The destination for history

Alan Tomkins recalls working on Cleopatra and Dr. No


In 1961, aged 22, Alan Tomkins had just completed a three-year apprenticeship and was happily contracted to continue in the employment of the Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC). However, when Tomkins heard that art director John Box, who was based over at Pinewood Studios, was looking for a draughtsman to go out on location to Jordan to work on a film about the life of T.E. Lawrence, he jumped at the chance. Eager to spread his wings and take up the opportunity of a lifetime, Tomkins gave in his notice at Elstree and flew out to work on what would become the epic Lawrence of Arabia. Not long after, Tomkins returned to Pinewood to work on perhaps the biggest film of the studio’s history – Cleopatra – before an opportunity to work on the first James Bond film, Dr. No, also presented itself. In this exclusive extract from his memoirs, Stars and Wars, Oscar-nominated art director Alan Tomkins recalls his experiences of working on these two legendary films, where his long-running association with Pinewood Studios and 007 began.

After my shaky start in the precariously uncertain world of a freelancer on Lawrence (of Arabia), I returned to Pinewood where perhaps the biggest film of the studio’s history was in preparation – Cleopatra. I was fortunate to secure a job as draughtsman, and have to say the huge Roman sets on the backlot were very impressive, to say the least. It was on this production that I first met one of my dearest friends, Peter Lamont (who went on to work on eighteen Bond films and win an Oscar for Titanic). The sheer vastness of the art department allowed me the opportunity to get to meet and know lots of other people, which is very valuable when you’re always on the lookout for the next job.

Elizabeth Taylor had the title role, and an unheard of million dollar fee. Peter Finch was cast as Caesar, and Stephen Boyd as Mark Antony – though they were later replaced by Rex Harrison and Richard Burton respectively. The distinguished Russian-born director Rouben Mamoulian was hired and spent a year preparing for the task.

Cleopatra was certainly the most expensive and heavily publicised film ever to move into Pinewood. Sets of previously unheard of dimensions were constructed on the backlot. However, soon came the first of the many problems that dogged the production – a shortage of plasterers. The situation became so desperate that the studio finally resorted to advertising on prime-time TV to fill the vacancies.

The most amazing of all the sets was undoubtedly the harbour of Alexandria, which held 1 million gallons of water and was topped up further by the English rain.

The size of the production was giving cause for concern and, before a foot of film had been exposed, the cost had easily exceeded £1m, and there was still a sixteen week shoot to get underway.

The imminent arrival of 5,000 extras was the next headache. Pinewood’s management laid on twenty-eight extra tube trains from London to Uxbridge, and thirty buses to shuttle to and from the station non-stop. Mobile lavatories were hired from Epsom racecourse, and massive catering marquees were erected to house the mountain of food for meals. However, all the planning and organisation was wasted – along with all the food– when torrential rain forced shooting to be abandoned.

Then real disaster struck. Elizabeth Taylor became dangerously ill and had to undergo an emergency tracheotomy. Production was halted, and Joan Collins placed on standby as a replacement. Miss Taylor’s recuperation was a slow one, and what with the miserable British weather raining down on the sets day after day, the decision was made to transfer production, and Ancient Egypt, to Italy – where the climate was more conducive to Miss Taylor’s health. The Pinewood sets were struck and, realising I was unemployed – again – John Graysmark called around one Saturday afternoon to say he’d recommended me for a job with acclaimed production designer Ken Adam: ‘They just want someone to travel out to Jamaica, work in the hotel on set drawings and travel back to start the construction at Pinewood a few weeks later.’

I was so excited at the prospect of work, and what’s more in the Caribbean, that when the phone rang and Ken Adam’s art director, Syd Cain, started telling me about the location, I just said ‘Yes I’m on board’. He laughed, as I think I agreed to the job before he’d actually offered it – but so began my association with James Bond 007.

Dr. No was the first of the long-running series and was set to star a relatively unknown actor named Sean Connery. If anyone had said then that they had inkling of an idea just how popular the franchise would become, then I’d say they were lying; as far as we were all concerned it was just a relatively modest budget spy film.

The charter flight out to Jamaica left London on 14 January 1962. Most of the crew, including producer Cubby Broccoli, the lighting cameraman Ted Moore and designer Ken Adam were aboard, whilst director Terence Young and producer Harry Saltzman flew in with Sean Connery a little later.

Our Bristol Britannia, which was more popularly known as the ‘Whispering Giant’, first stopped off in Goose Bay, Canada, for refuelling, where the temperature was −32°F and the walk from the plane to the airport lounge literally took your breath away. We then flew on to New York but, before landing, one of the make-up girls fell ill, and broke out in a terrible rash. On the ground, we were all placed into quarantine until a doctor could give the OK for us to leave. Hours passed, and much delayed and exhausted, we were given the all-clear and continued our final leg to Kingston, Jamaica.

The film’s budget was fairly tight and so I had to share a room with the stills photographer, Bert Cann, at the Courtleigh Manor Hotel. The rooms were actually more like chalet bungalows and suited our needs admirably. On the first night I heard a woman screaming and immediately jumped up out of my bed to rush to her aid. But, without air conditioning in the rooms and only slatted glass windows for ventilation, we only slept in our underwear and Bert cautioned me not to go outside, ‘You’ll only end up in more trouble,’ he said.

The next morning, we heard that one of the young air hostesses had woken to see a Jamaican man at the window with a long pole, which he’d poked through the glass slats, hooked her handbag and brought it to the window. He had then reached through the glass slats to steal her passport and money from out of it. She said that’s when she ran outside to scream for help, and forgot she was just in her bra and knickers. I often think how unfortunate it was that Bert stopped me rushing to her aid!

