The JBIFC is very sad to report that the acclaimed stage and film actor Alec McCowen, who played Algy the Armourer in Sean Connery’s unofficial James Bond movie Never Say Never Again (1983), has passed away. He died on February 6th, 2017, aged 91.
McCowen’s role as Algy, or ‘Algernon’ to give him his full name, was as a kind of alternative interpretation of ‘Q’, and his brief appearance is often seen as one of the highlights of the early stages of the movie. The veteran actor was quite a catch for the rogue 007 adventure, which saw the return of Sean Connery to his iconic role after years of saying ‘never again’. McCowen had carved out a dazzling career in theatre, film and TV, including in the Shakespeare classics, in bold new plays, and in various one-man shows.
He also appeared in more than 30 movies during his lifetime, his most famous role arguably being as a quiet but dogged detective who was determined to catch a serial killer in Alfred Hitchcock’s London-based thriller Frenzy (1972).
Born in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, McCowen won a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London in 1941, and subsequently built up considerable experience in weekly rep appearances. He also went on tour to the Far East, Canada and the USA. In 1950 he made his big stage debut in London’s famous West End and later joined the Old Vic Company, whose other members included Judi Dench. Not long after this, he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), and was viewed as one of the rising stars of British theatre.
By 1960, for example, he was catching the attention of the critics when he turned in a superb performance as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet at the famous Old Vic Theatre in the UK’s capital city (with Judi Dench as Juliet). Similarly, he won high praise in 1962 when he played the Fool in King Lear, opposite Paul Scofield in the lead role. His debut cinema film was in The Cruel Sea in 1953, and other appearances included The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and the Hammer Horror film The Witches (1966). His final film role came in Gangs of New York in 2002.
Bond, James Bond
As well as casting the award-winning Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer in the lead role of Maximillian Largo, plus Max von Sydow as Blofeld and Edward Fox as MI6 boss ‘M’, Bond star Sean Connery (who had cast and script approval on the movie), together with his American director Irvin Kershner, were determined to ensure that equally strong actors were cast in the all-important support roles in Never Say Never Again (NSNA). As envisaged in the screenplay by Lorenzo Temple Jr, a treatment which also had considerable redrafting input from the British writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, the brief but key role of Algy in NSNA was as a character who was valiantly struggling on as he tried to cope with tight financial budgets and new official scepticism from above towards his inventive spy gadgets.
Algernon had also been disappointed that Edward Fox’s ‘M’ had disbanded the Double-O Section, and was clearly now very pleased to see that James Bond had returned back to active duty. Located in a rather cluttered basement workshop, the conditions down there – he complained – had played ‘havoc’ with his sinuses! However, the rather harassed Quartermaster was still able to equip 007 with some important spycraft for the field, including a particularly lethal fountain pen. The influence of Algy in NSNA was also seen in Bond’s use of a very handy wristwatch laser, and also in the highly impressive rocket-propelled motorbike.
Moreover, now that Bond was back (so to speak), Algernon expressed his hope that ‘we’ll have some gratuitous sex and violence’. Bond quipped in response: ‘I certainly hope so, too’. This exchange drew a big laugh from cinema audiences, and – knowingly playing upon the fact that Sean Connery was returning to his original role – it was also used quite cleverly in both the advance publicity and wider marketing campaigns for the new movie.
As many Bond fans know, the production of NSNA did not go smoothly, and there were times when Connery did not get on with the director or with the producers. Speaking in 2011, McCowen recalled how the NSNA script changed the very day he arrived on set. He said he had studied the script for months beforehand, and had the scenes ‘set in his mind’. But director Kershner had initiated a last-minute script change (which was a regular occurrence on the troubled movie). When McCowen discussed the script change with Connery, the Bond star replied: ‘Don’t worry about the damn script, Alec. Do the scene the way you want to do it. I’ll take care of Kershner’.
It would have been fascinating to have seen how McCowen might have developed the character further, had he been given the chance to reprise his version of ‘Q’, but this, of course, never happened again.
Alec McCowen, 1925-2017. R.I.P.
James Bond with Algernon in the workshop scene in NSNA