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Richard Attenborough: A Centenary Special Instant Expert's Guide

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As British cinema marks the centenary of Richard Attenborough on 29 August 2023, Cinema Paradiso traces the 60-year career of a man whose achievements as an actor and director only tell part of the story.

It's fair to say that the British film industry would look very different without the contribution of Richard Attenborough. As an actor, producer, and director, he made films with humanist agendas that sought to change minds. In the process, he started a trend for independent production, reinforced the shift towards social realism, and did much to raise the profile and prestige of British films abroad. In an executive capacity, he played pivotal roles in the establishment of the National Film and Television School, the revival of BAFTA, the founding of Channel Four, and the reorganisation of the British Film Institute.

In addition to his day jobs, Attenborough was also committed to a range good causes, as he had the energy, focus, and diplomatic skills to persuade others to give of their best and donate generously. He couldn't have been the force he was without the support of wife Sheila Sim, whom he had met as a drama student. But his determination to make a difference was deeply rooted in the values instilled by his parents, which have also sustained his younger brother, the legendary naturalist and broadcaster, David Attenborough.

Life Lessons

Richard Samuel Attenborough was born in Cambridge on 29 August 1923. His father, Frederick Levi Attenborough, was the son of a Nottinghamshire baker who had worked his way up from teaching at an elementary school to becoming a Fellow of Emmanuel College. He was the author of the Anglo-Saxon textbook, The Laws of the Earliest English Kings, which is still in print. Frederick was an admirer of art historian Samuel Clegg and married his daughter, Mary. She was a former Suffragette and a committed socialist, who used to invite boys from the nearby housing estate to join Richard and brothers John and David on seaside holidays after the family relocated to Leicester, when Frederick was appointed principal of University College in 1932.

A still from The Lost King (2022)
A still from The Lost King (2022)

During the course of his tenure, the college attained university status and he may not have seen the funny side of its depiction in The Lost King (2022), Stephen Frears's account of the discovery of Richard III's remains beneath a Leicester car park. Mary, however, was president of Leicester Little Theatre, and encouraged Richard when he showed an interest in acting after he started at Wyggeston Grammar School.

A member of the Left Book Club and a founder member of the Marriage Guidance Council, Mary had a strong sense of social responsibility. Following the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, she marched against the bombing of Guernica and formed a committee to help evacuated Basque children. Furthermore, when Jewish children started to arrive from Nazi Germany as part of the Kindertransport initiative, Mary offered a home to Helga and Irene Bejach, who were respectively aged eleven and nine when they left their father, Dr Curt Bejach, and older sister Jutta in Berlin. He would perish in Auschwitz in 1944, but Jutta would eventually join her siblings when they left to live with an uncle in New York after the war.

As Mark Jonathan Harris recalls in the excellent documentary, Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (2000), the rescue mission was organised by Nicholas Winton. He will be played by Johnny Flynn and regular Attenborough collaborator Anthony Hopkins in One Life, the feature debut of acclaimed TV director James Hawes, which will reach cinemas after premiering at the London Film Festival this autumn.

The Second World War broke out just 17 days after the girls arrived in Leicester. Attenborough would later recall, 'That particular decision, not merely paying lip service but taking positive, responsible action to help other human beings, made a profound impression on me. It has, I suppose, affected my life and my attitudes ever since.' It wasn't just his mother's activism that shaped his destiny, however. Although 'the Governor' had hoped that his offspring would follow him into academe, Mary recognised that her eldest wasn't intellectually inclined. Consequently, she gave her full backing when the 12 year-old Richard hired a venue in Leicester to stage a revue of sketches and comic songs.

Using her influence at the Little Theatre, Mary also found her son the odd minor role. Thanks to this encouragement, he secured the coveted Leverhulme Scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Suitably impressed, Frederick gave his blessing and Richard Attenborough left for London in 1940.


Any thoughts Attenborough might have had of becoming a dashing lead were somewhat dashed when he was informed at RADA that he was too short and stocky to play romantic roles. Nevertheless, he won the heart of classmate Sheila Sim and made his professional debut at the age of 18, somewhat fittingly, as a lovesick teenager named Richard in the 1941 production of Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness at the Intimate Theatre in Palmers Green.

As Attenborough's time at RADA coincided with the Blitz, he was involved in patching up the drama school after the back of the building was destroyed by the Luftwaffe in 1941. As he later recalled, 'There was a great hoo-ha about whether we could re-open. We all helped out with cardboard and nails and hammered up the windows.' As he worked, Attenborough was encouraged by an Irishman in plus-fours, who turned out to be George Bernard Shaw.

