“Lord Richard Attenborough: He had a passion for life and movies’”

THE EXPRESS Aug 31, 2014

LORD Attenborough told me that he would like to “fall off his twig” on the final day of shooting his dream project, a biopic of Thomas Paine, the 18th century philosopher and Rights Of Man author.

“I will go ‘OK, that’s it. Cut.’ And drop over,” he said cheerfully.

Then aged 84, he must have known that the film would never happen but it’s indicative of Attenborough’s energy and enthusiasm that he was forever looking forwards, and not back, refusing to rest on the laurels of his remarkable accomplishments: actor, Oscar-winning filmmaker, President of RADA and BAFTA, former Chairman of Channel Four, a Life President of Chelsea Football Club, confidante of Prime Ministers and Princesses (notably Diana, Princess of Wales) and champion of innumerable good causes.

In 2008 he stood down as Chancellor of the University of Sussex after ten years, a position that was especially dear to him.

He believed fervently in the importance of education, praising Sussex as a “microcosm of a multi-racial society.”

He was also chairman of a school at Waterford in Swaziland where a new wing was named after his daughter, Jane Holland, who died in the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004.

His passion for education reflected the profound influence of his father Frederick, known affectionately as ‘The Governor’, a Left-leaning Cambridge don (Attenborough was born in Cambridge in 1923) who became principal of Leicester University.

Attenborough’s devotion to his parents in many ways defined his life as he strove for their approval and, inspired by their example, sought to effect change.

A favorite quote was philosopher Edmund Burke: “For evil to flourish it is only necessary for good men to do nothing.”

Attenborough’s mother Mary was a founding member of the Marriage Guidance Council and marched in support of the republicans in the Spanish Civil War.

“My adulation of my parents was almost overwhelming,” he admitted to me.

“It was not only a deep affection but also a huge respect. I cannot remember an event where I felt they disappointed me.”

During the Second World War the family adopted two Jewish German girls, Irene and Helga.

Mary had put the suggestion to the boys (Richard, David and younger brother Johnny) with the epithet: “It’s entirely up to you.”

It became a form of words that Attenborough himself adopted as an effective means of persuasion, not least when directing recalcitrant actors.

The phrase inspired the title of Attenborough’s bestselling memoir, Entirely Up To You, Darling, published in 2008 and co-written with his long term producing partner Diana Hawkins.

The pair worked together for more than 40 years, enjoying their greatest triumph – and Attenborough’s defining cinematic achievement – with Gandhi which took 20 years to make and scooped eight Oscars (still a record for a British film).

It was The Governor who first introduced Attenborough to Gandhi when taking him to a newsreel cinema.

The audience laughed at footage of the Mahatma visiting 10 Downing Street.

Said The Governor: “Dick, they are fools those who are laughing. He is a great man.”

Incidentally, Attenborough loathed being known as ‘Dickie’, a name that stuck during his time at RADA.

On one of the last occasions we spoke he insisted that I stop calling him Lord Attenborough and address him either as ‘Dick’ or ‘Baldy.’

It was to achieve his dream of making Gandhi that Attenborough launched his career as a director, making his debut with satirical musical Oh! What A Lovely War in 1969.

It featured a roll call of Britain’s finest actors all of whom, inevitably were Attenborough’s friends and admirers.

The key to assembling the cast was persuading Laurence Olivier to star, said Attenborough.

“I visited him at his home in Brighton and he was lying sick in bed,” he told me.

“But he sat up and said: ‘Dick, actors should direct. I’ll read the telephone directory for you’.”

The film won wide praise and Attenborough went on to prove his adeptness at epic subject matter with Young Winston and A Bridge Too Far.

(“The trick is always to prepare. I schedule pre-production time more generously than most people.”).

Nevertheless, it wasn’t until 1981, after years of struggle, that he finally made Gandhi, selling some prized pictures by British painter Christopher Wood to help fill a funding gap.

When I chatted to Attenborough in the study of his home in London’s Richmond he pointed to the pictures – once again hanging on his wall.

“I bought them back with the profits,” he smiled.

The biggest gamble of his career paid off handsomely, in every sense.

Gandhi’s grandson marveled how an Englishman “has enabled the dead Mahatma to speak to the whole world”, but Attenborough remained modest about the film’s record Oscar haul.

He maintained that he robbed Steven Spielberg who was nominated for E.T.

“I genuinely think, in terms of a piece of cinema, E.T. was an infinitely more impressive piece of work than Gandhi,” he told me.

(He also insisted he never blubbed at the Oscars, refuting his reputation as a teary luvvie).

He never claimed to be an “auteur” with a distinctive directorial imprint.

He was, instead, an actors’ director, giving key breaks to a host of stars including Ben Kingsley, Denzel Washington (Cry Freedom) and Robert Downey Jnr (Chaplin) and eliciting career best performances from established ones.

One of his favourite actors was Anthony Hopkins with whom he made several films including Shadowlands, the moving account of C.S Lewis’ romance with Joy Greshman.

“It is probably the best film I have made by virtue of the performances and the exquisite script,” said Attenborough.

For the director, making movies was the perfect synthesis of his creative and educational passions and he was perturbed by modern cinema.

“Unless you use this extraordinary invention to some degree to make the cry for compassion or the plea for tolerance or whatever it is, then you deny the genius of it’s invention” he maintained.

Attenborough was educated at Wyggeston [CORR] Grammar School for Boys in Leicester but claimed not to have inherited his father’s “academic gene” which passed instead onto brothers David and Johnny who both went to Cambridge.

A theatrical child, he was allowed to attend RADA on the condition that he got a scholarship, which he duly did, becoming a star pupil and making friends with Noel Coward who cast him in his movie debut, In Which We Serve, in 1942, playing a cowardly sailor.

It was also at RADA that he met his wife, Sheila Sim, with whom he co-starred in the original production of The Mousetrap.

“She is the great good fortune of my life,” he told me.

In 1943 Attenborough joined the RAF and was seconded to the RAF Film Unit where he filmed bombing missions from the air.

His boss at the Unit was director John Boulting who went on to cast him as psychopath Pinkie in Brighton Rock in 1947.

It turned him into a star and Attenborough worked prolifically in British films for the next 30 years, and enjoyed Hollywood success in the likes of The Great Escape and The Sand Pebbles. Star of both, Steve McQueen, “was my best friend in Hollywood” he said.

But Attenborough tired of being typecast as spivs and cowards and yearned to make more significant movies.

To that end, he formed his own production company with pal Bryan Forbes, Beaver Films, producing and starring in several successful features beginning with The Angry Silence in 1960, a powerful evocation of working class life.

It was a prelude to his career as a director-producer, one of the most enduring and successful in British film.

“I am an enthusiast, an enthusiast for life,” Attenborough told me at the home he shared with Sheila for over 60 years.

“I can’t do anything unless I am absolutely dedicated to it.”