When you think of spies, exotic locations, guns, gadgets and cars you instinctively think of only one person – James Bond.
Yet if fate had dealt a different set of cards then instead of the instantly recognisable phrase “Bond…James Bond”, it could have been “Teller…Clitty Teller”.
Yet it was not to be and as I will explore in a series of essays the main reason for Clitty failing to emerge from the masculine shadow cast by Bond was quite simply because those responsible for her creation in both novels and on the screen were not that good. Although, as we shall see, it certainly was not for want of trying and perhaps with fresh eyes the legacy of Clitty Teller is deserving of a re-examination.
And therefore we begin (as we should) at the beginning with the person who started it all, the creator of Clitty Teller, Percival Carruthers.
Percival Carmichael Carruthers was born on 28th May 1907 in affluent Park Lane, London. His mother was the daughter of a High Court Judge and his Father was a merchant banker. He had two brothers and it was made perfectly clear from an early age that his parents much preferred them to him.
Indeed most of Percival’s upbringing was a constant reminder that he was a huge disappointment to his family and they all hated him. In fact, they hated him so much they tried to leave him behind on any family holiday but much to the frustration of his father Percival kept coming back.
Despite his parents wishing he did not exist Percival was sent to all the best schools and Eton. It was his father’s great desire for Percival that something might happen to him and he would no longer be a burden to his family.
Percival was not a high achiever at school and failed at nearly every subject. Yet he would never accept responsibility for his own failings, it was always someone else’s fault and during his schooling his tutors had tired of the constant excuses.
“The teachers don’t like me”
“My fellow pupils hate me”
“My Father hired a hitman to kill me”
“They set alight to my chair….while I was still sitting in it.”
The Headmaster at Eton remarked to Percival on the occasion of his leaving that he was “incompetent, deluded and a complete failure” before promptly suggesting he should consider a career in politics as he would most likely make a fine Prime Minister one day.
On leaving Eton, his father sent him away to the family estate in Kent with strict instructions never to leave and if he did the snipers in the tree have strict instructions to shoot on sight. With not much to do Percival found himself reading a variety of fiction novels from the extensive library and fell in love with the swashbuckling stories of high adventure. This was when Percival decided he wanted to be a writer. However, as with nearly everything in Percival’s life, he wasn’t very good at it.
His years in isolation produced not a single coherent story, save for one short story about a young girl who is lost in the jungle and raised by tigers. The Search For Tiger-Pussy would never see publication but it would become the inspiration for the thirteenth Clitty Teller movie.
With his dreams of becoming a writer fading as quickly as his mental health, Percival became distracted, as did the rest of the population, by the troubling fact there was a massive war on. His father, now Lord Carruthers, pulled as many strings as he could to get Percival sent to the front line as quickly as possible. However, these requests were refused due to Percival being unfit for duty as a result of shotgun wounds he acquired during an accident when he went pheasant shooting with his brothers and they shot him….twice.
Reluctantly, Lord Carruthers arranged for Percival to work at the Naval Intelligence Division, initially offering him up as the corpse that could be used to fool the Germans as part of Operation Mincemeat. When this was refused on the basis Percival was not actually dead (something Lord Carruthers insisted he could change) a role in the post room was given to Percival on the basis he was not to tell anyone they were related. It was here that Percival would have a chance meeting with Ian Fleming. Although there is no accurate record of this meeting it probably went something like this;
Percival: Here is your post Lieutenant Commander Fleming. Think there is a coupon for ten percent off spam.
Fleming: Thank you, just put it down there.
Percival: Are you writing another one of your elaborate espionage plans, sir?
Fleming: Ah! Even better than that. I am creating a spy story to end all spy stories.
Percival: A spy story? I’m a writer as well and been working on a story set in the jungle.
Fleming: A jungle yarn! How wonderfully exciting. You ever been to the jungle?
Percival: No but I once went to Epping Forest.
Fleming: Well you must let me read this rip roaring story of yours.
Although only a brief exchange it is here we have our first ‘if only’ moment in the Clitty Teller saga. Percival did not let Fleming read his draft of The Search For Tiger-Pussy, because he did not trust him and believed he would steal his ideas. This was totally irrational yet understandable; Percival’s years in isolation and the fact his family wanted him dead had left him with acute paranoia and the inability to trust anyone. This flaw in his character would prove to be an issue throughout the remainder of his life.