A still from The Black Pirate (1926)
A still from The Black Pirate (1926)

Attenborough's performance as Richard had been seen by talent agent Albert Parker. He had directed Douglas Fairbanks in the silent swashbuckler, The Black Pirate (1926), before relocating to London to make such programmers as The Riverside Murder (1935), which can be rented from Cinema Paradiso as part of Volume 2 of The Renown Crime Collection. Parker got Attenborough his first West End part, as Ralph Berger in Clifford Odets's Awake and Sing!, which prompted the Daily Sketch to opine that he had 'a big future' after showing rare 'intensity of feeling and restraint for a youngster'. He was next cast as scheming bank teller Leo Hubbard in a 1942 version of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, which only ran for three weeks.

Any disappointment was dispelled, however, because Parker had landed the 18 year-old Attenborough a minor speaking role as an unnamed stoker in Noël Coward and David Lean's flagwaver, In Which We Serve (1942). Based on the loss of Lord Louis Mountbatten's ship in the Mediterranean, the action cut away to reveal the backstories of the crew members clinging to a life raft. Attenborough made an impression when his cowardly cockney kid redeems himself, although his efforts didn't earn him a mention in the original on-screen credits. 'If you blinked, you missed me,' he later joked. But he considered Coward 'the most influential and supporting figure of my early life'.

Further film roles followed in Karel Lamac's Schweik's New Adventure (1943) and Brian Desmond Hurst's The Hundred Pound Window (1944), by which time Attenborough had graduated from RADA with the prestigious Bancroft Medal. More significant, however, was the Garrick Theatre's 1943 production of a Frank Harvey play based on Graham Greene's novel, Brighton Rock. Attenborough was so effective as teenage psychopath Pinkie Brown that the New Statesman critic believed he deserved 'to have won fame in a single night, for his study in abnormal psychology is thoughtful, delicate and powerful'.

A young Dulcie Gray was his co-star, but Attenborough only had eyes for Sheila Sim and they married in 1945. Having reached 19, however, he became eligible for war service and joined the Royal Air Force. After pilot training, he was seconded to the newly formed RAF Film Production Unit at Pinewood Studios, where he got to watch Humphrey Jennings working on some of the documentaries on the BFI collections, The Complete Humphrey Jennings, Volume 1: The First Days and Volume 2: Fires Were Started.

Having played I.O.Z. in Roy Ward Baker's propaganda short, Think It Over, Attenborough got to star opposite Edward G. Robinson, under the tutelage of Flight Lieutenant John Boulting, in Journey Together (both 1945), in which he played an aspiring pilot who takes time to realise that he has an important role to play as a navigator. Having hoped to fly himself, the role clearly struck a chord and Attenborough volunteered to become a rear gunner aboard a Lancaster bomber, with the additional duty of filming reconnaissance footage during raids over Germany. Overcoming air sickness and damage to his hearing, Sergeant Attenborough had done his bit and he was now ready to act full time.

Baby-faced Bruiser

Having been demobbed, Attenborough remained in uniform as airmen in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death and Peter Ustinov's School For Secrets (both 1946). The same year, he signed a contract with twins John and Ray Boulting and was loaned out to co-star with Sim in John Paddy Carstairs's Dancing With Crime, in which he played a cabby who refuses to join a dance hall gang. He also renewed acquaintance with Graham Greene as the snitch who betrays smuggler Michael Redgrave in Bernard Knowles's The Man Within (both 1947), which is well overdue a release on disc.

A still from Brighton Rock (1947) With Hermione Baddeley
A still from Brighton Rock (1947) With Hermione Baddeley

Greene lobbied for Attenborough to reprise his stage role of Pinkie Brown in the Boulting adaptation of Brighton Rock (1947), in which he contorted his scarred babyface into scowls of contempt and mewls of terror, as a juvenile mobster seeking to cover his tracks after a murder beside the sea. Having been asked to lose weight for the picture, Attenborough spent a fortnight training with Chelsea FC and became a lifelong fan.

Steadily becoming a victim of typecasting, Attenborough played mechanic Percy Boon in Sidney Gilliat's London Belongs to Me (1948), in which he is charged with murder after bungling a car theft while trying to impress a girl at his lodging house. Even more implausibly, the Boultings cast Attenborough as 15 year-old Jack Read (even though he was a decade older) in a 1948 adaptation of Warren Chetham-Strode's play, The Guinea Pig. Adding insult to injury, Sim played the house mistress at the posh school to which the working-class Read had been sent as a social experiment.

As he bemoaned later, 'I was almost a figure of derision for the awful pictures I did and my typecasting image and so on.' He was back on the delinquent beat alongside Dirk Bogarde in Montgomery Tully's borstal saga, Boys in Brown. But at least this is available to rent through Cinema Paradiso, unlike Muriel Box and Bernard Knowles's overlooked The Lost People (both 1949). The same year saw Attenborough return to the stage as a traumatised Jewish GI in Arthur Laurents's Home of the Brave, which had been reworked for African American actor James Edwards by Carl Foreman in Mark Robson's 1949 film of the same name (which should also be available, as it's a crucial early example of what Hollywood called 'a problem picture').

