Ken Adam

Interview Number: 
416
Interview Date(s): 
12 Mar 1997
29 Jul 1997
Interviewer/s: 
Production Media: 
Duration (mins): 
192

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Ken Adam (KA)

Art Director, Production Designer

BECTU No.416

Interviewer: Rodney Giesler (RG)

Date 12/03/1997 & 29/07/1997

3 Tapes

12/03/1997

Side 1

00:00:00 – 00:29:30 Introductions; born 1921 in Berlin; upper middle class family, German-Jewish; his father had a sports store in Berlin and used to finance films which dealt with skiing and sport; his family had an interest in the theatre and the arts; KA talks about Hitler’s rise to power when he was a child in Berlin and his schooling; KA’s mother became the motivating force to get them out of Berlin and they moved to the UK in 1934; refugee organisation Woburn House helped the family a great deal once they arrived; the family rented a house in Hampstead and they let in borders; KA’s mother became the main breadwinner and his father died shortly afterwards; KA attended St Paul’s School until 1937 and then attended the Bartlett School of Architecture at London University where he studied until 1939; KA was involved in wartime work including the design of air-raid shelters, illustrating books on air-raid precautions, drawings of munitions retooling; KA talks about tribunals held during the war for immigrants; KA was always keen on flying and applied for the Civil Air Guard but was turned down; he volunteered for the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corp becoming a Corporal and spent a year at Ilfracombe; KA talks about his time at the camp in Ilfracombe where they taught basic military training with no arms; he kept applying for the RAF during this period and was successful in 1941, moving to Scarborough for training; there were a number of well know personalities at the camp in Ilfracombe including Coco the Clown.

00:29:30 – 00:48:20 His time at Scarborough training for the RAF and flight training in Perth, Scotland; he then spent 6 months in London training his eyes due to a medical condition, an ‘internal squint’; he had a good rapport with his fellow trainers and felt no prejudices; KA talks about his perspective on fighting against his former countrymen; KA was sent to Canada after his treatment in London and then requested to complete his training in the US where he was stationed in Georgia, Florida and then Alabama; very few made it as fighter pilots in those days

Side 2

00:00:00 – 00:12:30 KA continues to talk about his training in the US and the differences between the American pilots and the RAF; after graduating, KA moved to New York and then back to England; he was posted to an Advanced Flying Unit at Tern Hill, Shropshire and then Scotland; October 1943, 609 Squadron in 11 Group, where he stayed until the end of the war; at the beginning of 1944, his squadron were sent to learn about air to ground rockets; his squadron became a powerful weapon for the army, the rocket Typhoons.

00:12:30 – 00:42:25 609 squadron became attached to the army and were sent to Normandy; Cab Rank, a system designed to provide maximum support for the army; more discussion of the rocket Typhoons and his operations during WWII.

Side 3

00:00:00 – 00:08:00 KA continues to talk about his time in the air force.

00:08:00 – 00:09:45 KA got to know some of the important players in film industry, including the Kordas; Vincent Korda told him to get an architectural education if he wanted to work in the industry.

00:09:45 – 00:30:10 Returns to a discussion of his military career and his involvement in Germany after the surrender; KA talks about his mental state during the conflict and how he coped with the pressure.

29/07/1997

Side 4

00:00:00 – 00:20:45 His post-war career after 1946; his sister worked at the American embassy at the time and Jim Day, a buyer, came to ask for American props for No Orchids for Miss Blandish; his sister told Jim Day that KA was looking to get into the industry; KA began at Riverside Studios working on the film This Was a Woman; he then transferred to Twickenham in 1947 and his first film as draughtsman was The Brass Monkey for which he was asked to design some of the sets; he then worked on The Queen of Spades, an important film and experience for KA; in those days they had 8-10 draughtsmen in a large art department; in 1948 he started work on Third Time Lucky; Obsession filmed at Pinewood, a gigantic studio where 6-7 films were made at any one time, his first or second film as assistant art director to Duncan Sutherland, involved a lot of set building; Obsession KA had a lot of responsibility; Your Witness directed by Robert Montgomery, and first film working for art director Ralph Brinton; 1949, worked as assistant art director on Captain Horatio Hornblower, one of the last films made at Denham, in charge of designing Hornblower’s boat and constructing it in the south of France; Hornblower started his career as a ship expert, designing ships for Helen of Troy, The Crimson Pirate and The Master of Ballantrae; he studied at the National Maritime Museum; KA talks about attempts to use French ship The Implacable in Hornblower.

