Triumph of the spirit - Sir Richard Attenborough interview

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AT THE bottom of Richard Attenborough's enclosed garden, up a twisting flight of metal steps, is his private cinema. Being up here feels like perching in a tree house, gazing down from the big, arched window to the soft greenery below.

When the film screen is in use, it covers the glass, but right now the light floods freely into the room, on to an array of easy chairs, a table with salt and pepper cellars, and a stash of bright red napkins. He has owned this house almost all his married life and so I wonder about the history of this room; the Attenborough films shown here over the years. Brighton Rock, Jurassic Park, Miracle on 34th Street: they are all part of Attenborough's award-winning acting career. As a director, he has received even more acclaim. Baftas, Golden Globes and Oscars have all come his way in a film-making career that has included Cry Freedom, Chaplin and his tour de force, the multi-Oscar-winning Gandhi.

I watch him through the window, climbing slowly, a little painfully. He turned 85 last month; at first glance simply an elderly man in navy cords and a cardigan and soft moccasin-style shoes. And yet so much more. Attenborough's greatest films were hallmarked by his interest in people, and when he finally reaches the top of the stairs, it is an immediate sense of humanity that he transmits. The smile is, quite simply, luminous. Light and warmth. Two hands reaching out to grasp a stranger's in a way you suspect they have reached out over a lifetime. And the eyes. Tentative eyes, as though all the rock-like certainties of youth have been smoothed by life's tide, replaced by a kind of permanent question mark. Perhaps that's what wisdom brings: uncertainty.

He needs a few props now. Physical, emotional. Accompanying him is Diana Hawkins, a friend and colleague who has worked on almost all his films for the past 50 years. (Chaplin was entirely her idea.) Attenborough looks to her constantly for confirmation, affirmation, though their conversation is peppered with the incessant, good-humoured bickering characteristic of long relationships. He teases her constantly and, when she retorts, his eyes widen in outrage. "Cheeky bugger," he mutters.

But when Hawkins says she will go out for a smoke, the tentative eyes swivel up pleadingly and he says, no, darling, just stay – smoke here. He has, after so many years of refusing because he feared no one would be interested, finally written his autobiography with Hawkins, and he needs her memory for detail. He didn't have the aptitude, the vocabulary, to write alone, he insists. He has never been an academic type like his brother David, the anthropologist and wildlife presenter. It was Sheila, his wife, who suggested he and Hawkins write together. "Darling," he recalls Sheila telling him, "you don't agree on anything with Diana. She's a Nazi, you're a bloody communist, but you absolutely agree on your artistic judgements. Write it with Di."

Entirely Up to You, Darling is an inside story of the film world. It tells of Attenborough's 20-year struggle to make Gandhi, of the dangers he faced in South Africa researching his anti-apartheid film Cry Freedom. It tells of strange and fascinating meetings with Winnie Mandela, with Indira Gandhi, with Robert Mugabe. But the famous names that litter the pages are not the book's substance. The human tale underneath is the story of a man with determination and purpose, whose own charmed life was blighted by tragedy when he lost his daughter and granddaughter in the 2004 tsunami. There is, in Attenborough's life, as arresting a sense of narrative as in his films.

SEPTEMBER 1939. Attenborough is 16. He has been called to his father's study with his two younger brothers, David and John. His father, the Governor as they all call him, is sitting with their mother Mary at the bay window, the autumn sunlight streaming in against their backs. The Governor, a university don, does voluntary work with Jewish refugees and the family have two little girls, 11-year-old Irene and nine-year-old Helga, staying. The girls' mother has been taken to a concentration camp and their father is facing internment, so the girls are en route to relatives in New York. The problem is, Chamberlain has finally declared war against Germany and the girls are stranded, unable to cross the Atlantic. The three boys must decide if they are willing to take them into their family, to accept them as their sisters.

"I adored my mother," Attenborough says. His voice has been stripped to a husk by age, is thinner than before, a little quavery, but the vehemence of his youthful love is still there all these many years later. "I absolutely adored her and admired her. It was Mama who said, 'Darlings, this will be very difficult for you and maybe you will be jealous and that will be very understandable. Your father and I are devoted to you and give you all our love, but I will now have to find even more love for these two girls because they have nothing, nobody at all. I must be their mother in terms of love and devotion and it is possible you will find it hurtful.'" Does he remember what he was thinking? He smiles. "It was entirely up to me, darling."

The Attenboroughs were a remarkable family. Both Mary and the Governor were formidable campaigners, and there Richard has a picture of Mary, a founding member of the marriage guidance council, marching in opposition to the Spanish dictator Franco under a banner of the hammer and the sickle.

"When Guernica was bombed, my mother, bless her, said, 'Well, there will obviously be people who are homeless, and children who have lost their parents. How do we raise money?' She set up a committee that eventually brought 60 Basque refugee children to Leicester. She wasn't at a committee with a trestle table and notebooks; she was in an empty ruin of a house, scrubbing the floor."

