A view to a kill in the Swiss Alps

A museum in Blofeld’s base from “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” recalls the filming of the troubled 007 movie and its one-off Bond, George Lazenby

Sat, Mar 29, 2014, 01:00

It’s minus 14 degrees on a sparkling Swiss morning. I’m in a cable car dangling over the snowy Alps on my way to the Schilthorn peak. In my head, I rehearse my cover story: I’m a foreign correspondent visiting the allergy clinic of Count de Bleuchamp that, for 45 years, has crowned the jagged Schilthorn peak. My real mission: to infiltrate the infamous mountain base of notorious James Bond nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. It was here in 1969 in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service that he hypnotised a dozen women into releasing biological agents and destroying all food production in the British Isles. Luckily for us, James Bond intervened just in time and, in the final reel, blew up the base. Or, rather, a model of the base.The arrow on the cable car’s altimeter is tipping 3,000m when, ahead, the peaked roof of Piz Gloria appears.

The striking mountain structure was discovered by chance in May 1968 by the location scout for the Bond movie, Hubert Fröhlich. Half-finished and running out of money, the project managers were saved from bankruptcy by signing a deal with Bond producers Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli. Their film company, Eon, would pay for the completion and interior fit-out of the mountain station, and construct a new power station and helipad. The locals could keep it all after shooting on one condition: they close off the peak for filming during the upcoming winter season. And so, at 8am on October 21st, 1968, the 120-strong cast and crew gathered at Piz Gloria to begin filming of the sixth James Bond movie.

It was a new departure for the Bond franchise in more ways than one. Half of the movie was to be shot on location after director Peter Hunt convinced Broccoli and Saltzman they should stick closely to Ian Fleming’s original novel and dispense with the gimmickry of previous Bond outings.

The other departure was Bond himself. Sean Connery’s walkout after You Only Live Twice triggered a frantic search for a successor and, after testing some 300 hopefuls, producers settled on unknown Australian car salesman and model George Lazenby who had slipped into auditions and lied about his film credits.“I told them I had made films in China and Czechoslovakia, anywhere I hoped they couldn’t check,” said Lazenby later.

He got the part and descended with the rest of the Bond team on the Alpine village of Mürren. Located at the base of the Schilthorn, Mürren is a pretty place with wooden huts and no cars. Diana Rigg was the locals’ favourite, hot off her run as Emma Peel on The Avengers and now playing Tracy, the doomed Bond girl. Locals remember Rigg as the woman who gave her hotel owner’s then five-month old baby its first taste of Champagne. Telly Savalas, before his Kojak fame, spent his time off from playing Blofeld drinking and gambling. Lazenby, meanwhile, soon felt the pressure of being the new Bond. He took crash courses in speaking and acting to sand down his rough Australian edges but, plagued by negative gossip on set and in the press, he took to drinking and throwing tantrums to mask his insecurity.

Locals saw little of the on-set tension and Peter Vollmer, an extra in crowd scenes, recalls the shoot as a happy experience.

“We didn’t have any idea what to expect but there was a familiar, warm atmosphere on set,” said Vollmer, later a Swiss MP.

Stepping out of the cable car atop the Schilthorn, the sun is strong and the sky a deep blue. The landscape is simply staggering, dominated by the three snowy peaks of the Mönch, Jungfrau and Eiger, notorious for its treacherous northern face.

After a few minutes on the helipad my attention turns from the view to my rapidly freezing fingers. Inside the base I ascend the spiral staircase used by the kilt-wearing Lazenby to the upper lounge. Sadly, little remains of the original 1960s set, the wood panelling, orange carpet and Chesterfield sofas, though, thankfully, the revolving restaurant remains. It allows diners enjoy a full Alpine panoramic view every 47 minutes.

Blofeld has long gone, but visitors can explore his short tenancy on the peak in the new slick and immersive Bond World 007 museum downstairs. It’s an interactive experience: fly up to Piz Gloria in the original helicopter, now a simulator, or race down the peak in a bobsled simulator. A huge touchscreen table offers a wealth of multimedia material while, on the walls, are memorabilia and screens where cast and crew tell production tales. One stuntman recalls fondly the free whiskey that caused near-fatal accidents.

And let’s not forget the 12 ladies hired to play Blofeld’s patients.

To pass the time and keep the male crew at arm’s length they all took up crocheting at the behest of an unknown actor-model called Joanna Lumley, who has a small role as an unnamed English woman with an allergy to veal.

A crucial part of the lasting appeal of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is its Schilthorn chase scenes, captured by Swiss ski champion Willy Bogner. Originally hired to do stunts, Bogner soon strapped a camera around his body and skied downhill backwards to film the chase scenes. Meanwhile, a second cameraman filmed the action while dangling from a harness attached to a helicopter.

The movie’s most spectacular scene, an avalanche, was triggered by tossing 150kg of live explosives onto a glacier above an uninhabited valley. Some 200,000 tonnes of snow and ice began roaring downhill, the air pressure knocking over the camera crew. They recovered and the inferno they captured made its way into the final edit. Even today, the glacier is still missing 300m of ice.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service finished filming in May 1969 but, before its December release, Lazenby announced that it had been his first and last outing as James Bond. Crucial in his decision was the advice of his close friend Ronan O’Rahilly, the Irish businessman and founder of Radio Caroline. “It was the era of Easy Rider, make love not war, so I didn’t think a man with short hair in a suit who kills people has much of a future,” admitted Lazenby at the opening of the Bond World exhibit. “When I look back I should have done two, then I probably would have stayed for seven.”

The Connery shadow, the negative set gossip and Lazenby’s premature exit all contributed to a weak opening for the movie. Furious producers scapegoated Lazenby, labeled On Her Majesty’s Secret Service a misadventure and pushed it down a memory hole. Today it is a favourite among Bond obsessives and, in time, even the production crew warmed to their flawed leading man.

“He should have gone on and done others,” said director Peter Hunt later. “I think he could have been a very credible and successful Bond.”

A thick fog has descended on the Schilthorn and it is time to depart Piz Gloria for Mürren. Almost half a century on, the villagers still laugh about when James Bond and his team came to stay: the endless parties, the infamous gonorrhoea epidemic and the “Bond babies” still said to live in their midst.

On the peak above, Piz Gloria vanishes into the freezing fog, a monument to the world’s favourite secret agent and one of his most striking screen outings.

See schilthorn.ch.

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