Some Clitty Historians have suggested that if Percival had taken Fleming up on his offer then, with his guidance, Percival may have become a more refined writer and the two of them may have even become friends. Their backgrounds, after all, were very similar and running in the same literary circles ought to have given Percival more exposure resulting in the Clitty Teller stories becoming more widely popular.
Others, however, disagree suggesting that it was this distrust of Fleming that provided the catalyst for the creation of Clitty Teller. In his biography of Percival Carruthers – ‘Everyone Is Out To Get Me’, author and historian Arthur K. Peckerton suggests that Percival was envious of Fleming and wanted to emulate him and be seen as better than him. In his deluded state of mind, Percival truly believed he could write a spy story better than Fleming and he believed to achieve this he would simply do the precise opposite of whatever Fleming was doing.
I believe there is more truth in the latter assertion, especially when one considers this in the context of the other meeting between the pair.
After the war Lord Carruthers sent Percival off to the Caribbean in the hope some tragic accident might befall him. Percival was happy to go for two reasons; firstly, he hoped the beautiful weather and tranquil surroundings would inspire his writing and secondly, his brothers had sent a telegram advising if he didn’t go they would kill him.
It was during a contemplative stroll along the beach in the early spring of 1952 when Percival happened upon Fleming who graciously invited him back to his Goldeneye house for a drink.
Again whilst there is little detail of what the two discussed it’s believed to have been something like this;
Percival (noticing a manuscript on the desk) : Is that your spy novel?
Fleming: Oh no that’s something else I am working on. Its a story about a magic car
Percival: That sounds silly
Fleming: I am calling it Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Percival: Still sounds silly
Fleming: No I have finished my spy story. Meeting with my agent and a publisher friend later to show them. I say, what happened with that jungle yarn of yours. I could take that manuscript with me as well, see if anyone is interested
Percival: No. It’s quite alright. I am actually working on my own spy novel now based on my time at the Naval Intelligence Division
Fleming: So your spy works in the post room, does he?
Percival: ummm No and ermmmmm its not a man. She’s a woman.
Fleming: A female spy? How novel. Do you have a name for her?
Percival: ermmmm …Ch…Chitty
Percival: No!…I mean…Clll…Clitty. Her name is Clitty
Fleming: A female spy called Clitty. Marvellous. Well if you have that with you I’d love to read it.
Percival: It’s not quite finished yet!
The truth was Percival had not even started it yet and up until that conversation with Fleming had not even the slightest desire to write a spy story. Yet his distrust of Fleming and the motivation to be seen as his equal compelled Percival to move forward with his off-the-cuff creation – Clitty the spy.
Percival spent the rest of his time in Jamaica desperately trying to write a spy story but with no success. Feeling dejected he returned to England to the news that his parents, in his absence, had declared him legally dead.
With no status or money Percival found himself a job as a Bingo caller where they also let him stay in the broom cupboard on the understanding he put the brooms back afterwards. On the days he was not calling out bingo numbers he would spend time at the local library which is where he read Fleming’s Casino Royale. Percival sneered through every page, convinced he could do better and indeed this inexplicable negativity towards Fleming provided him the necessary motivation to finally write his spy story.
When writing the story Percival drew upon his own life experience which explains why the plot to the first Clitty Teller story centres around a high-stakes game of Bingo.
In the story, which he named Bingo Custard, Clitty goes undercover to an exclusive resort where evil organisations go to get their funding to do evil things. Bingo was agreed upon in a council meeting of the evil organisations because its a game of luck rather than skill meaning everyone is equal (say what you like about evil organisations they like to be fair). Although as Clitty Teller notably says in the story “There’s skill in making your own luck”.
The story ends with Clitty winning on number 69 and bankrupting the conglomerate of evil organisations of all their money.
Percival was pleased with the story, unfortunately his elation for his achievement quickly turned sour as all the publishers he approached rejected it. This setback proved to be the final straw for Percival and one night in London he found himself penniless, crestfallen and recently assaulted by an 80 year old woman who believed he had called out the wrong bingo number.
Spending his last remain pennies on a neat whiskey he sat at a bar in London. According to his biographer, Arthur K. Peckerton, Percival was intending on taking his own life that evening.
Yet as he melancholically sipped at what he intended to be his final drink in a world that had treated him so unfairly, replaying his failures over and over in his head a man walked in, stood next to Percival and loudly ordered a drink while making some lewd suggestion to the barmaid.
That man was Peterson Leigh.
And everything was about to change.