James Bond’s crusty superior and the head of the British Secret Service. Venerable British character actor Bernard Lee became the first M in Dr. No in 1962, and played him in every Eon Productions Bond movie until his death in 1981. As portrayed by Lee, M was a conservative, almost fatherly figure who put up with 007’s increasingly outrageous behavior because he knew that Bond was his best agent, the only man he could trust on the most dangerous assignments.
M’s office, disguised as Universal Exports in London, was always the starting point for Bond (Sean Connery)—a temporary haven where 007 traded double entendres with Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) and received his careful briefing from M. Today, there is something very nostalgic about that office—the leather double doors with the red and green warning lights; the warm, leathery naval decor of the room, with its ship models, paintings, and assorted bric-a-brac; and the quiet, low-key M himself—smoking his pipe, ready to send 007 out on one more impossible mission.
When Roger Moore took over the role of Bond in 1973, his relationship with M lost quite a bit of its subtlety. The sour interplay between M and Q (Desmond Llewelyn) in The Man with the Golden Gun was a definite low point. For Bernard Lee, however, the parts became a bit more mobile, with M and his secretary visiting Bond on location in Egypt and the Far East. And in The Spy Who Loved Me, he got a first name, Miles—a reference to his identity in the original Fleming novels, Admiral Sir Miles Messervy, KCMG.
When Lee died before filming began on For Your Eyes Only, producer Albert R. Broccoli’s interim choice as Bond’s superior was actor James Villiers, who portrayed Secret Service chief of staff Tanner. Robert Brown, who had earlier been introduced as Admiral Hargreaves in The Spy Who Loved Me, took over as the official new M in Octopussy—playing him in much the same manner as Lee.
The character was less helpful in the non-Eon Bond films. In producer Jack Schwartzman’s Never Say Never Again, Edward Fox played M as a contemptuous bureaucrat. And in the 1967 Casino Royale spoof, played by John Huston in an incredibly bright red wig, M orders a mortar strike on the country manor of an uncooperative Sir James Bond (David Niven), and apparently dies when a barrage falls short.
The official series took a six-year hiatus from 1989 to 1995, after which Bond returned in the guise of Pierce Brosnan and Dame Judi Dench was introduced as the new M in GoldenEye. Dench, a brilliant actress, brought new dimension to the British Secret Service chief. She’s the one who looks straight at James Bond and characterizes him as “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War.” However, like her predecessors, she supports him in every way possible. In the script for GoldenEye, her character’s real name is given as Barbara Mawdsley.
Her role in the James Bond films continued through the remaining Brosnan films and into the Daniel Craig era, reaching its peak in Skyfall, in which she teams with 007 to battle revenge-seeking Silva (Javier Bardem)—a confrontation that sadly leads to her demise in Bond’s arms. On the box of the gift she leaves for Bond in her will, it’s possible to discern her real name—Olivia Mansfield, which suggests that Dench may have been playing a different M opposite Craig than in the Brosnan films.