No other British filmmaker can match Richard Attenborough’s stature as cinematic polymath and avuncular national figure. Now a left-leaning member of the British House of Lords, his status as an actor was underlined in Jurassic Park
, nearly six decades after he had soared to national stardom in the stage adaptation of Brighton Rock
. A string of directorial credits, including Oh! What a Lovely
War and A Bridge Too Far
, demonstrate his sure touch with spectacle and storytelling. He is perhaps most celebrated, however, as a cinematic biographer. Films such as Cry Freedom
(which contributed to the end of apartheid in South Africa) and the Oscar-laden Gandhi
– a pet project and his crowning glory – bear witness to his talent for combining the personal and political, the intimate and the epic.
Few twentieth-century British filmmakers, or artists of any sort, can match Richard Attenborough’s stature as a national figure. His appearance may have changed with the patriarchal beard that remained after acting roles in Jurassic Park
, 1993, and Miracle on 34th Street
, 1994, but Attenborough is still recognised everywhere, and as a left-leaning humanist member of the British House of Lords, the power and reach of his influence is no longer confined to the film industry alone.
Attenborough’s parents, distinguished educationalists, raised their three sons to regard commitment to public service as the whole and proper purpose of life, and Attenborough has contributed his presence and energy to a wide variety of public causes – as many as thirty at the same time – as patron, president or chairman. This part of his life is inseparable from his creative work. In a thoroughly unfashionable, almost Victorian way, Attenborough values his work as an actor and director only to the extent that it uses the medium of entertainment to inspire his audience and lead it to greater understanding. He accepted the most unsympathetic role of his acting career, that of the murderer Reginald Christie in Richard Fleischer’s 10 Rillington Place, precisely because the film was an implicit protest against capital punishment.
As an actor, Attenborough has been at the top of his profession for the best part of six decades. Born on 29 August 1923, he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at 18. Before being drafted into war service at 19, he made a telling film debut in David Lean and Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve, and soared to national stardom with his stage role of a young criminal in Brighton Rock. Among postwar stage successes, he and his wife Sheila Sim starred in what was to become the longest-running play in theatre history, The Mousetrap.
The 1950s were not great years for British cinema, and Attenborough generally found himself cast, with his youthful looks, as schoolboy (The Guinea Pig), baby-face criminal (Brighton Rock, Boys in Brown) or heroic young serviceman, in the war films that proliferated in those years. His most rewarding parts were provided by the satirical comedies of his early mentors John and Roy Boulting: Private’s Progress, Brothers in Law and I’m All Right Jack.
In the 1960s Attenborough took a firmer hold on his career, forming a production company, Beaver Films, with the writer Bryan Forbes, and involving himself with the independent distribution company Allied Filmmakers. Out of this came some of the most intelligent British films of the period, and rewarding roles for Attenborough, notably in James Hill’s The Dock Brief and Forbes’ Séance on a Wet Afternoon.
By this time Attenborough was determined on what was to be the central event of his life as well as his career, the filming of Gandhi. ‘The truth is that I didn’t really want to be a director at all. I just wanted to direct that film’, he wrote. Attenborough wanted passionately to communicate the inspiration and the universal essence he perceived in Gandhi’s teachings. The idea first came to him in 1962; when Gandhi was finally released in 1982, it received worldwide commercial and critical success and eight Oscars.
In the intervening years Attenborough had become an experienced director. His first film, Oh! What a Lovely War, remains his most free, audacious and creative; almost Brechtian in its stylised adaptation of Joan Littlewood’s theatre piece, it uses the music of the era and the metaphor of a seaside concert party to explore the experience of the First World War. Young Winston, 1972, first established him as the screen’s most meticulous biographer. A Bridge Too Far, 1977, a restaging of the Allies’ failed action at Arnhem in 1942, allowed him to experiment in massive spectacle. An eerie psychological thriller, Magic, 1978, was an odd interlude; and following Gandhi, there was another surprising change of pace in A Chorus Line, 1988. Other directors had deemed the Broadway musical unfilmable, but Attenborough found ingenious filmic means to convey the physical theatricality of the original.
Since then, Attenborough has dedicated himself exclusively to biography. He was gratified to feel that Cry Freedom, 1987, which told the story of the murdered black activist Steve Biko and his white disciple Donald Woods, contributed to the end of apartheid in South Africa. Chaplin, 1992, painstakingly recreated the changing world in which the great film comedian had lived and worked.
Attenborough has a tendency, rare in directors, to deprecate the artistic aspect of his own work as ‘sometimes a little bit mundane… over-formulated’, and he has found no lack of critics to echo him. Yet this is a serious underestimation. He has a rare skill in working with actors and at its best his mise-en-scène has a subtle fluidity – all too often obscured by the high gloss mechanically applied to big-budget productions. These essential directorial gifts had greater play in Shadowlands, 1993, a touching story of the late marriage of the poet C S Lewis. This and other late projects gave Attenborough the opportunity to identify and delineate his own driving force – a passionate belief in the inherent goodness of mankind.