Rewinding eight years, Attenborough played another scared stoker in Roy Ward Baker's Morning Departure (1950), in which John Mills refuses to allow the snivelling Snipe to sap morale aboard his damaged submarine. Such was Attenborough's standing within British cinema, however, that he was found a berth in John Boulting's The Magic Box (1951), as the man who introduces William Friese-Greene (Robert Donat) to his future wife, Edith (Margaret Johnston). For more about this Festival of Britain tribute to a Victorian cinematographic pioneer, see Cinema Paradiso's What to Watch Next article.

A still from Gift Horse (1952)
A still from Gift Horse (1952)

Also released in 1951 was Michael Anderson's Hell Is Sold Out, which required Attenborough to play Pierre Bonnet, a French Resistance fighter who becomes entangled in a ménage involving former cellmate Herbert Lom and his Swedish lover, Mai Zetterling. He went back to sea as chirpy cockney sailor Dipper Daniels in Gift Horse (1952), Compton Bennett's fictionalising of the St Nazaire Raid that kept him busy after Sim had given birth to their first child, Michael. She had enjoyed co-starring with her husband in Roger MacDougall's farce, To Dorothy, a Son, which was filmed four years later by Muriel Box with John Gregson and Peggy Cummins. But Attenborough did get to play an expectant parent on screen in Henry Cass's Father's Doing Fine (1952), an adaptation of Noel Langley's play, Little Lambs Eat Ivy, which afforded him his first star billing. After a decade of delinquents and cowards, he had finally been allowed to demonstrate his range.

Leave It to Beaver

In November 1952, Attenborough and Sim signed up to play Detective Sergeant Trotter and Mollie Ralston in a new play at the Ambassador's Theatre. They hoped it would have a decent run and agreed to take a 10% profit-participation share as part of their fee. The play was directed by Peter Cotes, the brother of the Boulting twins, who was also a biographer of Charlie Chaplin, whom Attenborough had loved since seeing The Gold Rush (1925) with his father when he was nine.

Such was the success of Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap that Attenborough didn't make a film for the two years he was attached to the play. He invested some of his windfall in a short-lived Mayfair restaurant called The Little Elephant. But the rest of his savings would come in useful when he was trying to fund a long-cherished directorial project. The Attenboroughs would make two more stage appearances together in Ted Allan and Roger MacDougall's Double Image (1956) and Benn Levy's The Rape of the Belt (1958), after which Sim quit acting and Attenborough focussed on film.

He returned to the screen in Lance Comfort's Eight O'Clock Walk (1954), a fact-based anti-capital punishment drama that sees cabby Tom Manning sentenced for the murder of a young girl on purely circumstantial evidence. This wouldn't be the last time that Attenborough would campaign against the death penalty, as he started increasingly to see cinema as a way of advocating socio-political causes.

The plight of war veterans was explored in Basil Dearden's The Ship That Died of Shame (1955), as Attenborough and crewmates George Baker and Bill Owen buy the motor gun boat on which they had served to engage in a little smuggling. He would soon be afloat again, as Knocker White alongside John Mills's Puncher Roberts, in Jay Lewis's comedy, The Baby and the Battleship (1956). And reluctant parenting would also be the theme of Wolf Rilla's The Scamp (1958), another 'problem picture' in which a teacher and his wife (Dorothy Alison) agree to care for the troublesome child of an abusive father.

It wasn't all earnest bids to right society's wrongs, however. Attenborough also exhibited his undervalued gift for comedy in three classic Boulting romps. He particularly excelled at slyly combining shadiness and geniality as the wheeler-dealing Percival Henry Cox and Sidney De Vere Cox in Private's Progress (1956) and I'm All Right, Jack (1959), in each of which the gullible dupe was Ian Carmichael's Stanley Windrush. The duo would find themselves on the same team in Brothers in Law (1957), as Henry Marshall and Roger Thursby take their first uncertain steps in the legal profession.

A still from Dunkirk (1958)
A still from Dunkirk (1958)

In between these adroit institutional satires, Attenborough joined forces with fellow boat owner Bernard Lee to ferry soldiers off a French beach in Leslie Norman's Dunkirk and showed considerable pluck as part of Michael Craig's raid on a German arms dump on the eve of El Alamein in Guy Green's Sea of Sand. Attenborough and Lee reunited in Don Chaffey's The Man Upstairs (all 1958), the story of a boarding house siege that bears comparison with Cy Endfield's Jet Storm (1959), in which Attenborough plays a passenger who threatens to detonate a bomb in order to avenge the death of his daughter.

