Richard Attenborough: interview
‘Entirely Up to You, Darling’ is the long-awaited autobiography from Sir Richard Attenborough. David Jenkins meets him in his Richmond home
An anecdote that features in Richard Attenborough’s new autobiography – entitled ‘Entirely Up to You, Darling’ – sees the now 88-year-old actor/director recount the details of a show he once organised for the local church at the age of 12. One sketch, given the somewhat fruity title of ‘Lydies Wot Come to Oblige’, involved convincing his shy younger brother David (the famed ecologist) to dress up in drag, which he was only able to do by promising that all the proceeds would go to the RSPCA. The show was a success and David’s expert approximation of the female form was given a blistering write-up in the local paper.
According to the book’s co-writer, his long-term assistant and friend, Diana Hawkins, the phrase ‘Entirely up to you, darling’ refers to the oft-used passive/aggressive expression that Attenborough would deploy to those doubting they could deliver on his demands. As the quaint, left-leaning sensibility of his films and his reputation as a ‘luvvie’ would suggest, he is a genuine and gentle man, a person for whom you could easily imagine people bending over backwards to please. He even manages to lend an understated, ambivalent edge to characters such as John Christie, the notorious serial killer from ‘Ten Rillington Place’ (1972), or the bumptious, small-time crook he plays in Basil Dearden’s high-seas thriller ‘The Ship That Died of Shame’ (1952).
Despite growing up in Leicester, Attenborough makes no attempt to hide his fondness for London. He bought his estate on Richmond Green in 1949 and still lives there today with his wife Sheila. ‘Everything is nice about living in Richmond,’ he beams. ‘It hasn't really changed over the years. Except the fucking aircraft. They are dreadful. They come over about every minute.’
As we’ve seen from the aforementioned church hall bonanza, Attenborough had a hankering to become an actor from a very early age. ‘Dave was the academic and I was a washout – a considerable disappointment to the Governor (his father, Frederick),’ he says. But his dedication to acting prevailed as he managed he win the only annual scholarship to Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, of which he is now president. ‘I remember it well. My ma took me on a train down from Leicester and we stayed in the Strand Palace Hotel. We walked over to Goodge Street, and I made her stand on the corner so it didn't look like I was being brought along by my mother.’
Despite the initial rumblings of war, Attenborough instantly took to the bustle of London, living with an aunt in Wimbledon during term time and rehearsing in the RADA building on Ballot Street, and when that was bombed, down the road at the Drill Hall. There was even a thrill to be had in ducking out halfway through a scene to head down to Tottenham Court Road Tube station as the air raid siren sounded. It was at RADA that he met his wife-to-be, the actress Sheila Sim: ‘A bomb went off while me and Sheila were exchanging our wedding vows you know. It was a sort of routine.’
His first film role came as the cowardly seaman who deserts his post in David Lean’s wartime drama ‘In Which We Serve’ (1942) and was followed five years later – after numerous other small roles – with his breakthrough turn as the sharp-suited, demonic spiv Pinkie in ‘Brighton Rock’. Though he is fairly dismissive of many of his early screen parts (‘99 per cent of what I was involved in was utter rubbish,’ he says, perhaps over-modestly), he remembers word-for-word a review of the film that was printed in the Daily Express which upset him at the time. It read: ‘The Boulting Brothers decided to cast the spotty and repellent adolescent Richard Attenborough in “Brighton Rock”. The result, in my opinion, is that the film version of Graham Greene’s Pinkie is about as close to the real thing as Donald Duck is to Greta Garbo.’
The notices can't have been all bad, as Attenborough thrived as a successful character actor in both film and theatre, though there is a sharp cut-off in the late ’70s after collaborations with Satyajit Ray in ‘The Chess Players’ (1977) and Otto Preminger in ‘The Human Factor’ (1979) where he made a decisive move into directing.
His films often focus on changing times – both political and social – and their effect upon the individual, whether it’s the outbreak of war in ‘Oh, What a Lovely War!’ (1969), the end of colonial rule in India in ‘Gandhi’ (1982) or the death of a loved one in ‘Shadowlands’ (1993). Whether his distinctive style and penchant for historic subject matter may have had its heyday is another matter entirely. ‘Fifty years ago, there were great impresarios like Jack Warner who ran the industry. They would read a script and say, “Yeah, we’ll do it,” and it was done and nobody else was involved. There is no such person in the industry now. I went to the head of one of the major studios and tried to persuade him to make a movie, and his reply was, “I'll give it to our marketing people, and I’ll let you know”. He didn't give a shit about the subject, or the film. The excitement, creativity and the importance of emotional impact goes. To deal with the studios now is absolute hell, not because they’re shits, but because they’re all 23 yearolds and they’ve never been in front of a camera, they have no ideas of how you actively create cinema.’
