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Radio review: A Profile of Ken Adam – The Spectre of Modernism; Lights, Camera, Akshun!

In the current, CGI world of cinema, it’s difficult to imagine the sweat that went into the set designs of Ken Adam, who created iconic sets for Bond films including Dr No and Goldfinger, plus Stanley Kubrick’s insane but magnificent cold-war satire Dr Strangelove.

In The Spectre of Modernism, BBC Radio 3’s 45-minute, in-depth analysis of his work, presenter Matthew Sweet patches together the cultural and personal influences that may, or may not, have had a bearing on the 92-year-old’s acclaimed work.

Born Klaus Hugo Adam, he was forced to leave his Berlin home as Nazi influence took a hold in Germany, despite his father, a respected department-store owner, having been awarded the Iron Cross. His family eventually found refuge in Hampstead, their home being visited by like-minded creatives who had also fled oppression in Europe, including the Hungarian Vincent Korda, the brother of film director Alexander. Here, the young Adam embarked on a path that would eventually lead him to film via the study of architecture.

[pullquote]Ken Adam visited the Belsen concentration camp just three weeks after it was liberated, leaving images he could never erase from his mind[/pullquote]

Given his birthplace, it’s not surprising that his early cinematic influences included both The Testament of Dr Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 1933) and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920). “When I was practising as an architect, I was a bit of rebel. I was into the Bauhaus movement,” he says with a hint of rebellion.

But along with nods to influential film directors’ work, his childhood and wartime experiences also printed permanent images on his mind for later filmic reference. He visited the Belsen concentration camp just three weeks after it was liberated, leaving images he could never erase from his mind.

As for his iconic sets being destroyed after a film wrapped, including Dr No’s fiery volcano lair, Adam is forthright: “It was never a problem to me, as long as they were well shot – by then I was always ready to move on to something else.”

It’s a long journey from Cricklewood, north London, to India, but in BBC Radio 4’s forensically detailed documentary Lights, Camera, Akshun! an intriguing cinematic lineage is unearthed, leading from early British film studios to the birth of Bollywood.

One shining light is Bengali screenwriter Niranjan Pal. Being a bit of a bad boy who mixed with the wrong crowd at home, Pal is sent to England with no money in his wallet and a few holes in his socks, where he chases his cinematic dream.

Clearly a bit of a hothead when he arrives, he’s “determined to write stories that would check the vilification of Indians and India by foreigners”. He adapts a poem, The Light of Asia, for a 1912 production at London’s Royal Court Theatre entitled Buddha. Pal then attracts the financing for a 97-minute film version, which is shot in just three weeks.

Incredibly, he and his partners secure a premiere in front of Queen Mary and 500 distinguished guests at Windsor Castle in 1926. The queen was amused, she reported later, though the screening took place in complete silence. At just 30-minutes, Lights, Camera, Akshun! has more to inform than many programmes twice the length, plus the distinct advantage of a presenter, Sanjeev Bhaskar, who sounds genuinely fascinated by the archive material it contains.

The Blagger’s Guide to Bob Dylan purported to be a “one-off spectacular, condensing the entire 50-year career of rock’s most enigmatic singer-songwriter into 27 minutes”. A quick-fire radio montage of faked archive, somewhat juvenile sketches and frivolous facts about Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman, it was clearly intended to be clever and humorous, but failed on both levels.

The problem is that Dylan is one of those very rare superstars who should be respected, and not subjected to inane gags and snide remarks about his nasal twang. If producers want to be irreverent about artists, they should pick on those more deserving of being lampooned, not musical legends. That would suit this format much better. As it was, this script was just blowing in the wind.

As a young child, I was always frightened witless by the Daleks in Doctor Who, that is until someone at school noticed they couldn’t go upstairs. But then along came the robotic and menacing Cybermen, for whom a staircase was no obstacle at all, and the cold sweats started all over again.

Dr Christopher “Kit” Pedler and Gerry Davis, the former being a medical researcher at London University, originally created the cyber menace in 1966, Pedler effectively becoming the series’ first unofficial scientific adviser.

Over the years, the show has slipped off my essential viewing list, but this month’s fulsome and varied 50th anniversary on BBC, including the absorbing Who Made Who on R4 Extra, has been a fabulous reminder of just how groundbreaking the show was, and continues to be. Decades later, bungalows are still off my property-buying list.

A Profile of Ken Adam – The Spectre of Modernism, R3, Sunday, December 1
Lights, Camera, Akshun!, R4, Sunday, November 24
The Blagger’s Guide to Bob Dylan, R2, Tuesday, December 3
Who Made Who, R4 Extra, Saturday, November 23

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