Chaffey had also directed Danger Within, in which Attenborough played Captain 'Bunter' Phillips, who joins Richard Todd, Michael Wilding, and Bernard Lee in trying to confound sadistic Italian POW camp commander, Peter Arne. He found himself leading another stellar ensemble in Guy Green's SOS Pacific (both 1959), in which the passengers of a ditched flying boat realise the island on which they are stranded is in the middle of an H-bomb testing zone. But Attenborough had grown tired of playing the same old characters and hatched a plan with Bryan Forbes when they were cast as members of the veterans gang assembled by Jack Hawkins in Basil Dearden's classic crime caper, The League of Gentlemen (1960).

This was the first film released by Allied Film Makers, an independent distribution company that Attenborough and Forbes had founded along with Hawkins, Dearden, Michael Relph, and Guy Green. Among its titles were Man in the Moon (1960), Victim (1961), and Life For Ruth (1962), which are discussed in more detail in Cinema Paradiso's Instant Expert's Guide to Basil Dearden.

The remainder bore the imprint of Beaver Films, the production company that Forbes and Attenborough launched with The Angry Silence (1960), which was made for under £100,000. Scripted by Forbes and directed by Guy Green, this forerunner to social realism saw Attenborough take the role of ostracised strike breaker Tom Curtis that had been turned down by Kenneth More and win the Best Actor prize at the Berlin Film Festival.

Having played an umpire alongside Boris Karloff in the seemingly lost BBC film, Upgreen - And At 'Em (1960), Attenborough concentrated on producing Forbes's Whistle Down the Wind (1961), an adaptation of a Mary Hayley Bell novel that earned a BAFTA for her daughter, Hayley Mills. Leslie Caron landed a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, and an Oscar nomination for Forbes's take on Lynne Reid Banks's The L-Shaped Room (1962), which Attenborough also co-produced. But he was back in front of the camera for the final Beaver offering, Forbes's Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), as asthmatic Billy Savage kidnaps a child so that medium wife Myra (Kim Stanley) can boost her reputation by assisting the police in her recovery.

A still from Guns at Batasi (1964)
A still from Guns at Batasi (1964)

This unsettling performance would win Attenborough the BAFTA for Best Actor in tandem with his steely display as RSM Lauderdale in John Guillermin's Guns At Batasi (1964), which follows a stand-off between some besieged British soldiers and the government of a former East African colony. It was a fitting reward for what many regard as the richest period in Attenborough's acting career. Stout and thinning on top, he revelled in the fact that he was no longer cherubic and could play a more challenging range of characters, in both Britain and Hollywood.

He gave Peter Sellers a run for his money in both Sidney Gilliat's Only Two Can Play and James Hill's The Dock Brief (1962), respectively as a pompous playwright duped by Virginia Maskell into making her philandering Welsh librarian husband jealous and as a man charged with murdering his wife who has no faith in the legal system or his bungling barrister. The latter earned Attenborough a BAFTA nomination, but the comedy based on a John Mortimer play was seen by far fewer punters than John Sturges's The Great Escape (1963), Attenborough's first American picture, in which he held his own against an all-star cast as Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett, aka Big X, the brains behind the plan to get out of Stalag Luft III. Renowned at the time for being based on a Paul Brickhill bestseller, this is known today for Elmer Bernstein's theme tune and the motorcycle stunt performed by Steve McQueen, with a little help from stunt rider Bud Ekins.

Attenborough remained in demand back home, however, oozing charm as the host of the jazz party that provides the backdrop for Basil Dearden's variation on the Othello theme, All Night Long (1962), and as the art gallerist suspected of murdering a psychiatrist in Charles Crichton's teasing thriller, The Third Secret (1963). He also had a ball trying on disguises as con man Silas Lowther in Basil Dearden's adaptation of Len Deighton's globe-trotting caper, Only When I Larf (1968), which would be a cult favourite were it available on disc.

A still from Flight of the Phoenix (2004)
A still from Flight of the Phoenix (2004)

Returning Stateside, Attenborough revisited a former calling as navigator Lew Moran in Robert Aldrich's The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), which chronicles the tensions between the survivors of a plane crash in the Sahara desert. James Stewart, Peter Finch, Ernest Borgnine, and Ian Bannen headline a cast that was markedly more stellar than the one assembled by John Moore for Flight of the Phoenix (2004). Another notable ensemble was recruited by Robert Wise for The Sand Pebbles (1966), an adaptation of a Robert McKenna novel that sent stoker Frenchy Burgoyne up the Yangtse with rebellious petty officer Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) aboard the 1920s river patrol vessel, USS San Pueblo. Mastering an American accent, Attenborough won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor, largely for his poignant scenes with Marayat Andriane as Maily, the educated Chinese woman whom Frenchy delivers from prostitution by paying her debts.

He didn't feature in the film's eight Oscar nominations, though. Moreover, despite another Globe nod, he also missed out among the nine garnered by Richard Fleischer's Doctor Dolittle (1967), Leslie Bricusse's musicalisation of the novels of Hugh Lofting that required Attenborough to sing as Albert Blossom, the circus owner who has never seen anything like the pushmi-pullyu presented to him by Rex Harrison's animal-conversant veterinarian.

