Obituary: Richard Attenborough, film actor, director and producer

Lord Attenborough: Film actor who became an Oscar-winning director with his masterpiece Ghandi. Picture: PA
Lord Attenborough: Film actor who became an Oscar-winning director with his masterpiece Ghandi. Picture: PA
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Born: 29 August, 1923, in Cambridge. Died: 24 August, 2014, in London, aged 90

Ian Bannen, one of Scotland’s most underrated screen actors, once told me some funny stories about goings-on during the making of the 1965 film The Flight of the Phoenix, with Jimmy Stewart, Peter Finch and Richard Attenborough.

Bannen, who was a great drinker, story-teller and mimic, recalled how they would go to a restaurant and, fuelled by heavy drinking, would suddenly burst into a loud rendition of Happy Birthday, even though it was no one’s birthday. “People would look round,” he said. “Attenborough seemed the drunkest… and yet he didn’t drink. He used to get so excited and red in the face – you felt disgraced.”

In a way that summed up Attenborough – Lord Attenborough, Dickie. He was not only one of Britain’s most distinguished and accomplished film actors, directors and producers, he was also probably the most passionate. He often got excited. And he loved fun.

Attenborough brought excitement and commitment to everything he did – whether it was selling his shares in the play The Mousetrap (he was in the original production) to raise money for Gandhi or supplying pictures from his personal collection free to help illustrate a film journalist’s first book – On Location by Brian Pendreigh, 1995.

Attenborough was always helpful and accessible. He was a regular visitor to Scotland and had an estate on Bute. He was very involved in Bafta, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, sat on endless committees and did a huge amount of charity work.

Despite success and wealth, he remained modest and maintained his younger brother David, the BBC naturalist, was the intelligent one.

Gandhi brought him Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director in 1983 and a place in the Guinness Book of Records for the scene in which he directed 300,000 extras – more than any other scene ever.

Sometimes criticised for the sentimentality of his films – wearing his heart and politics on his sleeve – he was a sentimental and emotional man, with a habit of calling everyone “darling”. Tears of laughter, joy and sadness regularly coursed over his cheeks.

His on-screen image is of a jolly, avuncular man in the likes of Jurassic Park and the 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street, in which he was Santa Claus. From an earlier time there is an image of some rather forgettable military officers, in a whole series of films, including The Great Escape, which cemented his position as a regular visitor to British living rooms at Christmas.

Attenborough himself loved big family Christmases, but it became an unbearably painful time for him after his daughter Jane and granddaughter Lucy were swept away in the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 in Thailand. After that, Attenborough and his wife, the actress Sheila Sim, would head for the isolation of the farmhouse on their Rhubodach estate on Bute.

No-one would argue Attenborough had the big-screen cool and charisma of Great Escape co-star Steve McQueen, but at his best he was a brilliant actor. Despite the enduring on-screen image, he made his breakthrough as a young thug in the original 1947 version of Brighton Rock and he was even more chilling as the murderer John Christie in 10 Rillington Place in 1971.

At his best he was also a brilliant director. He did occasionally get a bit mushy, but he could pack a mighty emotional wallop. The final scene of Oh! What a Lovely War, his directorial debut in 1969, remains as powerful as any war poem.

The little group of women, in long white dresses, having a picnic in the countryside, might have been posing for Renoir. The birds are singing and poppies bloom. And there are the men, in khaki, lying in the grass, seemingly relaxing, and then they fade and the camera pulls back to reveal row after row after row of white crosses – 16,000, each one real and tangible and put there by hand.

Richard Samuel Attenborough was born in Cambridge in 1923. His father was a left-leaning academic, a fellow of Emmanuel College and author of a book on Anglo-Saxon law. He became principal of University College Leicester (now Leicester University) in 1932 and Attenborough went to grammar school there.

His father had hoped Attenborough would follow him into academe, but he was set on becoming an actor and went to Rada, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

During the Second World War, he enlisted in the Royal Air Force, trained as a pilot, was seconded to the film unit as a cameraman and also made his film debut in a small role as a seaman in In Which We Serve.

He also found time to appear in a West End stage production of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock in 1942.

The film version catapulted him to stardom a few years later and he took on a string of roles as spivs and servicemen.

In 1945 he married Sheila Sim and it was one of showbusiness’s great, enduring marriages.

Along with Bryan Forbes, Attenborough set up a company called Beaver Films. In the early 1960s they made The Angry Silence, Whistle Down the Wind and Séance on a Wet Afternoon.

Even this early, some of Attenborough’s films reflected his idealistic, liberal politics. In The Angry Silence he played a worker who refused to go on strike, presented as the hero. But this was when “closed shops” and “collective action” were the norm in many industries and many reviled the character as a “scab” and the film as muddle-headed and simplistic.

Attenborough began developing the idea of a film about Gandhi in the early 1960s and discussed it with the Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and with Earl Mountbatten, the last Viceroy. Gandhi had been a great hero of Attenborough’s father and in making the film he was seeking the parental approval he felt had eluded him.

In his memoirs, Attenborough wrote: “When I decided on acting as a career I knew in my heart of hearts that he was disappointed.

“Even as an adult, I still desperately wanted to prove myself to him. If I could make a film with something important to say, perhaps he would take real pride in what I was doing.”

It was intended to be his first film as director, but he could not get the substantial budget he needed or else it came with unacceptable strings attached – one studio said they would fund it if Richard Burton was Gandhi.

Attenborough’s obsession with Gandhi almost bankrupted him and he directed four other films before finally getting backing from the new British movie-making force Goldcrest. Gandhi was a commercial and critical success and won eight Oscars, though Attenborough’s father did not live to see it.

Next came an underrated film of the musical A Chorus Line, then Cry Freedom, which tackled the story of the South African activist Steve Biko.

Attenborough was criticised for choosing to tell the story through the eyes of Biko’s friend, the white South African journalist Donald Woods. But Nelson Mandela later said he felt the film had a greater impact on white attitudes than any of Mandela’s speeches.

Latterly both Attenborough and Sim suffered from ill health and moved into a nursing home in London. He is survived by his wife and two children.