The Boulting Brothers film ‘Brighton Rock’ from 1947 was my introduction to Richard Attenborough. I’m not entirely sure when I first saw it, but the screenplay adapted from the 1938 novel of the same name by Graham Greene and the acting from all involved in the film, certainly left a long lasting impression on me. Attenborough, as the baby faced Catholic gang leader Pinkie Brown, was simply superb in the role. Cold and nasty in equal measure.
I quickly sought out his other acting roles, in films such as ‘The Guinea Pig’ and ‘The Angry Silence.’ He of course went on to direct huge films with huge budgets, but it is only, as I have got older that I became fully aware of his body of work. As he lived till 90 and there was a lot of it, so I had better crack on.
He was born in 1923 to parents Margaret and Frederick. Mum was a founder of the Marriage Guidance Council and dad was an academic. Richard was raised in a ‘cultural hot house’ environment, with his brothers David, the world famous and much loved TV presenter and ecologist and John, later to be a top executive at Alfa Romeo. Margaret was big on social responsibility, fund raising in aid of Basque children during the Spanish civil war and later adopting Jewish refugee sisters, Helga and Bejach after the Second World War.
Richard or Dick, as he was known in the family, went to a local grammar school in Leicester and began acting at the local church from the age of 12, before going on to RADA on a scholarship.
Of that audition he said ‘I remember it well. My ma took me on a train down from Leicester and we stayed in the Strand Palace Hotel. We walked over to Goodge Street, and I made her stand on the corner so it didn’t look like I was being brought along by my mother.’
He began his professional acting career on the stage aged 18, before appearing aged 19 as a cowardly sailor in the 1942 film ‘In Which We Serve’ made by Sirs, David Lean and Noel Coward. He also appeared on stage in Brighton Rock, in the role of Pinkie, at the Garrick theatre in 1942 just a few months before he joined the RAF.
There he ending up in their film unit, rising to the rank of sergeant, and flying as a rear gunner recording the many Bomber Command raids.
He picked up his acting career, once out of the services and among the films to mention at the start of his career, include a blink and you’ll miss it part in Powell and Pressburger’s ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ in 1946. Then ‘Brighton Rock’ in 1947 and ‘The Guinea Pig’ in 1948 in which he played a 15 year old working class schoolboy who ends up at a posh public school. He was actually aged 25 at the time of making that and his wife Sheila played the daughter of the housemaster!
In 1952, he and Sheila worked together again, starring in the original production of ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. Attenborough played detective sergeant ‘Trotter.’ They agreed to a profit share from the production as part of their wages, which turned out to be a very wise move, with the Mousetrap running for many years, which it continues to do so of course.
Then came the classic British comedy ‘I’m Alright Jack’ with Peter Sellers, with Dickie in the role as the slippery ‘Sydney de vere Cox’ and ‘The League of Gentleman’ both from 1959. He followed that with ‘The Angry Silence’ in 1960 and that earned him a Bafta nomination playing the part of an anti trade union blackleg. ‘The Great Escape’ in 1963 saw him as ‘Roger Bartlett’ or ‘Big X’ in charge of organising the continual prisoner of war escapes. His role in ‘Séance on a Wet Afternoon’ won him a Bafta in 1964, ‘Flight of the Phoenix’ followed in 1965 and ‘The Sand Pebbles’ as ‘Frenchy’ in 1967 renewed his acquaintance with Steve McQueen and earned a Golden Globe as best supporting actor. He repeated that feat the following year for his role as Albert Blossom in ‘Doctor Doolittle ‘alongside Rex Harrison and who could forget him as mass murderer John Christie’ in 10 Rillington Place from 1971.
His first film in the director’s chair, aged 46, was a version of Joan Littlewood’s ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’ made in 1969. He then moved onto epic productions such as ‘Young Winston’ in 1972, which detailed the early days of Winston Churchill and ‘A Bridge Too Far’ the war drama, set in 1944.
His long time ‘passion project’ however was the film ‘Gandhi.’ He had spent 18 years trying to get it off the ground and he finally succeeded in 1982, starring Ben Kingsley in the lead role. Even with Goldcrest Films, investing two thirds of the 20 million budget, Attenborough then had to invest his own money to keep the production afloat. After selling his remaining ‘Mousetrap’ shares, he said…
‘I was bankrupt several times. I had to mortgage my house. My family suffered to a certain extent,’ he said. ‘I placed things at risk because I cared about it so much.’
Thankfully the film was a massive triumph, winning eight Oscars for – Picture, actor, director, original screenplay, cinematography, art direction, editing and costume design.
‘Gandhi believed if we could but agree, simplistic though it be, that if we do not resort to violence then the route to solving problems would be much different than the one we take.’
Next came ‘A Chorus Line in 1985 and then ‘Cry Freedom’ in 1987, which detailed the life story of anti apartheid activist Steve Biko, played by Denzel Washington and Kevin Kline as journalist Donald Woods. He released ‘Chaplin’ starring Robert Downey Jr. in 1992 and ‘Shadowlands’ with long time favourite Anthony Hopkins as writer C.S.Lewis in 1993.
He himself returned to acting that year in ‘Jurassic Park’ and then its sequel ‘The Lost World’ and played ‘Kris Kringle’ in ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ in 1994.
He was a long term fan of Chelsea Football Club, and indeed had trained with the squad, getting fit for his role in ‘Brighton Rock.’ Later he served on the board of Chelsea for many years, ending up as life president in 2008. When appearing in ‘The Mousetrap’ he made sure that his contract stated that the Saturday matinee could not begin before 5:30, which allowed me to drive up from Stamford Bridge after the Chelsea games. ‘I wore no make-up and didn’t come on stage for the first 19 minutes. There was no reason for me not to pursue my real love – football.’
He married the actress Sheila Sim in 1945, having met her at RADA and they remained husband and wife to the end. They had 3 children, Jane, Michael and Charlotte. Tragedy struck on Boxing Day 2004, when their eldest daughter Jane and her daughter Lucy died in the Tsunami in Thailand.
Richard Attenborough was on the board of many charities and his dedicated work with them is legendary. Over his long and distinguished career, he had picked up many honours, becoming a CBE in 1967 and a Knighthood in 1976. He was then named a life peer in 1993, becoming Baron Attenborough of Richmond upon Thames, serving on the Labour benches in the House of Lords. Overseas honours included the Legion d’Honeur from France, the Padma Bhushan from India, the Oliver Tambo award from South Africa and the Martin Luther King peace prize from the United States.
He began to suffer ill health in 2008, first heart problems, then a stroke, which left him in a wheelchair.
His autobiography called ‘Entirely up to you, darling’ was published in 2009. He died in 2014, just a few days before his 91st birthday, with his beloved wife Sheila following him 2016.
So Lord Dickie, as he was affectionately known, certainly left his mark. Director Steve Spielberg perhaps summed him up for all who had known and worked with him.
‘He was a dear friend and I am standing in an endless line of those who completely adored him.’
I’ll leave the final word to the man himself.
‘It’s what I love. I’m not a great movie director. I’m not an auteur,” he said of directing. ‘I’m a storyteller. I’m a craftsman. And I love beyond anything else working with the actors and finding a way to make the actor believe that what they’re about to do is the best performance they’ve ever given.’
The Mumper of SE5