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The war room

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Trying to keep a straight face around Peter Sellers
Ken Adam Artist
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I knew that I always had to be prepared with Stanley, and also with Peter, because I was looking at London Airport at the time, and I used it eventually as the American B-52 base. I came back from one of my scouts and taking a lot of pictures, and I get on the stage and they’re all sitting round the table, and the whole stage is in tears with laughter. And I saw what had happened because Peter wasn’t happy with playing the president straight, so he asked the prop man to bring him an... inhaler, you know, one of those things, and he played around with this inhaler... while talking to the President of Russia, you know, and we were all in tears. But then Stanley and myself on the way back to the car, he said, ‘Didn’t you think that was hilariously funny?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I mean I ended up crying about it’.

Then he said, the next morning, I think, he said, ‘But maybe that’s not the right way, because the president should really be the only straight character in the film’. But, you see, everybody loved that scene so much that it took some time... so he changed it, and Peter then came... came up with the solution, not, possibly, the best solution but... because his RAF officer was fantastic, and as Dr Strangelove he was unbelievable, and the problem was – and it was a very serious problem – that the actors, whether it was George C Scott or… who played the Russian Ambassador? I can’t think of his name right now. Peter… Well, you can find out. Peter Bull. Peter Bull, right, and if you watch the picture and pay attention, whilst Peter’s going through all this, you know, this thing, Peter Bull couldn’t keep a straight face. It was so difficult for them to, you know, really be involved in the scene, and this is also when Stanley started improvising. In other words, he started re-shooting, take after take after take, or perhaps he eventually did, but sometimes 15 to 20 times, and then picked the little best bits, you see.

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: London, President of the United States, Dr Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick, Peter Sellers, George C Scott, Peter Bull

Duration: 3 minutes, 13 seconds

Date story recorded: December 2010 and January 2011

Date story went live: 07 September 2011