The unusual surname cropped up again when Attenborough played Shirley MacLaine's unsuspecting husband in Joseph McGrath's The Bliss of Mrs Blossom (1968). Sadly, this bedroom farce is unavailable. But Cinema Paradiso users can rent McGrath's The Magic Christian (1969), an adaptation of a Terry Southern satire that saw Attenborough play the Oxford coach bribed by Sir Guy Grand (Peter Sellers) to win the Boat Race by ramming the Cambridge shell. Ringo Starr played Youngman Grand, while Paul McCartney wrote the Badfinger song, 'Come and Get It', that appears on the soundtrack. And, according to official Beatle biographer, Hunter Davies, John Lennon followed Richard Lester's How I Won the War (1967), with an uncredited cameo as a soldier in a scene with Laurence Olivier in Attenborough's directorial debut.

Calling the Shots

A still from Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)
A still from Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)

Richard Attenborough was 46 when he directed Oh! What a Lovely War (1969). Having acquired the rights to Joan Littlewood's Stratford East stage musical, John Mills made the offer with the admission that he'd been unable to find a director who knew everything and had decided to bank on someone who knew nothing. In fact, Attenborough had been nursing a pet project since 1962 and knew that he needed to demonstrate directorial competence in order to bring it to fruition. Therefore, he readily accepted and, clutching Len Deighton's screenplay, flew to Hollywood where he reportedly left Paramount chief Charles Bluhdorn so mesmerised by enacting the entire scenario in his office that he left with a cheque for $6 million.

Based around Brighton's West Pier and chronicling the Great War through a mix of popular song, dance routine, and trench re-enactment, this was a daunting task for any director. But Attenborough pulled it off with an innovative audacity that some critics sniped he never recaptured. The concluding aerial image of a clifftop covered with wooden crosses is masterly, as was the handling of the who's who cast. He was nominated for Best Director, as the film converted six of its 10 BAFTA nominations. It also won a Golden Globe and Attenborough recalled the experience in Lancelot Narayan's 2006 documentary, Welcome to World War One.

Screenwriter Carl Foreman had been summoned to meet Winston Churchill after the wartime prime minister had seen The Guns of Navarone (1961). He proposed an adaptation of his memoir, My Early Years, and James Fox was announced in the lead of Young Winston in 1967. However, Simon Ward wound up taking the role, while Robert Shaw played Lord Randolph Churchill after Attenborough had declined the role to concentrate on directing.

Another starry ensemble was corralled, with Anne Bancroft playing Churchill's American mother, Jennie, and Anthony Hopkins making the first of many appearances in Attenboroughs films, as David Lloyd George. However, critics failed to warm to the reverential tone or the flashbacking structure, as an unhappy student at Harrow and Sandhurst survives a cavalry charge at the Battle of Omdurman and a stint as a correspondent during the Boer War to become Conservative MP for Oldham.

All agreed that Attenborough had a flair for the large-scale set-piece, however, and that's why Hollywood producer Joseph E. Levine sought him out to adapt Cornelius Ryan's acclaimed account of the Allied assault on Arnhem, A Bridge Too Far (1977). William Goldman had written the screenplay and another roster of familiar faces was drawn up, although Steve McQueen couldn't be persuaded to join and Robert Redford stepped into the breach. Relying on the organisational nous of First Assistant Director David Tomblin, Attenborough conveyed the audacity and confusion of Operation Market Garden, although several reviews questioned the picture's coherence, while some pointed out that it had required the combined talents of Ken Annakin, Bernhard Wicki, and Andrew Marton to bring another Ryan wartime tome to the screen as The Longest Day (1961). The film received eight BAFTA nominations, including Best Director, but drew a blank at the Oscars.

A still from Magic (1978)
A still from Magic (1978)

Directing himself for the only time in an uncredited cameo, Attenborough had hoped that he could interest Levine in backing his magnum opus. Consequently, he agreed to take on his Goldman-scripted psychological thriller, Magic (1978), which starred Anthony Hopkins as a ventriloquist who enters into a battle of wits with his malevolent dummy, Fats. Many felt that the story had been done better in Alberto Cavalcanti's segment in the Ealing horror gem, Dead of Night (1945). But few recalled Erich von Stroheim pre-empting Michael Redgrave's plight in James Cruze's The Great Gabbo (1929), an early talkie based on a Ben Hecht story that well deserves a release on disc.

Despite all the groundwork, Attenborough failed to strike a deal with Levine over his dream project, as the American had demanded $2 million and 2.5% of the distributor's gross for the rights to the Louis Fischer biography of Mohandas K. Gandhi that he had purchased for $100,000. Four years after Gandhi's assassination in 1948, Gabriel Pascal had been approached by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to memorialise him on screen. However, Pascal died in 1954 and eight years were to pass before Attenborough was contacted about picking up the baton by Motilal Kothari, a civil servant at the Indian High Commission in London.

