visionary scenic designer
Harry Pottle (1925-1999) was a prolific designer for film and television, based for most of his career in Great Britain. Pottle never achieved the celebrity of his colleague Ken Adam, production designer for many5of the James Bond films, but plaudits from directors, actors, fellow art directors and draftsmen who worked under Pottle reveal him as very much a "designer's designer," a consummate professional with an enviable instinct and a well-honed understanding of the nuances of his art and craft. His work on The Avengers was singled out for praise by the series' star, Patrick Macnee, in the latter's memoir of his years playing the debonair agent John Steed on The Avengers and The New Avengers.
Pottle began his career in film as a trainee draftsman, working at Denham Studios for one of the great cinematic entrepreneurs of the British film industry, the producer Alexander Korda. From uncredited beginnings on Korda's Anna Karenina in 1948, Pottle had risen by the mid-1950s to be a principal art director, and between 1959 and 1963 designed a dozen films. Some of these were produced at great speed—the industry term for such movies was the "three-weeker"—and called for great ingenuity in use of available resources. This was to serve Pottle well in the next phase of his career.
In 1963, Pottle moved into television, working now at Elstree Studios for the small television production company Independent Artists. His first assignment for the company was on The Human Jungle [fig. 2]. This noir-esque series was based around the casebook of a psychiatrist played by the distinguished character actor Herbert Lom (now best known as the psychotic Inspector Dreyfuss in the Pink Panther movies). Apart from the rapidity of the shooting schedule, for which his years working on "three-weekers" had fully prepared him, Pottle faced unusual challenges with The Human Jungle. Its lead actor was particular about the angle from which he liked to be filmed, and his slight stature required special accommodation in the design of sets, to ensure that his character was appropriately imposing on screen. Therefore, the world of The Human Jungle was built—scaled, in fact—around its lead performer.
The Human Jungle ended after two seasons, and in 1964 Independent Artists moved Pottle to work on to their new asset—The Avengers. Whereas The Human Jungle had required essentially realist design imagery, The Avengers offered Pottle the opportunity to produce sets that were as widely varied in style and tone as the series' tongue-in-cheek thriller stories. His dexterous juggling of kitsch, expressionist, hyperrealist and minimalist design, sometimes within the span of a single episode, deliciously underscored the mixture of menace and levity, satire and pathos, that characterized so many episodes of the 1964-5 series. Arguably among the best work of his career, Pottle's designs indubitably represented a high point of wit and sophistication in the visual style of The Avengers, never subsequently matched in the three seasons produced after his 1965 departure from Independent Artists.
After electing to leave Independent Artists, in part because of the grueling schedule of the two television shows, Pottle returned to film, initially to join, rather than head, an art department. He worked under Ken Adam on back-to-back movies for Eon Films: the musical Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang [fig. 3] (1968) and the unprecedentedly epic fifth outing for James Bond: You Only Live Twice (1967). Pottle left extensive notes concerning his work on Bond and retained a couple of sheets of his designs for one of You Only Live Twice's most memorable elements—the futuristic monorail trains in the villain's hidden volcano-crater lair [fig. 4].
In 1969 Pottle returned to the role of principal art director with a made-for-TV movie that reunited him with the stars of both his earlier television shows (as well as an array of other Avengers alums behind the camera). Patrick Macnee took the title role in Mister Jerico [fig. 5], a caper movie that pitted his suave con-man against Herbert Lom as the villainous Victor Rosso. If it was intended as a pilot, Mister Jerico was never picked up. Within a year, though, Pottle was principal art director on a similarly slick crime-based television series for ITC. The Persuaders! [fig. 6] starred Tony Curtis and Roger Moore as two globe-trotting millionaires, and called for the lavish, Bond-like chic and spectacle that Pottle was able to produce with such understated ease. The Persuaders! was his last extended television project.
Pottle's later career in feature films ran the stylistic gamut from Blake Edwards' The Tamarind Seed (1974), an affecting cold-war romantic drama starring Julie Andrews and Omar Sharif, to Loose Cannons (1990), which paired Gene Hackman and Dan Ackroyd as two ill-assorted crime fighters in a madcap buddy movie. Overall, though, thrillers became something of a Pottle stock-in-trade in the late 1970s, ranging from remakes of The Thirty Nine Steps and The Big Sleep (1978), respectively starring Robert Powell and Robert Mitchum, to Bear Island (1979), an Alistair Maclean story set on an arctic island [fig. 7]. This last featured an all-star cast and demanded a "giant set" (or at least the appearance of one) in the form of a vast submarine dock, studiedly rivaling the lavish spectacle of recent Bond movies.
Murder By Decree (1979) was the most critically acclaimed of the movies on which Pottle worked in his later career—and the plaudits are in no small measure due to the much-praised, lavish and atmospheric production design [fig. 8]. Starring Christopher Plummer and James Mason, Murder By Decree is generally regarded as one of the best Sherlock Holmes films ever made, pitting the great detective against the infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper.
Although it is not as obviously eye-catching as the film's more grandiose sets, such as the Star Chamber in which the denouement takes place, Pottle's greatest achievement on Murder By Decree was a deceptively small composite set representing a complex of streets in the East End of London. The scene of the Ripper's crimes was a masterpiece of compression and trompe l'oeil. Constructing a series of spaces in which the camera could travel unencumbered through what appeared to be a dense labyrinth of roadways and alleys, Pottle used forced perspectives and irregular angles to create the illusion that the "buildings" had much more mass than was actually the case. In some instances they were little more than glorified flats.
Murder By Decree is a testament to the production designer's skill in creating spaces that were visually engaging in the best sense while at the same time totally belying their own facture. Yet if this kind of "reticence" is in one way the touchstone of the designer's art, it is still Harry Pottle's work on The Avengers which most fully represents the subtlety and scope of his imagination as a designer. With all its practical limitations in terms of tight scheduling and budget, The Avengers allowed Pottle to give rein to his playfulness in a way that few other projects did, before or after. Pottle's genius, as the images in this exhibit should attest, was not that he simply took The Avengers' license to be "wacky," but that he echoed the scripts' ethos of knife-edge irony and ambivalence with surgical precision.