Published: 05:00, 11 January 2022
| Updated: 15:34, 11 January 2022
James Bond has numerous links to our county but did you know the spy once lived right here in Kent?
His home was shown at the start of the 1967 Bond movie Casino Royale, with David Niven as the lead, which was filmed at Mereworth Castle, near Maidstone.
For younger 007 fans who are now growing excited that they may have missed one in the series, be warned that the 1967 Casino Royale is unlike any other Bond movie.
It is a spoof and, although it has all the characters – M, Miss Moneypenny, Q, and the evil SMERSH organisation – it is very much tongue in cheek.
Critics of the day called it either hilarious, mesmerising and psychedelic – the in-word in 1967– or alternatively, daft, ridiculous and "a disaster".
However, there is no doubt everyone wanted to be in the movie, the filming for which started 56 years ago to the day, on January 11, 1966.
The list of stars reads like a who's who of the film world of the time.
There was Niven as Sir James Bond, Peter Sellers as Evelyn Tremble who becomes Bond's replacement, Ursula Andress as seductress Vesper Lynd. Andress had already appeared in the "real" Bond movie Dr No.
More glamour was provided by Barbara Bouchet as Miss Moneypenny, Joanna Pettet who plays Bond's daughter Mata Bond, and by Daliah Lavi as The Detainer, who is the agent that successfully despatches the arch-villain in the end.
Jewish comedian Woody Allen is that arch-villain known as Dr Noah.
Orson Welles is another baddie, while Deborah Kerr, Charles Boyer, Terence Cooper, Ronnie Corbett, Derek Nimmo and William Holden also feature.
Jacqueline Bisset appears in one of her first major roles as Miss Goodthighs. She is credited as Jacky Bisset.
British character actors John Le Mesurier, Bernard Cribbens, Geoffrey Bayldon (later Catweazle) John Wells, Duncan Macrae and Richard Wattis are all involved.
There are also a number of stars who make brief appearances just for the sake of being in the movie and whose presence has absolutely nothing to do with the plot.
Among them are Peter O'Toole, Jean-Paul Belmondo, veteran gangster actor George Raft and racing driver Sir Stirling Moss.
There's even an appearance by David Prowse as Frankenstein's monster. He was later to play Darth Vader in Star Wars.
Rumour has it O'Toole's appearance fee was a case of Champagne.
In the movie, Sir James Bond played by Niven has retired to Mereworth Castle, where he spends his time playing Debussy on the piano and growing black roses.
In a plot remarkably similar to that of the current Bond movie, No Time To Die, in order to keep up the reputation of the British Secret Service, another agent has been named James Bond and given the 007 designation.
Later, in an attempt to confuse the enemy still further, all the secret agents are re-named James Bond 007 – including the female ones.
Bond is portrayed as a man of high moral virtue, who laments the fact that "secret agent has become synonymous with sex maniac".
Indeed, once he is persuaded out of retirement to take charge of MI6, he institutes a programme of AFSD – anti-female spy device – training to make the new Bonds resistant to feminine allures.
The training mostly involves Terence Cooper trying to resist a succession of scantily-clad women, with only partial success.
Sir James himself remains chaste – his only on-screen kiss being with Deborah Kerr – and that only because he believes he is granting her dying wish.
The film begins with M played by the director John Huston, and the heads of the American, French and Russian secret services arriving at Mereworth Castle to plead with Sir James to come out of retirement as someone is killing all their agents.
Sir James says no. Even a letter from Windsor Castle won't change his mind, whereupon M signals the Army to blow up Sir James's home and Mereworth Castle is destroyed.
Why that should persuade Sir James to co-operate is one of the many unexplained mysteries in the plot, but it does.
The film had five directors, each shooting a different segment, and there really is very little linking them together in a confused and chaotic story.
Part of that was later blamed on Peter Sellers who it seems fell out big-time with Orson Welles, and refused to do any more scenes with him, which meant vital parts linking the segments remained unfilmed.
Despite that, Casino Royale was a box office success, grossing $44 million, though looking back from today's perspective, the only memorable thing was the musical score, composed by Burt Bacharach. The theme music was performed by Herb Alpert and his Tijuana Brass.
The film included the song The Look of Love, performed by Dusty Springfield, which has become one of the all-time swing classics.
