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A tribute to Richard Attenborough

richard-attenborough-1975 Richard Attenborough in 1975. Photo: Verhoeff/Bert/Anefo/Dutch National Archives
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Nick Smurthwaite takes a look back at the life and career of actor and director Richard Attenborough

With his energy, ebullience and enthusiasm, Richard Attenborough often seemed to have bounded out of a novel by Dickens: a hearty Victorian philanthropist with a cheery word for everyone and a mission to put the world to rights.

He often said in interviews that his greatest gift had been the radical activist upbringing he and his brother David had been given by their bookish, right-thinking parents. A punishing work ethic was evidently also part of that legacy. A self-confessed workaholic, family, friends and colleagues found it hard to keep up with him. “Relaxation is not in my nature,” he once told a journalist.

Over a 60-year career that encompassed stage acting, film stardom, directing seemingly impossible films, producing others, chairmanship of the British Film Institute, presidency of BAFTA, deputy chairmanship of Channel 4, chairmanship of Capital Radio, pro-Chancellor of Sussex University, he only stopped putting himself in the way of work when he became physically unable.

[pullquote]20 years in the making, Gandhi was proof he possessed superhuman tenacity as well as grit[/pullquote]

We mere mortals would read this masochistic litany of commitments and wonder how on earth he ever found the time to direct extraordinary films like Oh What a Lovely War, Young Winston, A Bridge Too Far, Cry Freedom, Chaplin, A Chorus Line, Shadowlands and of course the towering achievement that was Gandhi, the film that took him 20 years to bring to the screen, proof if it were needed that he possessed superhuman tenacity as well as grit.

In his youth, in the 1930s, Attenborough was the despair of his academic father, failing his school certificate and spending all his spare time at the Little Theatre in Leicester, where he grew up. His father offered to back his acting ambitions provided he gained a scholarship to RADA, which he did.

He made his professional stage debut in 1941, aged 18, at the Intimate Theatre, Palmers Green, in a little known Eugene O’Neill comedy entitled Ah, Wilderness! Shortly before joining the RAF in 1943 he made his mark in the West End, playing the psychotic Pinkie in a stage adaptation of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, which went on to be filmed by John Boulting, with Attenborough repeating his acclaimed performance in 1947.

Almost from the start, his film and stage careers ran along parallel lines, making his screen debut at 19 in Noel Coward’s In Which we Serve, based on incidents involving the Royal Navy ship commanded by Lord Mountbatten. In typical ‘Dickie’ fashion, both Coward and Mountbatten remained close friends until their deaths.

[pullquote]He was cast as the boy next door or a quivering naval psychopath[/pullquote]

The films he made after the war – A Matter of Life and Death, The Guinea Pig, London Belongs to Me etc – cast him, as he put it, as “either the boy next door or a quivering psychopath on the lower decks of His Majesty’s navy”. In the late 1940s and 1950s his ever-youthful looks often saw him cast much younger than his years.

What helped him out of that type-casting rut was his decision to produce and star in The Angry Silence in 1960. Part of the vogue for realistic film dramas of that time, it concerned a factory worker being ostracised and abused by his fellow workers for not agreeing to go on strike.

His producing role extended to other films (Whistle Down the Wind, The L-Shaped Room, Seance on a Wet Afternoon) during the 1960s, as well as the occasional acting role (notably in this period his turn as a bristling regimental sergeant major in Guns at Batasi), before he finally took the directorial reins in 1969 with Oh What a Lovely War, a striking and star-studded adaptation of Joan Littlewood’s vehemently anti-war musical.

This characteristically flamboyant directing debut was followed up by the first of a series of films that both celebrated and scrutinised Attenborough’s heroes – Winston Churchill (Young Winston, 1972), Mahatma Gandhi (Gandhi, 1982), Steve Biko (Cry Freedom, 1987) and CS Lewis (Shadowlands, 1993).

Although he continued to make impressive forays into performance (Reginald Christie in 10 Rillington Place, General Outram in The Chess Players), by the mid 1980s Attenborough was feted as the fearless conqueror of movie mountains nobody else thought it possible to climb.

[pullquote]On one occasion he became two jeeps, complete with engine noises, and on another an elevator containing several security policemen[/pullquote]

On location, as the man in charge, he was in his element. In a 1987 article for the Sunday Times, journalist Donald Woods, whose book on Steve Biko had been the inspiration for Cry Freedom, wrote of Attenborough the director: “He would act out several roles and even supply sound effects. On one occasion he became two jeeps, complete with engine noises, and on another an elevator containing several security policemen.”

“He was, at various times, a barking dog, a telephone ringing, a gun being fired and a child screaming. When his assistant director offered to get someone else to simulate the screaming to save the Attenborough larynx, Sir Richard said, ‘Not on your life, I like doing it!’”

Through all this he was, of course, fulfilling umpteen other roles for umpteen other organisations and charities. He was even, at one point, invited by Laurence Olivier to take over the running of the National Theatre because Olivier, a lifelong friend, believed he would ensure that it continued as an actors’ theatre as opposed to a directors’ theatre.

In an interview after the event, Attenborough said, “I knew I simply didn’t have the credentials for it. I didn’t have the academic background, the range and depth of literary history. The vital thing is, know your level, what you can do. Then make sure you do it better than anyone else.”

Richard Attenborough died on August 24th. He was 90 years old.

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