There’s no denying the fact that Attenborough is an filmmaker of the old school, and whatever your opinion of his oeuvre, scenes like those hulking crowd set-ups in ‘Gandhi’, especially the opening shot which replays Gandhi’s funeral after his assassination in 1948, remain breathtaking. Part of the allure is that you rarely see ‘real’ shots of that scale in cinema any more, especially with the corner-cutting advantages afforded by digital technology. ‘I don't like the technical advances in cinema,’ he says ruefully. ‘I always find that with CGI there’s something lacking because the eye actually takes in the repetition.’ Attenborough yearns for a return to a more tactile style of filmmaking: ‘The truth of the fact is that we used 400,000 people in that scene, and I do think it had an extraordinary impact on the screen. I don’t enjoy people saying to me, “Oh you can now do it this way now”. I want it to be real.’
The sweep and sprawl seen in the work of those David Lean works like ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (1962) and ‘Doctor Zhivago’ (1965) were a big influence on Attenborough’s epic filmmaking style. It’s surprising to discover, then, that the pair were never friends. Indeed, there was a point when screenwriter Robert Bolt had been commissioned to write a treatment of ‘Gandhi’ after Attenborough was unable to generate sufficient funds, and he demanded that Lean direct the film. Lean’s subsequent obsession with filming a version of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ (which he was never able to complete) meant that the project was passed back to Attenborough with Lean’s blessing. ‘I was brought up in the David Lean era. I haven't altered my style over the years. I haven't moved greatly forward with the impact of television editing and such. Perhaps I should have. Composition is very important to me. Time spent on a piece of composition, as it was with David Lean, is one of the things that gives me joy.’
He admits that it was his love of art, specifically painting, that informed his directorial style. ‘In “Oh, What a Lovely War”, there must be seven or eight, maybe even ten set-ups which are actual images of the Monet poppy fields.’ Whether they were actual prints or copies, Attenborough has always been surrounded by art and has been a collector since his teens. ‘It was something that had fascinated me from the word go. When me and Sheila got married, all we had was an oval table, four chairs, a bed and a painting by Matthew Smith.’
Discussing his love of art triggers another anecdote: ‘It was the autumn of 1975 and I remember I went down to collect the post one morning and there were two letters. I ran upstairs to tell Sheila that I’d had a letter from Downing Street and it was to say that I had been offered an appointment as a trustee of the Tate. I couldn't think of anything more wonderful – I spent half my life in the Tate on Millbank. Sheila then said, “That’s lovely darling, but you said you had two letters”. So I said, “Oh yes dear, I’ve been given a knighthood”.’
A huge appendix at the back of the book listing all his various honours, awards and chairmanships is a testament to Attenborough’s acceptance by the establishment. Talking of establishments, it’s interesting to read that he starred (alongside his wife) in the first run of Agatha Christie’s ‘The Mousetrap’ at the Ambassador’s Theatre in 1952. Seeing a potential hit, they decided to relinquish their wages in exchange for a ten per cent stake in the production, but they eventually sold it in the ’80s in order to get ‘Gandhi’ made. Does he regret it? ‘Oh my God, yes. I wouldn't be sitting here, I would have retired! It was that bloody "Gandhi" again. Interestingly, I made sure that my contract stated that the Saturday matinee could not begin before 5:30, which allowed me to drive up from Stamford Bridge for the Chelsea games. I wore no make-up and didn't come on stage for the first 19 minutes. There was no reason for me not to pursue my real love – football.’
With so many other passions, did he always want to enter the film industry? ‘I think there were times when, if circumstances had developed, I might have been tempted into politics. I am a fan of Tony Blair. I think Gordon Brown is a fine man, but I think he's headed for one hell of a bloody struggle.’ Whether it’s film, politics or his personal life, Attenborough is set in his ways and proud. ‘I still couldn’t vote Tory. I just couldn’t. It would make me throw up.’
'Entirely Up to You, Darling' by Richard Attenborugh and Diana Hawkins is published by Hutchinson and out now.
Author: David Jenkins
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