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Trying to keep a straight face around Peter Sellers

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The bomb bay
Ken Adam Artist
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 I was in trouble, because I’d designed the bomb bay and suspended it at Shepperton from the rafters of the stage, and it wasn’t supposed to be practical. I mean... we never had Peter Sellers going to the bomb, but with Slim Pickens – and I did a lot of continuity sketches – Stanley came up with this idea of him riding the bomb like a cowboy into the Russian missile complex, and he said, ‘How long will it take you to make the bomb door practical?’ I said, ‘When do you want it by?’ He said, ‘The latest the day after tomorrow’. I said, ‘I can’t do it. That’s impossible’, I said, ‘even if I work shifts, day and night, day and night, I can’t do it’. ‘Well’, he said, ‘I don’t know what to do. Try and see what you can do’. And I had brought with me on the picture a brilliant special effects man called Wally Veevers. He was then already in his late 60s. I think he’d had one or two heart attacks, and so on. But Wally always got me out of trouble. On Sodom and Gomorrah, whatever it was, I went to Wally and I said, ‘Wally, I don’t know how to deal with that’, and he said, ‘Just give me 24 hours and tomorrow morning I’ll come up with a solution’.

And that’s exactly what he did, and we took a black and white still of the interior of the bomb bay, cut out the bomb door so that it gave us... it had blue backing behind, and did that sequence without any alteration to the set, and then cut to Peter... not Peter, Slim Pickens sitting on the bomb, and the Russian missile complex... I had a very good assistant who was a scenic artist, and we were debating whether we should use a model or a painting and he felt that you could do better with a painting, and he painted the Russian missile complex, possibly 8ft by 6ft, or something like that. And we strung up the full size missile on the large stage at Shepperton, with Slim Pickens sitting on it, and then tracked back and finally did the last bit optically of him. So he had saved my situation, and that became a fantastic shot.

Sir Kenneth Adam (1921-2016), OBE, born Klaus Hugo Adam, was a production designer famous for his set designs for the James Bond films of the 1960s and 1970s. Initially, he trained as an architect in London, but in October 1943, he became one of only two German-born fighter pilots to fly with the RAF in wartime. He joined 609 Squadron where he flew the Hawker Typhoon fighter bomber. After the war, he entered the film industry, initially as a draughtsman on This Was a Woman. His portfolio of work includes Barry Lyndon and The Madness of King George; he won an Oscar for both films. Having a close relationship with Stanley Kubrick, he also designed the set for the iconic war room in Dr Strangelove. Sir Ken Adam was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2003.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Dr Strangelove, Shepperton studios, Sodom and Gomorrah, Peter Sellers, Stanley Kubrick, Slim Pickens, Louis Burton Lindley, Jr., Wally Veevers

Duration: 3 minutes, 22 seconds

Date story recorded: December 2010 and January 2011

Date story went live: 07 September 2011