MI6’s Backbone: A Closer Look at Bill Tanner
William ‘Bill’ Tanner is an indispensable character and a key member of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), playing a crucial role as M’s right-hand man, serving as the chief of staff with unwavering loyalty.
Dive into the fascinating life of Bill Tanner as we explore his intriguing presence in both the film and novel series, and take a brief look at each actor that’s brought this unforgettable figure to the silver screen.
In the Novels
In Ian Fleming’s original novels, Bill Tanner holds the prestigious position of MI6’s chief of staff. While his appearances in the novels are sporadic, he emerges as a regular character in John Gardner’s later continuation series, solidifying his presence in the Bond universe.
Throughout the various adaptations and iterations of the Bond franchise, Bill Tanner remains an integral figure, providing essential support and intelligence to MI6 and its agents. His character, though not always at the forefront, contributes significantly to the rich tapestry of the James Bond universe.
In 1965, author Kingsley Amis penned The Book of Bond or Every Man His Own 007 under the pseudonym “Lt. Colonel William (‘Bill’) Tanner”. This humorous manual for aspiring secret agents draws on examples from Fleming’s novels, playfully connecting the fictional Tanner to the real-world authorship.
Films: The Man with The Golden Gun
In The Man with the Golden Gun film, Bill Tanner’s presence is subtle yet significant. Played by Michael Goodliffe, and only appearing briefly in the film and not explicitly mentioned by name until the end credits, Tanner is seen in M‘s office, engaging in a crucial discussion with M and Colthorpe about Francisco Scaramanga.
Scaramanga, a notorious assassin, sends a bullet to MI6 engraved with Bond’s ID number, aiming to provoke a confrontation. Tanner confirms the authenticity of Scaramanga’s fingerprints on the bullet, as verified by the CIA, and this revelation propels Bond into action to track down the elusive killer.
For Your Eyes Only
In For Your Eyes Only, Bill Tanner, portrayed by James Villiers, assumes a more prominent role as a result of Bernard Lee’s death, who had played M. Tanner dons an Old Wykehamist tie and, along with Sir Fredrick Gray, provides Bond with his mission to locate Hector Gonzales.
Later, when Bond is captured, Melina Havelock kills Gonzales before Bond can extract information. Consequently, Tanner expresses frustration at Bond’s failure to gather intelligence and allowing Melina to assassinate Gonzales.
Tanner’s final appearance in the film occurs when he connects Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher and Bond via phone. However, unbeknownst to Tanner, Bond puts the phone in front of a parrot, that ends up engaging in a flirtatious exchange with the Prime Minister.
In GoldenEye, Bill Tanner briefly appears in the Situation Room during the activation of the GoldenEye weapon. Unaware of her presence behind him, Tanner refers to the new M as “the Evil Queen of Numbers.”
When Michael Kitchen is unable to return for Tomorrow Never Dies, the character Charles Robinson, Deputy Chief of Staff, is introduced as a substitute for Tanner’s role.
The World Is Not Enough
In The World Is Not Enough, Bill Tanner appears at the MI6 building in Scotland, briefing agents on the murder of Sir Robert King, Elektra King‘s father. As Bond deduces that terrorist Renard is responsible, Tanner joins the conversation, discussing Renard’s capabilities and potential plans.
Tanner is seen only two more times: once when Elektra, the actual mastermind behind her father’s murder, contacts M to lure her into a kidnapping trap, and finally at the film’s end when R tries to locate Bond.
Quantum of Solace
In Quantum of Solace, Bill Tanner once again demonstrates his vital support to both M and James Bond. Played by the fourth actor Rory Kinnear, Tanner’s role in this film is only minimal, aas he discusses a mission with both Bond and M
Rory Kinner is back as Bill Tanner in Skyfall and this is arguably the best part the character has played in any Bond film. In a funny moment he’s ignored by Bond, but he also explains to Bond the analysis of the bullet that almost killed him. He later helps save M’s life after Raoul Silva goes to the public hearing with the intention of killing her.
Later in the film, he and Q are watching Bond’s trail on the big display, when Gareth Mallory comes in. Tanner is drinking a beer, and although Mallory wasn’t supposed to know about this, Tanner and Q are worried as they believed Mallory was straight by the book, but he agrees with them that it’s a good idea.
Later in the film, Tanner and Q are monitoring Bond’s progress on a large display when Gareth Mallory unexpectedly enters the room. Tanner, caught drinking a beer, is concerned Q, as they had assumed Mallory to be a strict rule-follower. To their relief, Mallory not only acknowledges their actions but also agrees that their approach is beneficial in the given situation.
In Spectre, Bill Tanner again plays a minimal role. Again played by Rory Kinnear, the actor plays the perfect subordinate to M. He’s seen on a boat ride with Bond down the River Thames in the film.
No Time To Die
In No Time To Die, Rory Kinnear is back as the longest running Bill Tanner, and it’s the first time the character has appeared in four consecutive Bond films. He plays a minimal role, but he tells an enquiring Nomi that Bond has been reinstated as a double-0. The new 007 worriedly asks ’00-what?’
Actors to have played Bill Tanner
Michael Goodliffe, born 1 October 1914, began his career in repertory theatre before joining the Stratford Memorial Theatre. During World War II, he served in the British Army and was captured at the Battle of Dunkirk. While a prisoner, he entertained fellow captives with various plays and productions.
After the war, Goodliffe resumed his acting career in theatre, film, and television, including roles in A Night to Remember and the TV series Sam. In 1976, while battling depression and amid rehearsals for a revival of Equus, he tragically committed suicide by leaping from a hospital fire escape.
James Villiers, born on 29 September 1933, was raised in an upper-class, aristocratic family, and attended Wellington College and later the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, graduating in 1953.
With a film debut in 1958, Villiers became a prominent figure in British cinema, known for his articulate performances as cold, effete villains. His notable works include The Damned, The Nanny, For Your Eyes Only, and King Ralph.
Additionally, he performed in several radio adaptations and Shakespearean plays. Villiers was married twice and had one adopted son. He passed away on 18 January 1998 after a long battle with cancer.
English actor and producer Michael Kitchen, born on October 31, 1948, has made a significant impact in the entertainment industry through his powerful performances and versatile roles.
A graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Kitchen became a prominent figure in British television and film. His notable works include starring as Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle in Foyle’s War and playing Bill Tanner in two James Bond films: GoldenEye and The World is Not Enough.
Kitchen has also appeared in productions such as Out of Africa and My Week with Marilyn, and he has been a member of the National Theatre Company and the Young Vic.
Rory Kinnear, born in London in 1978, is a highly acclaimed British actor and playwright known for his exceptional work in theatre, television, and films. He studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art after attending Balliol College.
Kinnear has worked with prestigious theatre companies like the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre, earning critical acclaim and awards for his performances in various productions.
He has also made a name for himself on television and in films, most notably as Bill Tanner in the Daniel Craig-era James Bond films. Apart from acting, Kinnear has written several plays, including The Herd, which premiered in 2013.