Although David Lean was mentioned in dispatches, Attenborough gained the advantage by asking last viceroy Lord Mountbatten to introduce him to Nehru and his daughter, Indira Gandhi. They gave their blessing, but the project stalled when Nehru died in 1964. He had insisted on a classical British actor taking the lead and Alec Guinness and Richard Burton were considered, along with Dustin Hoffman, Anthony Hopkins, and John Hurt. When Attenborough asked Lean to direct, he was even offered the role himself. But Lean moved on to Ryan's Daughter (1970) and the wait continued until Attenborough discovered the little known half-Indian actor, Ben Kingsley.

Funding remained a problem for such a mammoth undertaking, even though Mrs Gandhi had persuaded the National Film Development Corporation to donate a third of the $22 million budget. Driven on by memories of the newsreels of Gandhi he had seen as a boy with his parents, Attenborough mortgaged his home, sold his cars, pawned his paintings, and took acting roles in a number of well-paying mainstream movies to fill the coffers. Eventually, screenwriter John Briley introduced him to Goldcrest CEO, Jake Eberts, who made up the shortfall and shooting finally began on 26 November 1980. It lasted six months, with the climactic funeral sequence making the Guinness Book of Records for its 300,000 extras.

Premiering in New Delhi on 30 November 1982, Gandhi was commended for its ambition and for reminding the world of the Mahatma's pacifist philosophy. Some, however, questioned the film's historical perspective and its reputation has undoubtedly declined since it was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and broke the record for a British title by winning eight, including Best Picture, Director, and Actor. Somewhat puzzlingly, it only converted five of its 14 BAFTA nominations.

Attenborough wrote about his journey in In Search of Gandhi (1982) and accepted a BAFTA Fellowship for his life's work. But he was far from finished.

A Little Bit of Everything

Despite branching out into directing, Attenborough very much remained a jobbing actor and he donned uniform again in Gordon Flemyng's The Last Grenade, in which mercenary Stanley Baker has a fling with Attenborough's wife, Honor Blackman, before taking on the Chinese People's Army. This gung-ho actioner has rather been forgotten, unlike Silvio Narizzano's take on Joe Orton's Loot (both 1970), which sends Inspector Truscott to a seaside hotel on the trail of a pair of gay bank robbers and a black widow posing as a nurse.

Attenborough hooked up with Lee Remick again in Dick Clement's adaptation of Iris Murdoch's A Severed Head, which charts the marital strife of Antonia (Remick) and Martin Lynch-Gibbon (Ian Holm) and their respective lovers, psychiatrist half-brother Palmer Anderson (Attenborough) and Georgie Hands (Jennie Linden). He also made a rare excursion into TV costume drama as Mr Tungay in Delbert Mann's neglected all-star adaptation of Charles Dickens's David Copperfield (both 1970), which pitched Robin Phillips into the title role.

A still from 10 Rillington Place (1971) With John Hurt
A still from 10 Rillington Place (1971) With John Hurt

In each case, reviews were mixed, but there was universal acclaim for Attenborough's chilling performance as serial killer John Reginald Christie in Richard Fleischer's 10 Rillington Place (1971), a denunciation of capital punishment that was based on Ludovic Kennedy's investigation into the wrongful execution of Timothy Evans (John Hurt) for the murder of his pregnant wife, Beryl (Judy Geeson). Filming in actual locations, Attenborough took the role to highlight miscarriages of justice and deserved award recognition. However, he was overlooked and moved on to narrate Tony Maylam's FA Cup centenary documentary, Cup Glory (1972).

Two years later, he returned to the Agatha Christie as Judge Arthur Cannon in Peter Collinson's And Then There Were None (1974), which Cinema Paradiso users can compare with René Clair's 1945 and Craig Viveiros's 2015 versions. The chance to knock out John Wayne proved a huge incentive for playing Commander Sir Charles Swann in Brannigan, Douglas Hickox's lively thriller about a maverick Chicago cop ruffling feathers in London while trying to extradite a gangster. However, Attenborough found himself on the wrong side of the law as Black September leader Edward Sloat in Otto Preminger's Rosebud (both 1975), which follows the efforts of covert CIA operative Peter O'Toole to rescue five Israeli girls kidnapped by the Palestinian Liberation Army.

Regrettably, Attenborough's arresting performance as Major Lionel E. Roach in Michael Anderson's court-martial saga, Conduct Unbecoming (1975), is currently out of reach. But he remained in the Raj for Satyajit Ray's The Chess Players (1977), in which he essayed General James Outram, who annexed Awadh from Nawab Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan) on the eve of the 1857 Indian Mutiny. Adopting a broad Scottish accent for the Bengali maestro's sole Hindi feature, Attenborough later averred, 'I count working for Ray as one of the milestones of my career.'

