Celluloid Dreams - James Bond and the work of Sir Ken Adam

 

Lots of of little boys love James Bond. But for Jez Speed, it was the incredible set designs by Ken Adam that turned a passing fancy into a lifelong obsession

 
Ken Adam's early concept art for the volcano set on You Only Live Twice.

Ken Adam's early concept art for the volcano set on You Only Live Twice.

Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, my first encounter with Ken Adams' work was as a seven year old. I was allowed to stay up late as a special treat to watch my first Bond movie, Goldfinger. I remember vividly watching a silver Aston Martin DB5 tear up the screen, racing a Ford Mustang through the Alps. It slashed tyres, it sprayed oil, it had revolving number plates, a bullet shield, machine guns and, to top it all, it finally ejected the bad guy out through the roof – WOW, I was hooked on Bond!

It is often said your favourite Bond actor is the one you saw first; for me that was Connery... Sean Connery. But what really blew me away from an early age was the overall style. Later on, I found out that this was the work of one man, now 91 years old – the production de- signer Ken Adam.

There is no doubt that the visual world of James Bond, as designed by Ken Adam, was essential in making these movies so memorable. Using the latest offerings in modern furniture and lighting to dress his sets, he had an incredible ability to create a futuristic, heightened world, a world believable but almost unbelievable at the same time.

The really groovy sets in my mind were: Dr No’s Crab Key facility; Auric Stud and the Federal Reserve at Fort Knox in Goldfinger; M’s conference room in Thunderball; the supertanker Liparus in The Spy Who Loved Me; Willard Whyte’s penthouse and summerhouse in Diamonds Are Forever – and all of the sets (culminating in the extinct volcano with sliding roof) in You Only Live Twice.

Incidentally, the gigantic volcano set was built at Pinewood Studios, was 400 feet in diameter, 120 feet high, and had a 70-foot diameter sliding lake set at an angle at the top. It was too big for any sound stage, so was built free-standing, using 700 tons of structural steel for the princely sum of one million dollars! Industry insiders thought Adams was insane, but the finished result – including 100 foot-tall space rocket, mobile helipad and monorail – has got to be one of the most memorable sets in motion picture history!

Adams’ contribution to 007 didn't just end at designing the sets. He designed gadgets too: the Aston of course, Little Nellie the yellow girocopter in You Only Live Twice, the underwater jetpack in Thunderball... this list is endless!

For me, my obsession with collecting examples of the 007 style started at an antiques fair more than15 years ago when I spotted what I thought looked like Blofeld’s black wingback swivel chair. You know the one: picture a monocled and scarred Donald Pleasance with a white fluffy cat...

On closer inspection I saw a familiar label – surely that can't be right, I thought? But sure enough, after careful research, I found out that Ernst Stavro Blofeld, mastermind of S.P.E.C.T.R.E., the most evil criminal organisation on the planet, sits in a G Plan Housemaster! From then on I stud- ied the Bond films more intensely to identify Ken Adam’s choice of furniture and lighting and started to collect; my favourites so far being the Robin Day Leo chairs featured in Osato’s office in You Only Live Twice and my Flos Arco floor lamp.

Not only responsible for 007, Ken Adam was the design force behind many more influential movies; the car and sets in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; the mansion and the automata in Sleuth; Around the World in 80 Days and the famous

War Room set in Dr Stranglelove; this was so realistic that when Ronald Reagan moved to the White House he asked his Chief of Staff to show him the War Room!

Ken Adam won two Academy Awards in succession for his art direction: Dr Strangelove (1964) and The Ipcress File (1965). He also won Best Art Direction working in a very different style of Barry Lyndon (1975) and The Madness of King George (1994) and, in 2002, was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Art Directors Guild.

And in 2003 Ken Adam – born Klaus Hugo Adam in Berlin, fled from Hitler at 13 and became one of the RAF’s two German fighter pilots during the War – became Sir Ken Adam when he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in recognition for his contribution to the British film industry.

Taken from Issue 3 of VE, our Space Age issue - available here.

Ken Adam’s Goldfinger Rumpus Room design

Ken Adam’s Goldfinger Rumpus Room design

Left and above: Ken Adam's early concept art for the volcano set on You Only Live Twice. Inside the Volcano, SPECTRE’s crewmen work on the rocket which is being prepared for an attack on a Soviet target

Left and above: Ken Adam's early concept art for the volcano set on You Only Live Twice. Inside the Volcano, SPECTRE’s crewmen work on the rocket which is being prepared for an attack on a Soviet target

The believable, but completely imaginary final design for the interior of Fort Knox in Goldfinger. The set was so good that when the film came out, United Artists received 300 letters – mostly irate – asking how a British film unit was allowed to shoot in Fort Knox when even the American President is not allowed in! Ken took this as a great compliment

The believable, but completely imaginary final design for the interior of Fort Knox in Goldfinger. The set was so good that when the film came out, United Artists received 300 letters – mostly irate – asking how a British film unit was allowed to shoot in Fort Knox when even the American President is not allowed in! Ken took this as a great compliment

Woo Gilchrist