Don Ashton

Production designer on films such as 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' who moved into hotel design

Don Ashton was one of the cinema's finest production designers for over 20 years, responsible for such notable creations as the jungle camp and bridge for
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), an ornate 18th-century warship for
Billy Budd (1962), and a seaside pier of stylised grandeur for
Oh! What a Lovely War (1969). His last film,
Young Winston (1973), earned him an Oscar nomination.

Donald Martin Ashton, film and hotel designer: born Edmonton, Middlesex 26 June 1919; married 1945 Helen Horsfall (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved), 1975 Joan Baron (died 2004; one son, one daughter); died Compton Dundon, Somerset 25 August 2004.

Don Ashton was one of the cinema's finest production designers for over 20 years, responsible for such notable creations as the jungle camp and bridge for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), an ornate 18th-century warship for Billy Budd (1962), and a seaside pier of stylised grandeur for Oh! What a Lovely War (1969). His last film, Young Winston (1973), earned him an Oscar nomination.

When he left films, it was to concentrate on a second career as a designer of hotels and restaurants, particularly in Asia. His most famous is the magnificent Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong, regarded as one of the most elegant hotels in the world. Its main restaurant, the Clipper Lounge, takes its name from the huge golden figurehead that stands guard at the head of the entrance staircase. Originally designed for the prow of the sailing ship in Billy Budd, it was transported to Hong Kong by Ashton in 1963 to complete his interior design.

Born Donald Martin Ashton in Edmonton, London, in 1917, and educated at Boxlane School, Palmers Green, Ashton was the son of a wine buyer. After training as an architect, he served with Lord Louis Mountbatten's unit during the Second World War, then joined the film industry in 1947 at the suggestion of Emlyn Williams.

The first film on which he worked was John Boulting's tense version of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock (1947), starring Richard Attenborough, who was to employ Ashton many years later to design two of the films he directed. The settings of British films at the time often seemed austere and sparse compared to those of Hollywood, and Ashton, working as art director, quickly drew attention with the opulent interiors he created for a dowager's stately home in Portrait of Clare (1950) and for the lavish apartments of the villain in J. Lee Thompson's thriller Murder Without Crime (1950). In this adaptation of Thompson's stage play, Dennis Price was the high-living blackmailer who accidentally drinks the poison one of his victims has prepared as a suicide potion for himself.

Lewis Milestone's exciting tale of a commando mission, They Who Dare (1953), was notable as the first colour film on which Ashton worked, and also because Milestone is said to have torn up the script and let his star, Dirk Bogarde, improvise as they went along. The Purple Plain (1954), starring Gregory Peck, took Ashton to Ceylon, to which he returned four years later as production designer on David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai.

The Oscar-winning epic was set in 1942 when the Japanese were building what was called "the death railway", running from Bangkok to Rangoon, using Allied prisoners as slave labour. The original bridge had been in Thailand but Ashton found that the area was not only flat and not at all wild, but a bridge had already been built there. During the war he had been stationed in Ceylon, and, as he told Lean's biographer Kevin Brownlow, "During my sojourn there, I remembered there were plenty of mountains and jungles and rivers, so I went to have a look."

It proved an ideal location, and Ashton then informed Lean and the producer Sam Spiegel that the bridge would take at least a year to build and that they should start - this was before many key roles had even been cast. When Spiegel hesitated, suggesting that the project could still collapse, Ashton replied that, at worst, he would have a bridge for sale, and Spiegel gave his consent. Some months later, Lean wrote to Spiegel from the location that "the bridge will look terrific", also stating, "You will be thrilled by the prison camp. Don has got several of the huts up and one can see exactly what it is going to look like." (Ashton's bridge, in fact, was similar to the Forth railway bridge, and bore little resemblance to the original.)

Brownlow recounts the elaborate arrangements for the crucial filming of the bridge's climactic blowing up, with five cameras concealed in dugouts with trenches for the camera crew:

Ashton designed a control panel, a wooden board consisting of light bulbs set in a circle, one for each of the five cameras, two for security, and one in the centre which indicated that the engine driver had reached the entry point to the bridge, and had jumped from the locomotive. Each camera position was linked to the control by field telephones. It was agreed beforehand that David would not give the order to blow up the bridge until that circle of lights was complete.

In fact, because one of the cameramen forgot to switch on his light, the first attempt had to be aborted, but the second produced the sequence as seen on film.

In complete contrast to his war films, Ashton's next three projects were elegant, sophisticated comedies. In Stanley Donen's delightful Indiscreet (1958), based on Norman Krasna's play Kind Sir, Ingrid Bergman played a successful actress who lives in regal style and is wooed by Cary Grant, who evades commitment by pretending that he is married, leading to Bergman's oft-quoted line when she discovers the truth, "How dare he make love to me when he isn't a married man!"

It was a lot funnier than Jean Negulesco's Count Your Blessings (1959), based on Nancy Mitford's novel The Blessing and starring Deborah Kerr, or Donen's next comedy, Surprise Package (1960). The latter misfired despite a cast including Yul Brynner as a gangster deported from the US to a Greek island where a king, played by Noël Coward, lives in exile, but both films benefited from resplendent sets by Ashton.

He created a seedier world for Otto Preminger's thriller Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), contributing to the psychological thriller's offbeat mood of unsettling suspense. He was nominated for a Bafta award for the film, and followed it with Chaplin's A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren and set mainly on a luxury liner, The Bobo (1967) with Peter Sellers, and The Magus (1968), based on John Fowles's complex novel and starring Michael Caine.

In 1969 he won the Bafta award for Oh! What a Lovely War, Richard Attenborough's transcription of the stage hit which counterpointed the jingoistic songs of the First World War with the grim realities. Faced with the difficulty of translating an abstract satire to the screen, Attenborough and the writer Len Deighton chose to set most of film as an attraction on Brighton's West Pier (now controversially derelict), and Ashton created an appropriately stylised backdrop of both the pier and Brighton Pavilion to enhance the work of an all-star cast. His last film was Attenborough's Young Winston, an enjoyable epic biography of Winston Churchill as a young man, for which Ashton was nominated for an Oscar.

The first hotel he designed, the five-star Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong, had been built in 1963, and resulted in commissions to design more Mandarin hotels plus many of the Sheraton hotels that were being built around the world. Such projects made him a very wealthy man, with homes in Mayfair and Amersham, Buckinghamshire. Later he lived for 20 years in Hong Kong.

Tom Vallance

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