The Life of Syd Cain, Production Designer and Brother

Syd Cain (16 April 1918 – 21 November 2011) was a British production designer known primarily for his work on the James Bond series of films. In old age, he became a Brother of the Charterhouse, where he demonstrated his gift as a satirical cartoonist, and entertained his fellow Brothers with tales of the film industry and his time in the Royal Air Force during World War II.

While enlisted in the RAF, his plane crashed in Rhodesia, leaving him with a broken back and several other injuries. He later survived being struck by lightning.

Born in Grantham, Lincolnshire, Cain started his film career working as an uncredited draughtsman (on Adam and Evelyne, The Interrupted Journey, You Know What Sailors Are and Up to His Neck), then became an assistant art director (for The Gamma People, Fire Down Below, Interpol, How to Murder a Rich Uncle and The World of Suzie Wong).

He developed a habit in these early years of slipping his name on to the screen among documents provided as props: for instance, in Carol Reed’s Our Man in Havana (1959), where the blueprints for a vacuum cleaner are mistaken for rocket secrets, he is listed on the papers as the designer of the device.

The first James Bond film that he worked on was Dr No, taking over as art director whenever veteran Ken Adam was not available. He was not credited in the film’s titles, and so, by way of apology, producer Cubby Broccoli gifted him a solid gold pen, explaining it would have cost too much to correct the error.

In the next film of the series, From Russia with Love, Cain designed the gadgets issued to Sean Connery’s Bond, notably the briefcase with concealed sniper rifle and tear-gas talcum tin. Cain also provided Rosa Klebb’s shoes, with poison-tipped blade, and the chess-themed decor of Blofeld’s lair.

He worked on five Bond films in total: Dr. No, From Russia with Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Live and Let Die and Golden Eye.

Although he is remembered primarily for his work on these films, Cain’s other credits are no less impressive. He worked with a number of notable film-makers throughout the 1960s and 70s, as assistant art director for Stanley Kubrick (Lolita, 1962), art director for Ronald Neame (Mister Moses, 1965) and François Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451, 1966), executive art director for Richard Lester (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, 1966) and production designer for Ken Russell (Billion Dollar Brain, 1967), Alfred Hitchcock (Frenzy, 1972) and Jack Gold (Aces High, 1976).

He was also art director on the Cliff Richard vehicle Summer Holiday (1963) and production designer of the revival series The New Avengers (1976). After the popular, action-oriented Alistair Maclean adventure Fear Is the Key (1973), Cain became associated with a brand of high adventure that grew out of the Bond films, working with Peter R Hunt (director of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) on the Moore movies Gold (1974) and Shout at the Devil (1976), both set in Africa, and with the producer Euan Lloyd on a series of boozy, British macho epics – The Wild Geese (1978), The Sea Wolves (1980) and Who Dares Wins (1982).

Cain retired as a production designer after Tusks (1988), but contributed storyboards to a select run of high-profile films, including Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). His final credit was on the Michael Caine boxing movie Shiner (2000).

He illustrated children books in his retirement, wrote an autobiography (Not Forgetting James Bond: The Autobiography of James Bond Production Designer Syd Cain, 2002) and drew cartoons for the amusement of his fellow Charterhouse Brothers. He married twice and is survived by his five sons and three daughters.

Below are several cartoons that Cain drew while a Brother at the Charterhouse.

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Recent comments

  • My family and his grew up together. He lost his first wife Margerate when she was very young. She is survived by their 5 children. Some of them have gone into the film industry. He married again twice after her death I believe and had more children. He was the first person I knew to have an E-type Jaguar.He was a good looking man very suave and knew it.,! I remember watching him draw scenes from different films he was working on, on a huge board in his home,all free hand,so very talented. He had a good life.

  • what does G.F.A.D. ( from beginning credits of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”) stand for?

  • I grew up in a place called “Greenford” and we were most proud to have as one of our residents (who lived a stones’ throw from my family home) none other than Mr Syd Cain…….. “I’ve been expecting you Mr Bond”

  • I played cricket for the RAFA( Royal Air Force Auxilaries) with Syd Cain in the early sixties at a ground in West Ealing, London. Also on the team was Ken Adam who with Syd were key members of the production team for the first James Bond movies. Both lived into their 90’s and Ken had a long successful career in the film industry including winning an Oscar for art and set direction.

  • Hello – thanks for your comment!
    Strangely, my parents were friends with Ken Adam!

  • Syd Cain was my uncle. He is the most charismatic man I have ever known. As a little girl I was in awe of my handsome and unassuming uncle and so very excited whenever he visited us with his glamorous wife, my aunt Angela. A true gentleman in every sense of the word.

  • G.F.A.D. apparently stands for “Guild of Film Art Directors”, which has changed its name to “British Film Designers Guild”.

  • some years ago when two of his other sons were trying to fathom what made Syd tick it was agreed after a long discussion that there was nothing to fathom out . So , as a father , he remained an inigma as a parent .

  • I had the pleasure of taking care of this wonderful man when I took him to his local hospital in his latter years. Myself and my crew mate formed a wonderful friendship with him and had the pleasure of being shown some of his set models and beautiful artwork in his home. I remember I made him a keyring with bells on so he could tell he had picked his keys up. I was so honoured that he actually used it. Wonderful man. So privileged to have known him.

  • My Grandmother, Olive Herbert, (née Cain), was Syd’s cousin. She would tell us how they grew up together, and were quite close, after my grandmother’s father died (brother of Tom Cain… Syd’s dad).
    I have some lovely photographs of Syd, his first wife and eldest sons with my grandparents.
    And Syd’s mothers ‘death card’.
    I wish I could have met Syd as an adult, but I was too young to remember meeting him.

  • Thank you for your message. It’s always really interesting to hear news of former Brothers.

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