One of the other chalet rooms doubled up as a makeshift art department, and I used a large sheet of plywood as a drawing board where I was supposed to come up with enough drawings to return to Pinewood, thus enabling Ken to start building sets. Ken, meanwhile, had rented an open top Alfa Romeo sports car and invited me to join him for lunch on a trip down to Port Royal, where Terence Young was staying with his Bond girls. The road down to Port Royal runs parallel with the Norman Manley Airport runway for much of its length, on a narrow spit of land, and so we found ourselves racing a big Boeing down the runway until its take-off point. This was the first time in my life I’d ever been driven at 100mph.

The lunch table was set out with lots of lovely things – as I say, they were all staying there with Terence, and with the hot and humid temperature most were lunching in their swim suits, I might add – and I couldn’t help reminding myself I was actually being paid to be there!

On the first Saturday evening we all dined around the hotel pool with a steel band playing dance music. After dinner we were entertained with a fashion show, put on with the help of a bevy of lovely young models, and even a few past ‘Miss Jamaicas’. We were royally entertained with evening wear, swimwear and sleepwear. At this point, Sean was asked to choose a girl to start the dance with. He chose Miss Jamaica 1960, and suggested we all take a partner (all still wearing their ‘Baby Doll’ nightwear) and help him out.

We had a local lad to come and help us. His name was Chris Blackwell and he told me he had his own band. He, of course, went on to form Island Records, working with singers like Bob Marley. Today he’s a billionaire and still lives in Jamaica, where he also owns Ian Fleming’s former home, ‘Goldeneye’.

I didn’t spend much time on location as I was busy drawing up Dr. No’s lair and the reactor room. However, on one occasion I was asked to ‘stand by’ with the second unit on the twisting mountain road that Bond is chased down by a hearse full of assassins. I had to build a camera hide down a slope from the road, for the hearse to crash towards. I realised that the weight of the vehicle, coming down a 45 degree slope, would need something more than I could build around the hide to stop it being demolished, should the car hit it. So with the help of a lot of railway sleepers, the construction gang built it on top of a gully running down. We were pretty confident that, if the hearse left the road at the correct spot, it would be trapped in the gulley to continue the driverless journey down to the bottom of the mountain.

When I assured the camera boys that the hide was perfectly safe, they said, ‘Well you won’t mind joining us in there then will you?’ With my fingers crossed, I stood behind the camera with the operator and focus puller and watched the hearse go down through the gulley, just as I’d hoped – thank goodness.

All too soon it was time to leave our Caribbean paradise and, with a two day stopover in New York, I boarded the plane for home. Somehow or other I managed to lose my wallet, and without much spending money for my weekend in the Big Apple, I walked everywhere. From 42nd street I walked the forty blocks south to catch a ferry to the Statue of Liberty. In those days, you could climb up a very narrow and tight circular stairway to the top of her arm and to the balcony around the flame, then down the other side. I don’t remember how many steps I climbed, but they went on and on and on until ... darkness. Only then did I realise my head was partly up the black dress of the slower lady in front of me. I think I just about got away with a big apology!

I ate very cheaply too, counting my loose change out at diners, but I do think I got to see more of New York than anyone else did in just a couple of days.

Back at Pinewood, I was asked to go on the set of Bond’s apartment, where I was confronted by the lovely Eunice Gayson wearing only a man’s white shirt covering a pair of knickers. I was dumbstruck, and with my jaw firmly on the ground couldn’t even say ‘good morning’. I delivered my message and left. It was quite a daring appearance for a leading actress in a film, because up until then if a lady showed a little too much shoulder or leg there were calls for it to be re-shot. But Dr. No changed all that, with its fantastic blend of escapism, beautiful ladies and exotic locations and I’m sure many men of my generation said ‘hallelujah to that’!

Dissolve to fifty years later, and again at Pinewood Studios. I was invited to join 150 other people at the ‘50 Years of Bond’ lunch and I, along with Peter Lamont, found myself on the top table with Sir Roger Moore, Honor Blackman and Eunice Gayson – with whom I chatted non-stop throughout the afternoon. I guess I’m no longer that shy 20-something any more.

Dr. No’s underground reception area had a large glass wall which was to depict an underwater scene, and that footage was shot in the Bahamas, though I guess the guys who filmed it were just told to capture some fish on film, as the fish were so close to the lens that they looked like giant sharks. Unsure as to what to do with it, disaster was averted when someone came up with the idea of putting an extra line in the script saying the image is magnified ‘making minnows look like whales’. That was also the set where Bond spots the famous Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington, which had recently been stolen from the National Gallery.

Johanna Harwood, the screenwriter, came up with the idea when they came to look at the set on a Friday – and needed it in place for Monday. That job fell to Ron Quelch, who was the buyer on the film, and he rushed over to the National Gallery, purchased a postcard of the painting and took it to a company somewhere south of the river to enlarge it onto canvas on Saturday morning. When Ron went to collect it in the afternoon he found the enlarging process had softened the image and rang Ken Adam, who told him to drop it in to his house in Knightsbridge. Ken worked on it over the weekend, and at 8 a.m. on Monday morning the portrait was nicely displayed on set – and nobody knew how we did it so quickly.

I only ever saw Bond's creator, Ian Fleming, on set once at Pinewood, and that was for the reactor room finale. He seemed terribly impressed by the set, or at least was kind enough to say he was.

Of course the success of Dr. No led to From Russia with Love being swung into production the following year and my association with Bond continued, on and off, through to Casino Royale in 2006.

Extracted from Stars and Wars by Alan Tomkins

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