A man walks up the side of an active volcano. This is a man who has lived in fear ever since he was the victim of a stabbing, and he shivers as he climbs toward the 5,500m high crater, alone. Altitude sickness. Nausea. Winds whip around his ears. He doesn’t answer his concerned wife on the other side of a walkie-talkie; he has miles to go and not much to say. As he trudges on, he breaks into song, trying to amuse himself through this tiring and solitary journey. “Oh baby baby,” he sings, “How was I supposed to know…”
The idea of a protagonist in a James Bond film breaking into the Britney Spears song Hit Me Baby One More Time is unquestionably sacrilegious, but there’s something beautiful about seeing a broken, nervous contestant on a reality show deriving rhythm—and life-force—from a 1990s chartbuster. On Amazon’s 007: Road To A Million, ordinary men and women are dropped into Bond-themed adventures and locales and made to answer slippery questions for huge sums of money. As concepts go, the show is an absolute cash-grab, much like what the participants are looking for.
As anyone who has ever hugged the curves too tight on a mountain road or drag-raced irresponsibly with a friend on a city freeway would attest, the James Bond theme tune goes a long, long way. It doesn’t even have to actually be playing for us to hear it in our heads, that gun-barrel blare and then the dum-diddy-dum-dum, playful and perilous, music to reassure those chasing or getting away, those readying to play cards and those applying an extra splash of cologne.
007: Road To A Million features wall-to-wall Bond music and while “Based on The James Bond Theme by Monty Norman” may merely be a credit regarding the opening title sequence, it may well apply to the entire series. Background score has rarely seemed as vital, constantly making the adventures feel cinematic. Even a multiple-choice question becomes inflammable. Over the years, various composers—John Barry to David Arnold to Hans Zimmer — have incorporated that immortal theme through their Bond soundtracks, which leaves 007: Road To A Million with options for every mood. A jaunt through Brazil is accompanied by Bond Arrives In Rio from Moonraker, and a champagne-driven challenge by Dinner Jackets from Casino Royale. It really works.
The format consists of nine two-member teams—a husband and wife, a father and son, two nurses, two brothers—who can each win £1 million. For this, they must globetrottingly take on genuinely daring tasks, like scaling Brazil’s Sugarloaf Mountain or climbing across a moving train in a desert, all in order to get to a big metallic suitcase with a question in it.
The questions start off straightforward, about history and general knowledge, but are never obvious. They increasingly become more Bond-esque. At one point, folks are asked to identify the defining notes in the world’s best rum. “Hickory and black pepper, leather and plum, caramel and spice?” This goes with Bond, who identified a spy in the film From Russia With Love because the spy had chosen red wine with a fish course.
To me, the questions even evoked the Bond of Ian Fleming’s novels, who would read dossiers of information about local politics, history and languages ahead of his missions. He studies Jamaican culture and superstitions in The Man With The Golden Gun and the underwater topography of the Bahamas in Thunderball. It’s not all kiss-kiss bang-bang. For the record, there is absolutely no kiss-kiss in this game show, with hardly time to bite into a well-deserved burger before The Controller beckons and gives contestants more to do.
Played by Brian Cox, The Controller is a shadowy character speaking over phones and speakers, instructing the contestants and making their tasks ever harder. Cox, a legendary screen villain, wears a cravat and chews up scenery. His role here is similar to the Logan Roy he played in Succession: to tease and test those vying for his millions. “It’s not the mountain,” huffs a participant making it up Scottish hills, “it’s the man that’s cruel.” Cox, who later berates a participant for not knowing how to drive a stick-shift, smiles smugly. All that’s missing is a cat and a monocle.
The contestants are well chosen and it’s delightful to see them giggle at life-altering sums of prize money. “My student loan is officially paid,” says one on winning £50,000. “Next month’s heating bill covered,” says another at the end of the series. None of them are as stiff as Bond, particularly the colourful Bone brothers who take the franchise into Guy Ritchie territory.
“Let’s have a butcher’s at them pictures you took,” says Joey Bone, using cockney slang (butcher = butcher’s hook = look) with his younger brother James.
“James Bone” is literally one letter removed from the legendary hero, yet this is never brought up. Contestants don’t mention 007 or Blofeld or Dr No or the films or books, which feels like a missed opportunity—or even an afterthought, as if the show was made, then shaken and stirred with Bond at the end. No prior 007-love is necessary here (even though the Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger, complete with rotating licence plates, makes an appearance). 007: Road To A Million is more about the last word than the first, and it wouldn’t be too hard to strip James Bond from this series. The character is but an excuse. Game shows are forever.