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Obituary: Richard Attenborough

Richard Attenborough after winning Oscars for best director and best picture for Gandhi in 1982. Picture: Granada Television

A towering figure in Britain’s cultural life over the past half-century, Richard Attenborough will be best remembered as one of the most articulate advocates for a domestic film industry both in front of and behind the camera.

As an actor he made more than 70 films, beginning with an uncredited appearance in 1942’s Noel Coward-scripted In Which We Serve, and concluding in 2004 with the Spanish animation Tres en el Camino. His breakthrough came in 1947, playing the murderous Pinkie Brown in Brighton Rock, a role he had played in the West End at the Garrick Theatre four years earlier.

A character actor of immense resources, Attenborough’s performances were often mesmerising lessons in understatement, equally convincing in knockabout comedies (Private’s Progress, 1956), domestic dramas (Seance on a Wet Afternoon, 1964; 10 Rillington Place, 1971), costumed war epics (Dunkirk, 1958; Conduct Unbecoming, 1977) or Hollywood fantasies (Jurassic Park, 1993).

As a director, he showed the same compelling gift for capturing telling individual details within an often vast scale. He produced his first film, The Angry Silence, in 1960 and made his directorial debut in 1969 with Oh! What a Lovely War. Other films included Young Winston (1972), A Bridge Too Far (1977), Cry Freedom (1987), Chaplin (1992), Shadowlands (1993) and his 1982 portrait of Gandhi, which won him Oscars for best director and best picture.

Born in Cambridge, Attenborough was educated in Leicester where, aged 12, he produced and appeared in his first show, a variety bill. While at RADA, he was a regular with the Intimate Theatre in London’s Palmers Green. In 1942, he appeared in Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing at the Arts Theatre, which transferred to the Cambridge Theatre for his West End debut. He returned to the West End several times: in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes at the Piccadilly Theatre (also in 1942); in 1949 for Arthur Laurents’ The Way Back (Westminster); and in 1952 for the comedy Sweet Madness (Vaudeville).

That year, he played Detective Sergeant Trotter, alongside his wife Sheila Sim as Mollie Ralston, in the first-run cast of The Mousetrap (Ambassadors).

Although filming commitments would soon take Attenborough away from the theatre, later appearances included the thriller Double Image (Savoy, 1956) and, in one of his last stage roles, as Theseus in Benn W Levy’s satire The Rape of the Belt at the Grand Theatre, Leeds in 1957.

Out of public view, Attenborough was a tireless campaigner for better conditions for actors. He remained an active campaigner throughout his life and held a number of influential positions.

He was elected to the Equity Council in 1957, the management board of the actors’ rest home Denville Hall in 1962 (overseeing its rebuilding and enlargement in 1969), RADA’s governing council in 1965 (succeeding Felix Aylmer as chair in 1970) and the board of the newly independent Young Vic in 1975.

Attenborough’s influence was also felt in radio and television. In 1973, he co-founded the Capital Radio consortium that won one of the UK’s first commercial radio licences, and played an instrumental role in Capital’s purchase of the Duke of York’s Theatre in 1978. He also launched a prize for new radio playwrights in 1980.

On the board of Channel 4 television, he oversaw its successful launch in 1980 and became its chair, stepping down in 1992. Other board memberships included BAFTA (of which he was made a fellow in 1983), the European Script Fund and the British Film Institute.

He was appointed a CBE in 1956, knighted in 1976 and made a life peer in 1993.

Having survived a coma in 2008, he was confined to a wheelchair in 2011 and joined Sim, whom he married in 1945, in Denville Hall in 2012.

Born on August 29, 1923, Richard Attenborough died, five days before his 91st birthday, on August 24. He is survived by his wife, daughter and son, the director Michael Attenborough.

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