I pulled my goggles down over my eyes and pulled up my ski mask to cover my face. Not just to keep out the cold – although the tail end of an overnight blizzard was still blowing down the main street of the Swiss mountain village of Wengen.
But also, it seemed sensible to take basic precautions on this particular mission. Who knew what prying eyes could be peering through the ice-frosted windows of the charming chalets lining the road?
I looked up and down the snow-swept street. No one appeared to be following me. A shadowy figure, in ski hat and sunglasses, was waiting for me at the entrance to the village’s Mannlichen cable car.
I approached him. ‘My name is Freeman,’ I said. ‘Rob Freeman.’
‘Ah, Mr Freeman,’ he replied over the howl of the wind. ‘I have been expecting you.’
‘Do you expect us to talk in this weather?’ I said.
‘No, Mr Freeman, I expect us to ski,’ he replied.
Zürcher, Stefan Zürcher, was as good as his word. The time it took for the cable car to soar to Mannlichen, at the heart of Wengen’s skiing, was all it needed for the weather to shake off its stormy face and take on an altogether more friendly appearance. The sky had turned from grey to blue and the slopes were in great shape.
As was Mr Zurcher, better known to many as James Bond’s stuntman.
For a blast around the marvellously scenic runs of Wengen, who better to be your guide than the man who has been responsible, for nearly 50 years, for many of the most thrilling and hazardous stunts in a succession of 007 films?
On chairlifts between ski runs I took the opportunity to interrogate him. I discovered that 73-year-old Stefan’s career has been inextricably intertwined with that of Bond on film. Wengen born and bred, he moved to Vail in Colorado when he was 20 to work as a ski instructor.
‘I started doing some work as a skier in TV commercials,’ he told me. ‘That made me decide that films were where my real calling lay. One thing led to another and in 1969 I worked as stuntman/skier on On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the first of ten Bond films I’ve been fortunate to be involved in. That was when I became a member of the Bond family.’
In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (the one with George Lazenby as Bond and Diana Rigg as the tragic love interest) Stefan performed various skiing and snowmobiling stunts, including as a skiing thug who comes to a sticky end in a mountain chase scene.
Villain-in-chief Blofeld’s mountain lair was the then recently-built revolving restaurant at Schilthorn above Mürren, the little ski resort lying opposite Wengen. But the skiing chase scenes were mainly shot at Saas Fee, near Zermatt. Christmas celebration scenes were shot at Grindelwald, the skiing of which links with Wengen.
For some of the ski chase action the cameras were handheld, with the operators going downhill with the stunt skiers. Other shots were aerial, with daredevil cameraman Johnny Jordan dangling by an 18ft long parachute harness rigged below a helicopter, a system he had designed himself. Nowadays a drone is a safer option for such filming!
A bobsleigh chase was filmed with the help of Swiss Winter Olympic athletes – the scenes rewritten to make use of footage where the stunt skiers had crashed during earlier filming.
Telly Savalas played Blofeld and the part where he became trapped in a tree was performed in the studio by the actor himself after attempts to use a stuntman on location failed to look realistic enough!
Avalanche scenes were due to be filmed in co-operation with the Swiss army, but the location area chosen avalanched naturally just before filming. The final result in the movie was a combination of a man-made avalanche at another isolated Swiss location, stock footage and images created by the special effects crew with salt.
Stefan told me of the hilarious conversation between the director and his assistants as they sought a good location for the snow slide. ‘That is the place to avalanche,’ said the director, pointing to a remote spot higher up the mountain. ‘No, no,’ protested one of the crew – the man in charge of feeding everyone, cast and production staff. ‘We’ll never get the catering vans up there.’
‘Catering vans?’ asked a puzzled director. ‘What do you mean, catering vans?’ – then realisation slowly dawned. ‘Ah…no…I said avalanche, not have a lunch.’ The embarrassed catering boss was never allowed to forget it, and a meal break is still often referred to as ‘avalanche’ time on Bond sets today.
Stefan has been involved with films including The Spy Who Loved Me, A View to a Kill, The Living Daylights, Golden Eye, The World Is Not Enough, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall and Spectre, as well as Downhill Racer with Robert Redford, The Golden Compass and many others – including, intriguingly, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
In an early stunt he made a 120ft leap on skis on to the roof of a moving car. And one of his proudest achievements is planning and carrying out the stunning chase through a mountain forest of a Range Rover by a plane in Spectre, which ended with the plane crashing into the car. Split second timing, and the cunning use of directional cables erased from the film, were needed. And they got through a number of identical planes with a series of takes.
‘For me, that scene was 15 months’ work for 15 minutes’ screen time,’ said Stefan.
Accompanying us on the sublime slopes of Wengen was Stefan’s lovely partner Corine. Their back story would make a wonderfully romantic film in itself. Stefan and Corine were childhood sweethearts – then went their separate ways, Stefan into films and she into the music business in America.
Forty years later Corine returned to Switzerland, visited Wengen and she and Stefan again met by chance. It was instant renewed love for both of them and they have been together ever since. You couldn’t write it. Oh, but I think Stefan has.
Rob stayed at the delightful Hotel Schoenegg in Wengen, where rooms are from 990 Swiss francs for three nights in a classic double room on a half-board basis, including taxi to and from the railway station. www.hotel-schoenegg.ch/en/
Ski hire from Molitor Sport, (10 per cent discount if booked in advance online) www.molitor.ch/en/
Jungfrau ski pass: 204 Swiss francs for three days. www.jungfrau.ch/shop/en/skipass/