Following a two-year break, Attenborough returned to Greeneland for The Human Factor (1979), Otto Preminger's Tom Stoppard-scripted adaptation of a Le Carré-esque espionage thriller, in which MI6 security chief, Colonel Daintry, has to root out a Soviet mole. Unfortunately not on disc, this was Preminger's swan song and Attenborough disappeared from the screen for 14 years, while he focussed on directorial projects.

He returned in style as theme park pioneer John Hammond in Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park (1993) and reprised the role in The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), while his voice can also be heard in Colin Trevorrow's Jurassic World (2015). These pictures need no introduction, nor does Les Mayfield's Miracle on 34th Street (1994), in which Attenborough twinklingly took on the role of Kris Kringle, the department store Santa who insists he's the real thing, that had earned Edmund Gwenn a Best Supporting Oscar in George Seaton's 1947 original. But who remembers Benjamin Fry's E=mc² (aka Wavelength, 1996), a drama about the sex life of an Oxford academic in which Attenborough cameos as The Visitor?

Making his Shakespearean debut at the age of 73, Attenborough guested as the English ambassador who announces the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (1996). He remained in period garb to advise Cate Blanchett's Tudor queen as Sir William Cecil in Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth (1998) and to sing a few lines as Jacob alongside Donny Osmond in David Mallet's film version of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd's enduringly popular musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1999).

Only three roles remained in a six-decade career, although Lord Dickie (as he now was) also got to voice grandfathers in the children's television programmes Tom and Vicky (1998) and It's Itsy Bitsy Time (1999). When Catherine Morshead reworked E. Nesbit's The Railway Children (2000) for ITV, Attenborough took up the rear compartment seat that had been occupied by William Mervyn in Lionel Jeffries's 1970 big-screen version. He was also seen as Magog, the Arbiter of the Justice Great Council of Mac Slec in Brian Henson's mini-series, Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story (2001) and heard when Spike Milligan proved too ill to narrate Puckoon (2002), Terence Ryan's adaptation of the former Goon's 1963 comic novel about the 1920s partition of Ireland. It was an impish way to bow out.

And Cut

A still from Revolution (1985)
A still from Revolution (1985)

Having devoted a third of his life to one idolised idealist, Attenborough turned his attention to another. Enlightenment thinker Thomas Paine was born in Norfolk, but relocated to the 13 Colonies in 1774 and became a Founding Father of the United States of America prior to defending the French Revolution in the influential 1791 tract, Rights of Man. Attenborough started seeking finance following the completion of Trevor Griffiths's screenplay, These Are the Times, in 1988. However, the subject failed to chime with Hollywood studio suits after the dismal box-office showing of Hugh Hudson's Revolution (1985) and the project would remain on the shelf for the next three decades.

Attenborough himself was in demand, however, even though there were misgivings about a Brit being hired to adapt Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban's smash Broadway musical, A Chorus Line (1985). Michael Douglas was cast as Zach, the director auditioning some dancers for his new show. But, despite some slickly staged production numbers, Attenborough struggled to capture the immediacy and intimacy of the theatrical experience and the picture recouped just over half of its $25 million budget.

There were also those who questioned Attenborough's suitability to tell the story of anti-apartheid activist, Steve Biko, especially when he and screenwriter John Briley opted to present events from the viewpoint of sympathetic journalist Donald Woods and cast Kevin Kline alongside Denzel Washington in Cry Freedom (1987). Faced with threats from inside South Africa and objections from Biko's allies, Attenborough was forced to shoot in Zimbabwe, defiantly proclaiming, 'I never want to make the kind of film whose impact ends when the audience leaves the cinema. I always wanted to make films that might change or at least focus people's views.'

Nominated for three Oscars and the recipient of the Peace Film Award at the Berlin Film Festival, this well-meaning, but flawed biopic has seen its reputation diminish since it was grouped with other 'white saviour narratives' in 2012. Woods defended the director, however, declaring, 'Nobody else I know could have done it. The physical strength and mental stamina needed to initiate, supervise and complete Cry Freedom - these manifold demands were of a scale and intensity few human beings could have coped with and withstood.'

Five years were to pass before Attenborough released another film and the critics lay in wait once more. Based on Charlie Chaplin's My Autobiography and David Robinson's Chaplin: His Life and Art, Chaplin (1992), was told in flashbacks from an interview between the ageing legend and his fictitious literary editor, George Hayden (Anthony Hopkins). Chaplin's daughter, Geraldine, played his mother, Hannah, in the scenes depicting the Londoner's deprived youth. But the screenplay by William Boyd (with contributions from Bryan Forbes, William Goldman, and Tom Stoppard) ignored the more problematical aspects of Chaplin's private life and occasionally mistook bathos for poignancy.

