The real-life story of film set designer, Ken – later Sir Ken – Adam, might well have been made into a Hollywood blockbuster of the type he often designed for, in his Oscar winning career. Before he became famous for his work on the Bond movie franchise, along with being responsible for some of the other greatest cinematic moments of all time, his story began with him born in Berlin to a Jewish family, who managed to escape to the UK as the Nazis came to rule. Then upon the outbreak of the Second World War, he, along with his brother Denis, become one of only three German born pilots to serve in the Royal Air Force during the conflict.
Some life then…
He was born Klaus Hugo George Fritz Adam in February 1921, the third child of Mother Lilli and Father Fritz, a much-decorated Cavalry officer. Their life was one of a non-practising Prussian Jewish upper middle-class privilege, well, at least it was until the Nazi Party began to take control of the country.
The increasing discrimination against all Jews, saw Lilli and Fritz, send Klaus and his older brother Dieter to a boarding school in Scotland in 1933, though neither could speak a word of English. Once there, Klaus became Ken and Dieter adopted the name Denis. They were then joined by their oldest brother Peter who moved from his university in France to England and to complete his studies. Then they were then joined in 1934 by their parents and extended family, who finally fled when the situation became unbearable and perilous at home.
Lilli set up a boarding house with the little money she had managed to smuggle out, but father Fritz failed to settle and died in 1936 aged 56. Ken then re-joined his mother in London and became friendly with other Jewish refugees staying with her, many of whom had previously worked in the film industry back home.
Ken had already developed a passion for cinema, just like his late father, and he was encouraged further down that road by the Hungarian film director Vincent Korda, who persuaded Ken to train as an architect with a view of then working as a production designer later.
Upon the outbreak of World War Two, Ken found work designing air raid shelters and then joined the Pioneer Corps, with enlistment being available for those ‘foreigners’ residing in the UK, once it was established they posed no security risk. From there, he joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve and began pilot training here and in the USA and Canada. Later he joined 609 Squadron as a sergeant pilot in late 1943 and quickly picked up the nickname ‘Heinie the Tank Buster’ known for his daring exploits, once airborne.
‘God knows what the Nazis would have done to me if I’d been shot down’ he once said, knowing full well his fate would be certain execution as a traitor if caught.
He survived the war though and was finally demobbed in 1947.
Once back on civvy street, he finally began to work as a production designer in the film industry with his first major job being ‘The Crimson Pirate’ starring Burt Lancaster. Ken also met his future wife Maria-Letizia Moauro on location. He moved on to work on ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ and ‘Ben Hur’ before picking up his first awards for ‘The Trials of Oscar Wilde’ in 1960, where he worked with producer Albert Romolo Broccoli, known to all as Cubby.
Broccoli then offered Ken a job on ‘Dr.No’ the very first James Bond film in 1962, which went on to become a huge success, however Ken had to turn down its follow up, ‘From Russia With Love’ a year later, as he had already begun work on ‘Dr Strangelove’ for Stanley Kubrick.
‘The best set that’s ever been designed.’ – Steven Spielberg
Ken agreed ‘It’s one of the best sets I’ve ever designed. It still stands up. It’s big, powerful and very simple. It creates the right sort of atmosphere of claustrophobia.
I love to draw very quickly, to let the ideas flow as fast as my imagination and hand will allow. This was one skill that Kubrick didn’t have, thank God. Stanley was a close friend of more than 30 years, but he liked to be the one who could do everything himself, which is why he was so very hard to work with; yet he was always fascinated by people who could draw and create fresh images from their heads in an instant. This is how we came to design the war room in ‘Dr Strangelove,’ with Stanley looking over my shoulder with a mix of fascination and impatience as I drew.’
Ken had clearly hit his stride and was now in big demand. He was quickly back among the James Bond family on ‘Goldfinger’ in 1964.
‘After the film’s release, United Artists received something like 300 letters asking how the Bond people could get permission to film inside (Fort Knox) when even the President wasn’t allowed to do that. That was funny. I had the gold bars piled up 30 and 40 feet high. This would never happen in real life; gold is far too heavy, but I felt this was how we all wanted gold to be stored in Fort Knox in our imaginations. The cinema is there to heighten the imagination; I have always tried to make sure it does so. I customised the Aston Martin DB5 because David Brown, the boss of Aston Martin, wouldn’t lend us a car. These hand-built cars were always expensive; I think about £4,000 at the time. Still, we spent a further £25,000 kitting that car out with machine guns, flame-throwers, ejector seat and so on. They all worked, which was a lot of fun. They were the gadgets I would have liked for my own car.’
Now a global success, the Bond franchise and Ken kept delivering. ‘Thunderball’ in 1965 ‘You Only Live Twice’ in 1967 ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ in 1971 and ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ in 1977.
Guardian journalist Johnny Dee – ‘His sets for the seven Bond films he worked on are as iconic as the movies themselves and set the benchmark for every blockbuster.’
His other notable 1960s films included ‘The Ipcress File’ in 1965, its sequel ‘Funeral in Berlin’ in 1966 and ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ in 1968, where he also had a hand in the design of the beloved car.
His other notable films include ‘Sleuth’ in 1972 and ‘Barry Lyndon’ in 1975, teaming up once again with Kubrick, for which Ken won his first Oscar. A second followed for ‘The Madness of King George’ in 1994.
‘Stanley was hard work. He offered me ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ but I turned it down. I loved the idea but might have died realising it. When I did work for Stanley again, on ‘Barry Lyndon,’ it was hell. It was filmed entirely on location, with the crew racing across Ireland in a fleet of VW minibuses like one of Rommel’s ‘flying columns.’
Sure, I won an Oscar for my pains, and the result – filmed throughout in available light – is beautiful, but I got very ill in the process.’
Still, Adam and Kubrick remained friends and Ken persuaded Kubrick to secretly light the super tanker sequence on ‘The Spy Who Loved Me.’
‘We had three nuclear submarines inside the mocked-up hull of the villain’s super tankers – they’ve all been captured – and the reflections playing off them were giving us hell. Stanley came down one Saturday morning and fixed the lighting for us; he was a very visual guy.’
Philip French, film critic of The Observer – ‘One suspects that Adam was honoured by his peers in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the classy and classic look of ‘Barry Lyndon’ and ‘The Madness of King George,’ and they are fine films. But however admirably the designs serve the authors’ intentions, they pale beside the War Room in ‘Dr Strangelove,’ Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s headquarters beneath a false lake in an extinct volcano in ‘You Only Live Twice,’ and the black-and-white confectionery factory in ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ where only the sweets are coloured. These are imaginative creations of a high order in their own right.’
Adam was awarded an OBE in 1996, and knighted in 2003 for services to film production design and to UK–German relations
In September 2012, he handed over his entire archive to the Deutsche Kinemathek, where now the Ken Adam collection comprises 4,000 sketches, photo albums, storyboards, memorabilia, his war medals and his two Academy Awards.
Sir Ken Adam died on 10 March 2016 at his home in London, following a short illness aged 95.
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