The boys didn't hesitate. "It seemed so natural," recalls Attenborough. Even on their holidays to the seaside, the family always took one or two less-advantaged boys from Leicester with them. "Throughout my life, I always remember that consideration of people who were less fortunate than we. We lived in an atmosphere of awareness and we certainly did not live a life whereby we ignored, or felt that we could ignore, that which was in evidence around us." And did he grow to love his sisters rather than simply feel duty towards them? "Oh, we adored them… oh, yes."

Irene and Helga are both dead now but they all remained close throughout their lives. "And what was magical was the extraordinary bond with Mama. If any two people could love her more than we did, they did. When she died in a car crash, they were devastated."

Attenborough's love for his mother was matched by his enormous respect for his father. In fact, his desire for his father's approval was to drive a large part of his life. His mother was involved in local amateur theatre and this had fuelled his love of performance. (He once blackmailed David into appearing in drag with him by telling him proceeds would go to an animal charity.) But while his father loved theatre, and particularly Shakespeare, he was unimpressed by his eldest son's desire to be an actor. "Dave had an academic bent and John also went to Cambridge on a scholarship. So the Governor was thrilled with what they wanted to do. I don't think he was thrilled in the same way with what I wanted to do."

His father made him a deal. If he won the Leverhulme, the only scholarship to pay living expenses and fees to Rada, he could go. Otherwise, he must promise to settle down and study for his matriculation. Officially, Attenborough was too young for the scholarship but he told nobody, changed his date of birth on the form – and won the scholarship. What if he hadn't? "Oh, I would have done what I promised to do," he chuckles. "But I'd have failed, I think."

His father's reverence for academia, combined with Attenborough's great desire for the Governor's approval, would later influence his decision to make Gandhi. Attenborough established a hugely successful career as a film actor, starring in a number of war movies and then as the teenage gangster Pinkie in the 1947 adaptation of Graham Greene's novel, Brighton Rock. But later he established a production company with partner Bryan Forbes. Gandhi started with a random phone call from an Indian man called Motilal Kothari, who sent him Louis Fischer's acclaimed biography of Gandhi. Attenborough – looking across defiantly at Diana and sticking out his tongue – says he was never much of a reader. But that book blew him away.

"I read it and came to a place where Gandhi was in South Africa, walking along a pavement with another Indian. Two white South Africans came towards them and his pal stepped off the pavement into the gutter to allow the white men to pass. Gandhi turned to his companion and said, "I am always amazed that men should find themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow human beings." I thought of all the things Ma and Pa had talked about – human dignity and so on – and I thought, this guy is only 19 or 20. This is a bewildering man who at that age can summarise in 20 words a philosophy that could determine your actions for the rest of your life."

The Attenboroughs had been devoid of racial prejudice, and Gandhi's spirit encapsulated what the family stood for. "My family were liberal with a small 'l' but passionately doers. I wanted to be a doer. My father thought Gandhi was a great man. I suppose subconsciously, consciously even, I was aware that I wanted to please him and Ma, so I thought doing something like Gandhi would be phenomenal."

And yet, despite his sense of academic inferiority, is it not his emotional rather than intellectual instincts that have marked his films? "I am not hugely interested in the technique of cinema," he agrees. "Certainly not in terms of technological advancement. I am interested in human beings and, therefore, despite the wonderful technicians I work with, whom I rely on hugely, my fundamental interest is in actors. I express my feelings about a subject through the truth of the actors, through the quality of their performances, and, therefore, as you suggest, the chances are my primary interest is emotional rather than cerebral."

It took 20 years "to raise that goddamn money" and the process brought him close to ruin at times. It also brought him friendships with Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, a formidably strong woman who once broke down telling him of her enormous loneliness in struggling to lead a divided country. Attenborough's empathy would later attract another unhappy, powerful young woman, Princess Diana, to confide in him. They became friends after working together on speechmaking.

He knows many famous, powerful people, he admits, visits Downing Street regularly, but does not court power. He turned down an appointment as a Labour peer because he could not give up film-making to attend parliament and did not want an empty title. Later, he was offered a life peerage for services to cinema, and accepted. His long association with the Labour Party – though he spoke out publicly against the Iraq war – is rooted in his parents' values. Had he not gone into acting, he would probably have been a politician.

"That emanates from the Governor and a sense of responsibility for the mess we're in. A sense that you are really not entitled to live your life in total disregard to other things and circumstances, whether they be next to you or on the other side of the world. I think human dignity is as important as anything. My sense is that people are entitled to live some sort of life, not necessarily in comfort, but without deprivation."

Is he impressed, then, by Gordon Brown? "Very," he says instantly. "I like him very much. There isn't a theatrical flamboyance about Gordon which most successful politicians have. He is a very private man and his family life is terribly important to him. He cares desperately about poverty – not only in the UK but worldwide.