Downey deservedly won BAFTA and Golden Globe statuettes, in addition to receiving an Oscar nomination. But Attenborough was overlooked, in the face of complaints that his direction had become conservatively classical, moralising in tone, and lacking in personal vision. He remained happy to prioritise content over style, however, insisting, 'I have no interest in being remembered as a great creative filmmaker. I want to be remembered as a storyteller.' He also told another interviewer, 'That's what I mean when I say sometimes that I'm a boring director. I don't use film in the way that the great auteurs do. I use film, the camera, to record as effectively and as perceptively as I am able what I want to say through the actors.'

He demonstrated what he had in mind with Shadowlands (1993), for which William Nicholson adapted his own stage play about the romance between Oxford don (and children's author) C.S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins) and American poet, Joy Gresham (Debra Winger). Despite their differing approaches to acting, the leads responded to Attenborough's coaxing and received BAFTA nominations. Winger was also acknowledged at the Oscars, as was Nicholson, while Attenborough was compensated for missing out on Best Director with the BAFTA for Best British Film.

Despite his tireless and often inspirational work for industry institutions and charities, Attenborough had become something of a figure of fun. Eric Idle had first lampooned his emotionality in an amusing awards ceremony skit in Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-74), although Attenborough had always protested that he had become tearful at the BAFTAs while introducing Jack Hawkins because he had just lost his larynx to cancer. The ribbing in Spitting Image (1984-96) was somewhat crueller, as Attenborough became identified with the 'luvvie' fraternity within British theatre. He joked that he called people 'darling' because he couldn't remember their names, but his distinctive style made him formidably effective in his executive roles at Channel Four, BAFTA, and the BFI.

Moreover, he remained an active film-maker. In 1996, he cast Chris O'Donnell and Sandra Bullock as Ernest Hemingway and Agnes von Kurowsky in In Love and War, which recalled the relationship between the 18 year-old American and his nurse (who was eight years his senior) after he had been wounded as a volunteer ambulance driver in Italy during the Great War. The reviews were cool, with many critics preferring Frank Borzage's 1932 and Charles Vidor's 1957 adaptations of 'A Farewell to Arms', the novel that Hemingway had based on his experiences. But Attenborough himself had not been happy with a screenplay he felt had been written by committee.

A still from Grey Owl (1999)
A still from Grey Owl (1999)

He was more enthusiastic about Grey Owl (1999), which was scripted by William Nicholson. As boys, the Attenborough brothers had queued to see this First Nations trapper lecture in Leicester in 1936 and they were devastated to discover on his death, two years later, that this pioneering Canadian environmentalist was actually a fraud named Archibald Belaney from Hastings. Pierce Brosnan impressed in the title role, but the director conceded that Annie Galipeau's struggle with the English dialogue detracted from her performance as Grey Owl's wife, Anahareo (aka Gertrude Bernard).

Aware that neither recent feature had fared well at the box office, Attenborough channelled his energies into the Tom Paine biopic. But the 84 year-old's final outing would be Closing the Ring (2007), which opens in Michigan in 1991, as the newly widowed Ethel Ann Harris (Shirley MacLaine) tells daughter Marie (Neve Campbell) about the romance between her teenage self (Mischa Barton) and farmer's son, Teddy Gordon (Stephen Arnell), who had been based in Belfast with USAF buddies Jack Etty (Gregory Smith) and Chuck Harris (David Aplay) during the Second World War.

Once again, the critics were harsh, although some praised the warmth and insight of Attenborough's storytelling. But he had other things to worry about. A close confidant of Princess Diana, he was still mourning her loss when his eldest daughter Jane, her daughter Lucy, and her mother-in-law, Audrey Holland, perished in the Indian Ocean tsunami on 26 December 2004. He and Sim set up the Jane Holland Creative Centre For Learning in Swaziland in her memory and he reiterated his belief in non-racial education in

Entirely Up to You, Darling, a memoir that was published shortly before he had a pacemaker fitted in August 2008. Four months later, he fell while suffering a stroke and was lucky to survive. Now confined to a wheelchair, Attenborough sold his art collection and his Scottish retreat, as well as his beloved home, Old Friars, to join his wife and her actor brother, Gerald (use the Cinema Paradiso searchline to discover his extensive credits), in Denville Hall, the actors' retirement home in Northwood. It was here that Baron Attenborough of Richmond upon Thames died five days short of his 91st birthday on 24 August 2014.

He had been in contact with Martin Scorsese and Anthony Haas about Silver Ghost, a Rolls Royce origins story, until 2012. The same year, Simon Callow had played Lord Dickie in James Strong's BBC Four biopic, Best Possible Taste: The Kenny Everett Story. A decade later, he would later be impersonated by Harris Dickinson in Tom George's comic 1950s whodunit, See How They Run (2022), which co-starred Pearl Chanda as Sheila Sim. Surely someone will get round to releasing this on disc, eventually.

A still from Best Possible Taste: The Kenny Everett Story (2012)
A still from Best Possible Taste: The Kenny Everett Story (2012)
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