Fortunately, Mereworth Castle, entered via wrought iron gates off the A26, was not destroyed in the film. It is said to be one of the most beautiful stately homes in England, and it is certainly of rare architectural value. But outside of those few minutes of movie footage, very few of us have ever seen it.
The castle is in private hands and has not been accessible to the public since its present owner bought it in 1976.
The Grade I-listed home was built in 1723 by the architect Colen Campbell in the Palladian style.
In fact, more than that, it is an exact copy of Andrea Palladio’s Villa Capra (or La Rotonda as it is known) near Vicenza in Italy and so is the prime example of Palladian architecture in Britain.
The Villa Capra itself is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The main building of Mereworth Castle is 27m square and 16.5m high. It was originally surrounded by a moat, though in 1860 this was filled in. It has a hipped slate roof with a dome and lantern.
The central feature is the circular domed salon, 35ft in diameter and soaring to 80ft in height.
Less obvious, but equally clever, is the funnelling of the 24 chimney flues through the lantern, thereby making them virtually invisible.
On each side of the building there is a Portland stone portico with Ionic columns. A short distance away are two detached pavilions (also Grade I-listed), which were added around 1740. Each is a cube shape with a pyramidal roof and each has stone porticos leading to the courtyard.
There are formal gardens with terraces, a parterre (a level space with ornamental flower beds), a ha-ha (a ditch with an inner wall) and a lily pond.
The gardens are surrounded by 116 hectares of parkland which includes three lakes fed by Wateringbury Stream and linked by rock cascades.
The original building on the site was indeed a castle, King Edward III having granted its then owner, Sir John de Mereworth, the right to crenellate it with battlements in 1332 – a privilege only granted to those thought loyal to the Crown. Indeed, Sir John did go on to fight alongside Edward at the siege and capture of Calais in 1347.
But the current house was erected by John Fane, the 7th Earl of Westmorland. Fane was a soldier and a politician. He fought in several battles and rose to the rank of Colonel. He represented Hythe as their MP twice, and was MP for Kent once.
He married Mary Cavendish, the heiress of Lord Henry Cavendish, in 1716, and inherited Mereworth Castle from a brother, Mildmay, who died young.
He at once decided his new home was too small and decided to expand.
Inconveniently, Mereworth Church was in the way of where he wanted to build his new home, so he had it demolished and rebuilt St Lawrence Church where it is today. As Fane seems to have spared no expense either on his own home nor on the new church, which is also built in a Palladian style, it could be argued that the villagers actually gained from the arrangement.
His architect Colen Campbell said of Fane: “Never did an architect have a more beneficent or liberal patron where neither ignorance, caprice, nor covetousness had any part.”
Fane is said to have spent £100,000 on his home, which according to the Bank of England would be equivalent to £22.5m today, allowing for inflation.
He was thought to have had Jacobite leanings and is understood to have entertained Prince Charles Edward, the Young Pretender, at Mereworth Castle, for a secret Jacobite council. The Jacobites were hoping to restore the Stuart line to the throne in place of the Hanoverians.
John Fane died in 1736 without children, after which Mereworth passed first to Francis Dashwood of West Wycombe and then in 1781 to Thomas Stapleton.
On Stapleton’s death in 1831, Mereworth passed to his granddaughter who, in 1845, married Evelyn Boscawen, the 6th Viscount Falmouth.
From 1918 onwards there were a succession of owners, notably the artist Michael Tree, heir to the Marshall Field mercantile fortune, and his wife, Lady Anne Cavendish, daughter of the 10th Duke of Devonshire.
Finally it was picked up by Mohamed Mahdi Al-Tajir, the former United Arab Emirates ambassador to the UK, and now a billionaire businessman. Mr Al-Tajir is said to have paid £1.2m for the property, which in the Second World War had been used as a POW camp.
It is not known how often Mr Al-Tajir visits Mereworth Castle. The 89-year-old also owns a stately home, Kier House, in Scotland, set in 18,000 acres of Perthshire, and has a home close to Buckingham Palace in London, said to be valued at £250m, as well as other properties across the world.
He owns the Highland Spring bottled water company and the Sheraton Park Tower Hotel at Hyde Park. He also owns a glass-bottling company in Dubai and a private bank in the Cayman Islands.
The Sunday Times has previously estimated that he is the 44th richest man in Britain.