"James Bond will return." These four reassuring words, that will be familiar to any fan of the 007 movie franchise, used to appear in the final credits of every Bond film. But that was in the 1970s and '80s, the Roger Moore era, when the actor kept the franchise on an even keel, snuggling into the role just as comfortably as he slipped on his beige safari suit. More recently, despite Bond's almost indestructible screen persona, his return has been anything but assured.
This autumn sees the release of Skyfall, the 23rd official cinematic outing for novelist Ian Fleming's suave MI6 spy - and you can sense the relief from the Bond camp. Back in 2009, work had already begun on the film, not least the recruitment of Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen), when problems arose with MGM, the studio behind the franchise. In November that year, the Hollywood outfit famous for its roaring lion logo put itself up for sale but no buyer was willing to meet the US$2 billion asking price - unsurprising, when you consider the US$4 billion debts that the studio had accrued.
Facing what Bond producer Barbara Broccoli tactfully refers to as "financial difficulties", MGM then filed for bankruptcy protection and Skyfall was put on hold indefinitely - meaning not even the producers were certain 007 would ever return to the screen. Which, given the success of current Bond star Daniel Craig in his first two outings - Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace took almost US$600 million each globally - must have been particularly galling. Unable to stay with the project in limbo, Morgan walked, long before a franchise-saving deal was finally struck with Sony.
Craig, however, claims this hiatus has helped Skyfall. "It actually gave us some breathing space and preparation time," he says. "I didn't have any doubt that we wouldn't make another movie. I just thought the financial situation would be sorted out. We don't usually get a lot of preparation time. [With Skyfall] we had a very solid script, and that gives you an awful lot of support when you're prepping a movie."
His confidence may be well founded - after all, his interpretation of 007 is built on a steely self-resolve - but the tension was palpable. Not least because 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of Sean Connery first uttering those immortal words "Bond … James Bond" in the 1962 debut Bond film, Dr No. According to Michael G. Wilson, producer and stepson to the late Albert "Cubby" Broccoli - the man who launched the franchise together with his producing partner, Harry Saltzman, all those years ago - the Bond team felt the need to celebrate in style. "It's always pressure when you make a film and we wanted this one to be a real landmark, a real classic Bond film."
Certainly the elements are there - from the top-secret plot (involving Bond's superior M's past and her relationship to Javier Bardem's blond villain Silva) to the style of Skyfall. Just look at the costumes - Bond's Tom Ford-designed suit, which has a whiff of Connery's sharply tailored threads from those early Bond films. "That '60s feel is definitely something I was very keen to get back into the movie," says Craig, who can also be seen driving an Aston Martin, the classic Bond vehicle first glimpsed in Goldfinger. Fans will also get to see Bond return to his roots in Scotland, where - as Fleming stated in You Only Live Twice - 007's naval officer father came from.
In truth, though, MGM's issues were not the first time the Bond series came close to being derailed. As shown by Stevan Riley's new documentary Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007, the franchise's path has rarely been smooth. Most notably, the split between Saltzman and Broccoli in the mid-1970s, which saw Saltzman forced to sell off his shares of the franchise. While Broccoli continued on his own - beginning with 1977's The Spy Who Loved Me - the rights to put 007 on screen have always been a thorny issue.
"In the end, it got so convoluted, with all the different players, in a way you lost track of it," Riley says. "It was easier to say 'Harry's share' in the end, because that's what was lost, originally. It got swapped so many times, in the '80s and '90s - it was a commodity traded by insurance companies. It was being bandied around on Wall Street, which was the fate of a lot of franchises in the end."
In retrospect, one of the franchise's key moments came in the wake of Moore's 1985 departure from the series. Timothy Dalton was ushered into the role, creating a grittier, darker Bond with his two films, The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill. While audiences were less than keen at the time, there's no question his Bond laid the groundwork for Craig's similarly fashioned 007. But when 1989's Licence to Kill was criticised for its violence and flopped at the box office, it led to a six-year hiatus, as further complex rights issues caused Broccoli to hand the reins to his daughter Barbara, who - with Wilson - has steered the ship since.
"Genuinely, Barbara, Michael and her family have kept this going for a long time," says Craig. "I think if it'd gone into the States, and gone into the studio system, and become part of another tick-box for a studio, I think it would've disappeared. And somehow by keeping the movies as good as they are, and as individual as they are, they've kept them going. I think if it'd just been about the money, these movies would've died a death."
Unlike many daughters, Barbara Broccoli - who initially oversaw the resurrection of the franchise with 1995's GoldenEye (the first of four films with Pierce Brosnan) and then rebooted it with Craig for Casino Royale - always heeded her father's advice. "He said, 'You've got to be brave, you've got to take risks. You have to make the decisions. Don't let someone else screw it up. I think that was the way he approached life," she says. "He was brave."
It's why she had the courage to jettison Brosnan in favour of Craig, when - in the wake of the high-octane Jason Bourne films - the Bond series began to look wrinkled. "I think good movies are good competition," she says. "I love the Bourne movies and I'm glad they're out there." But while Bourne's fourth outing, The Bourne Legacy, disappointed, hopes are high for Skyfall. With a cast that has 16 Oscar nominations and two wins between them, could this be the first Bond film since Goldfinger's gong for best visual effects to win an Academy Award? Now that would be a way to mark Bond's 50th anniversary.
Skyfall opens on Nov 1