Lyford Cay in the Bahamas. I talk about the area it sits in and whether or not, as the estate agents confidently assure, scenes for Never Say Never were filmed there.
Roger Moore’s presence is altogether more marked. Filming The Persuaders and living in both St Paul de Vence and later, Monaco, his was a shining star in the area. Writing at length about this, it is why I wanted his presence on the cover to be central to the artistic thrust, and why I asked Gareth Owen if he would be so kind as to offer a Foreword. He was, and he did, and it is wholly pertinent to Villefranche sur mer.
David Niven was also a resident and, quite unsurprisingly, this house too is an absolute marvel. Unlike the houses for Sirs Roger and Sean, one can walk right up to and past this house. It sits on the promontory of St Jean Cap Ferrat to the immediate east of Villefranche and there is a lovely circular walk that takes you right past it.
As to whether the residences, or the area, encouraged anything of the sort, I really couldn’t realistically say. Let us say that, there might already have been friends already resident in the area and that, together with its natural beauty, allowed them all to fall through an open door. Quite clearly, no one would have been twisting anyone’s arm to buy here.
JL: Tell us about some of the GoldenEye locations. I know there’s the exterior of the casino that was shot there while the interiors were shot at Pinewood. There’s also the racing scene at the beginning of the film where Bond races Xenia in the DB5. What are those locations like now? How have they changed since the time of filming?
SF: Well, there were actually some interiors of the Casino filmed that show Brosnan walking through the Salle Médecin towards the gaming tables. It is just the gaming tables and the verbal by-play that were studio-shot. And these scenes were shot at Leavesden Studios as Pinewood was fully utilised. Bearing in mind this is the Casino of Monte Carlo, there hasn’t been any remodeling to allow for a quirky little conservatory or the like. I’m sorry, I’m being facetious – it really is all the same. I also talk about the hall in which Bond and Domino dance a tango, and I take pictures of the Largo and Fatima viewing balcony which, since veracity dictates, one is not allowed to access. But in the interests of a full report, I popped up nonetheless…
JL: Your stay in the region was prior to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Have you heard of any significant changes since then? How has tourism to the South of France been affected?
SF: Yes, one cannot talk about this without due consideration to the current situation. Thank you for bringing this up.
I can probably best illustrate this by the following example. Martijn has done a superb job of putting me in front of the world’s Bond social media alumni. His is a veritable contact book and I thank both him and everyone he has put me in front of in our endeavours to market and promote. As well as this direction, I was interested to see if we could market to people whose love might have been the area first, and Bond second. We have introduced ourselves to some Riviera based English language radio stations and print/online magazines but also, I wanted to put us in front of all the specific locations that we mention in the book. This very thinking that might go some way towards correcting what I perceive from your earlier question about the local people’s connection to the world of Bond.
I created a mini database holding names, numbers, emails, addresses and comments that would document progress in getting the book on sale at; The Citadel, Hôtel Negresco, Carlton Intercontinental Hôtel, Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc, Fort Carré, Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, Welcome Hôtel. And then I looked to see who might be open to receive calls.
They are all closed.
JL: What is your most cherished memory about your experience in Côte d’Azur and how would you recommend Bond fans explore and discover the region to get the most out of their stay?
SF: This book is part guide, part travelogue. It exhaustively looks at the locations in film, book, residence, together with a couple of left-field items that I must leave unspoiled. But it also documents the beauty, the colours, the nature, the foods, and the charm, and the charm, and the charm. I really hope that from this piece, and when one is allowed to venture further than the outer reaches of a zipcode, people do feel inspired to drop oneself into the area for a good look around. And to do it quite randomly. There is little or no sequence to the book in terms of a chapter on GoldenEye followed by a chapter on Forever and a Day. The book finds its own way in an organic sense. We find it, we write it.
People will see that irrespective of Bond’s undoubted presence in the area, and my enjoyment in popping it all down in words, what I expected to derive from the transient nature of the short term stay was transmuted completely into something far more emotional.
And so my most cherished memory, is Villefranche sur mer.
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Interview conducted by Jack Lugo