To BFI South Bank last week for a superb tribute to the late great production designer Ken Adam, he of numerous Bond films, Barry Lyndon, Dr Strangelove, etc. The Broccoli family/EON Films, I believe, put the whole thing together; Chris Frayling emceed it fluently, and a very fine array of speakers paid tribute in-between some well-crafted clip montages.
Adam had quite some twentieth-century life experience before cinema. A German Jew who fled Berlin perforce in the 1930s, he served with valour in the RAF (the story is here), and one of the most memorable tributes on the night came from a current senior officer in 609 Squadron.
Among a few paeans delivered on film – Roger Moore was dryly funny, I must say – the most thought-provoking was perhaps from Lord Foster, who sounded truly enthused about the notion of an alternative history of architecture, based on the influence of buildings that were never actually built – or, rather, fabricated only temporarily, on a sound stage, as imaginative space for scrutiny by a camera lens. Any film-goer can name a favourite edifice in this regard, a space they would love to have inhabited or visited, except that it lives only in cinema. (Apparently Adam’s widow Laetitia would get quite emotional come the day of shooting day on any given Bond picture when an action sequence called for some glorious set of her husband’s to be blown to bits.)
I explored my own passion for production design in my long biographical study of Ferdinando Scarfiotti, and pictures that he designed as diverse as The Conformist and Scarface still work that sort of wish-you-were-there enchantment on viewers.
Alan Bennett, who became friends with Adam in the filming of his Madness of King George, attended the tribute in person and spoke intriguingly of a unique feeling he’d had and professed to not quite understand – namely that knowing Adam had made him feel part of a ‘European culture’. I briefly thought this might herald some reference to the EU referendum, but Bennett left the sentiment there, and it resonated. When the lights came out and I wandered out with the filmmaker friend who’d invited me long, we shared a few wistful thoughts of the ‘they don’t make them like they used to’ variety, related both to movies and to people. There’s an obvious aesthetic to the old movie world of built sets and spaces dressed for celluloid, one that gains lustre as more and more films are very evidently made by computers. And there’s no point being overly nostalgic for the sorts of costs that the old studio-style model necessitated.
But cinema is the supreme time-based art form, and so many pleasures, even of a melancholy variety, derive from that very truth.
A still-neglected piece of Adam finery (fine work, indeed, from the whole cast and crew) is Pennies From Heaven (1981). This is the sort of thing I’m talking about.