00:20:45 – 00:29:50 The Intruder for Guy Hamilton, his first major contact with the Kordas, made at Shepperton; Star of India, which also included some ships; what the Kordas had done at Shepperton was to create “the film studio of film studios”, Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope studio designs were based on Shepperton; Shepperton had a great team working for them; art director on The Intruder Joseph Bato, brought over from Paris by Vincent Korda and had studied under Matisse; KA was reluctant to do Dr No at Pinewood as he preferred Shepperton but there was no space to do so at the time; Pinewood later became KA’s favourite studio; construction manager Ronny Udel, for whom nothing was impossible.

00:29:50 – 00:37:50 Dr No made for under $1 million, KA’s budget was originally £14,500 but eventually spent £20 or £21 thousand, which got him into trouble with Film Finance; he was credited as art director on several films beginning with Soho Incident for Vernon Sewell in 1955; he then worked for Mike Todd on Around the World in 80 Days, responsible for English and French locations and studios; Mike Todd was unique, an incredible showman, but a monster at the same time; working with Bill Cameron Menzies who encouraged KA in ideas of stylisation, colour and design, which he would later use whenever possible.

00:37:50 – 00:46:25 Child in the House with Cy Endfield; Gideon’s Day [AKA Gideon of Scotland Yard] with John Ford at MGM, KA tried to make Gideon’s office as interesting as possible with a model of London Bridge outside the window; KA talks about a problem with model cars used on the Gideon set; Night of the Demon with Jacques Tourneur; the long association with Robert Aldrich began on Ten Seconds to Hell.

Side 5

00:00:00 – 00:10:20 The Angry Hills with Robert Aldrich; in 1959/60, he worked with Aldrich for over a year in Italy on Sodom and Gomorrah; Aldrich had been the best assistant director in Hollywood during the post-war period; seeing Aldrich work had a great impact upon KA; KA worked on a variety of films, colour and B&W; Robert Siodmak and The Rough and the Smooth; a few small picture for Cubby Broccoli and Tony Newly; The Trials of Oscar Wilde directed by Ken Hughes shot at Elstree, seven weeks from shooting to the premiere; interesting and challenging set on Oscar Wilde, KA experimented with stylisation and received positive notices in the press.

00:10:20 – 00:18:45 This brought him to Dr No; KA had already made three films for Cubby Broccoli and had previously met Harry Saltzman; after seeing Dr No, Stanley Kubrick arranged to meet KA and asked him to design Dr Strangelove; Kubrick came up with the idea of riding the bomb in Strangelove on set, leaving KA to devise a way of designing the scene at the last minute; the design of the interior of the B-52 came from flight magazines and other research as the military would not assist in any way.

00:18:45 – 00:29:35 Goldfinger; KA always tried not to film two Bond films back-to-back as the break in between allowed his imagination to go elsewhere; Goldfinger was the first film when he started to think big, particularly with the Fort Knox set; The Ipcress File, an anti-Bond, and his first experience with Michael Caine, Sidney Furie, and an almost entirely location film; The Ipcress File was a low budget film for which the chemistry of everything worked; Harry Saltzman thought it was going to be an economical James Bond, but the production team had already decided it would be the anti-Bond; KA had to design the MI6 chief’s office which he wanted to be very minimalistic and uninviting to reflect the chief’s character; Thunderball required a lot of underwater work in the Bahamas; the Bond films were an exception to normal filmmaking.

[END]

Biographical

Ken Adam was a British movie production designer, best known for his set designs for the James Bond films of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as for Dr. Strangelove (1964).

His first major screen credit was as production designer on the British thriller Soho Incident (1956). In 1961 he was hired for the first James Bond film, Dr. No (1962).

Adam did not work in the second James Bond film, From Russia with Love (1963) because he was working in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964). This enabled him to make his name with his innovative, semi-futuristic sets for further James Bond films, such as Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965), You Only Live Twice (1967), Diamonds Are Forever (1971), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), and his last Bond film was Moonraker (1979).

Adam returned to work with Kubrick on Barry Lyndon (1975), for which he won an Oscar. He also worked in The Ipcress File (1965) and its sequel Funeral in Berlin (1966), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), Sleuth (1972), and The Madness of King George (1994), for which he won his second Oscar for Best Art Direction.

In 2003, Adam was knighted for services to the film industry and Anglo-German relations.