Sir Ken Adam, who went on to design so many James Bond movies including You Only Live Twice was born Klaus Adam in 1921 in Berlin and escaped to England with his Jewish family in 1934. After training to be an architect he became, apparently, the only German to fly in the wartime RAF – as a Sergeant Pilot in 609 Squadron, flying Typhoon fighter-bombers on low-level strikes across northern France,
In 1946, Adam was taken on as a junior draftsman at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith and over the next decade he worked his way up to be one of Europe’s best film designers. He shared an Oscar nomination for Around the World in 80 Days (1956) for Art Direction/Set Decoration while his first major screen credit as production designer on the British thriller Soho Incident in 1956 (released as Spin a Dark Web in the US).
Adam worked on the first Bond film Dr No and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. He then worked on the amazing and innovative sets for Goldfinger, Thunderball and You Only Live Twice. His biographer Sir Christopher Frayling once said of Adam:
About halfway through the Bond films, they were actually constructing the scripts around his sets. He is as much an author of those films as anybody. He thought his masterpiece was the war room in Dr Strangelove because it was serious. It was the sort of room where people would play poker with all of our lives. His real talent was reality with a twist.
He later won an Oscar for the extraordinary production design for Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and in the Madness of King George most importantly of all designed the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car.
In conversation with Todd Longwell, Ken talked about the challenges building the You Only Live Twice set:
We were desperate because we had covered about two thirds of Japan and we were looking for some of the locations that Fleming had mentioned, and of course they didn’t exist. We went in two helicopters and on one of the last days on the Southern island of Kyushu we found this area of volcanoes and that triggered a lot of ideas. It was decided that it would be interesting to have the villain inside the crater. So then I came up with this design concept, and I’ll never forget [Bond producer] Cubby Broccoli asking me how much it was going to cost. I had no idea, obviously. And he said, “Well, will a million dollars be enough?” And I said, “Sure.” [laughs] A million dollars in 1966 was a fortune! But then my worries started, you know. Once he had agreed, I said, “Well, can I do it for a million dollars?”
Also, they were in trouble. In those days already, those Bond films had a release date in about 3000-4000 cinemas, and we didn’t have a script! And this was the first glimmer we had of something visually exciting happening. So he felt, I suppose, a million dollars would be a reasonable expenditure if I come up with a really exciting concept…
If someone does a skyscraper, it’s very easy to calculate, but I come up with a sliding lake of fiberglass 120 feet up on an inclination that was held by one cable, and nobody quite knew if it was going to work. And I realize that if something goes wrong, I’ll never work in film again. I had a lot of nervous moments.
Ken Adam: 5 February 1921 – 10 March 2016.
Would you like to support Flashbak?
Please consider making a donation to our site. We don't want to rely on ads to bring you the best of visual culture. You can also support us by signing up to our Mailing List. And you can also follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. For great art and culture delivered to your door, visit our shop.