"I am involved with Unicef and I remember him making a speech about the importance of our concern for children wherever they are. A devastating speech, off the cuff. I think he finds the scale of coverage that he gets very hard. He would not deny he was in power when the UK was in good nick in terms of world economics, but he managed it superbly. The prejudiced twits who try to knock him down and destroy all that he did… I think it's dreadful. And he's very bad at defending himself. But I would defend him."

He has friendships with royalty and presidents and prime ministers. He has also had many public appointments: lifetime vice-president of Chelsea FC, chairman of Channel 4, president of Rada and of Bafta, and has done a great deal of charity work. He is seen as firmly embedded in the bricks and mortar of British society. Yet his background was to challenge the status quo. Does he feel like part of the establishment?

"No," he says instantly. Across the room, Hawkins snorts. "What?" he asks.

"You're a bloody pillar of the establishment!"

"What does that mean?" he asks, the thin voice rising in bewilderment.

"The great and the good," says Hawkins.

"Not the great," he says instantly, then adds mischievously, "but I'm very good."

Other way round, says Hawkins. Great but very naughty.

"What did she say?" he asks me. He can't hear. She said he's very naughty. He looks at us both and, with a sudden surge of impish humour, says, "Now, girls!" Then uncertainty takes over. "I don't do naughty things, do I?" he asks Diana, a little plaintively. No, she's just teasing. "Oh," he says and settles back into his chair.

THERE IS SUCH a strong sense of dichotomy looking at this elderly man in his chair. A stereotypical figure. Dickie darling. (In fact, he hates being called Dickie.) A man who cried accepting his Oscar and forever after was depicted by a Spitting Image puppet that had tears spraying like miniature fountains from his eyes. Afterwards, he rose to the joke by producing a box of Kleenex at the start of public speeches, placing it at the ready in front of him. The image is of the quintessential theatrical luvvie. And yet he has such substance.

He accepts he is an emotional man. It is why he does not always feel comfortable talking about losing his daughter Jane and granddaughter Lucy in the tsunami: he knows he will cry. Why shouldn't he? His family life has always been so happy. He met Sheila at Rada and they have been happy together for 63 years, partly, he admits, because she let her own acting career go. They had three children, Michael, Charlotte and Jane. But today he says he doesn't mind talking about Jane because he has reached the stage that when he talks of her, he can recount joy as well as loss.

"The thing about the loss is that I find it very difficult to accept. It would not surprise me if Jane came through that door. I don't feel she has gone forever, but in the same breath she is not here and I don't quite know why she is not here."

Once, when he was being driven along the motorway, he found himself craning to see the driver in the next car because she reminded him so much of Jane. "She was the most alive person you could imagine," he says. "Highly motivated." She worked in the arts in underprivileged areas, had managed Ballet Rambert and set up Dance UK, a benevolent society for dancers. When she died, 1,400 people from all over the country where she had worked arrived for her memorial service. "She was the most alive, most committed, most amusing…" her father says. "Her laugh was simply wonderful. Her brother Michael could make her laugh primarily because he was vulgar. She would nearly die laughing. You don't imagine her without laughter, which her daughter Lucy had too. Lucy was just naughty, a marvellous kid."

He or Sheila talked to Jane every day. He has had a charmed life but I wonder if tragedy has shaped him more than success. There is a long pause. "I don't know the extent to which I feel different. But I would have done things differently. I am devoted to my family but I am also mad about my profession. I made choices where, because I am the optimist, I would always think there was another time to see Michael or Lotty or Jane.

"If Rada needed me, I'd go there on a Saturday morning, whereas nowadays I would be prepared to say no, it's too precious. I am not prepared to sacrifice time with the children to the extent I did. It was always, 'Oh well, it will be fine, I'll see her next Saturday.' And now there is no next Saturday." He shakes his head in vexation, eyes swimming.

He has never had much time for formal religion and yet, strangely, he does accept the possibility of a higher being. How does he reconcile that? "I don't. I make a balls-up of it all the time. I can't believe, as Gandhi did, that there's only one religion, one form of practising your credo. I am at a loss. I will go on trying because I would be arrogantly stupid not to, but having to adhere to custom and conviction in terms of practice I find destructive rather than constructive. It seems to me that organised, formal religions have done a fair amount of damage in terms of our chances of living without confrontation."

He doesn't understand why he can't accept Jane's loss, but in many ways it makes perfect sense. All his life, he has shown a belief in the spirit of people like Gandhi, or South Africa's Steve Biko, to move a modern audience. Perhaps the reason he can't believe Jane is gone is because he feels some indestructible part of her has remained. Would that be true? "Probably, I think. I can't believe we are here for nothing, that there isn't something…"

Richard Attenborough is physically frail. He suffers from gout and diabetes. He wears hearing aids. And yet, he is a man who makes you very conscious of something that transcends the physical: something bigger, more powerful and more generous by far.

• Entirely Up to You, Darling (20, Hutchinson) by Richard Attenborough and Diana Hawkins is out now