Yesterday would have been Richard Attenborough's 91st birthday. He died five days short, at a grand old age, and as the grand old man of British film, garlanded with knighthoods, peerages, fellowships and life presidencies of worthy bodies. I met him when I was very young, in his capacity as chairman of Capital Radio in London, and he gave me what proved to be excellent advice, although I neglected to take it for several decades.
It was an amazing seven-decade career stretching back through Jurassic Park and Gandhi and The Great Escape to an ambitious young stage actor in the post-war West End. He was in the original cast of Agatha Christie's play The Mousetrap, which opened in 1952 and is still playing every night at the St Martin's Theatre 62 years later, the world's longest-running theatrical production. It would have been interesting to see him in the film version, but Dame Agatha's contract with the producers stipulates that no movie can be licensed until six months after the London stage production has closed - which looks likely to be sometime in the 22nd century. However, Attenborough and his missus, the actress Sheila Sim, did take a ten per cent profit-share arrangement with the show which proved to be the best business decision a not terribly shrewd businessman would ever make. An ill-advised venture into the restaurant biz and the cost of getting Gandhi off the ground ate up a big chunk of change, but there was still plenty left over.
His breakthrough role was as Pinkie, the teen psychopath in Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, which he played first on stage and then in the 1947 film. Many years ago, one of Honoria Plesch's costume designs for Pinkie (or "Pinky", as she writes) came my way, and I look at it from time to time and marvel at how Attenborough inhabited the character. He did it so well that for years producers only thought of him for spivs or hoodlums - chancers with a cowardly streak. He became a producer and then a director in part to give himself a more interesting range of jobs. The League Of Gentlemen (1959) and Whistle Down The Wind (1961) were two of his first productions. His directorial debut came at the end of the Sixties with an "anti-war musical", Oh! What A Lovely War, whose finale we touched upon at the end of a recent Song of the Week.
Attenborough followed Lovely War with Young Winston, as in Churchill, and A Bridge Too Far, about the failure of Operation Market Garden in World War Two. The last was one of those war films in which everyone in uniform is a A-list star - Sean Connery, Robert Redford, Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, James Caan, Edward Fox, Ryan O'Neal, Anthony Hopkins, Gene Hackman - to the point where it seems faintly ridiculous: A star too far. But Attenborough turned out to be remarkably good at the big set-piece battle scenes. Underneath all the twinkling luvvies vying for billing, the theme of his work was well established by now: He liked to dramatize key episodes of recent history with a somewhat ambivalent attitude to the British "establishment".
Off-camera, of course, he was the establishment, and on his way to the Labour benches in the House of Lords. The furtive, shifty spiv of those post-war movies fattened in middle-age into an urbane showbiz darling. At Capital Radio, Kenny Everett called him "Dickie-poo", and then it was Sir Dickie. When I met him, he had fabulous Seventies sideburns and big specs and a poloneck. I can't actually remember whether he addressed me as "Darling", but I would like to think so. He fought hard to film the subjects he was passionate about, but the pre-production battles were so draining there was little passion left on screen. The big pictures - Gandhi and Chaplin - were decent and tasteful and efficient, but with too many rough edges smoothed away. The book he wrote about his two-decade struggle to bring Gandhi to the screen is far more lively and driven than the actual film. On the other hand, as with A Bridge Too Far, the crowd scenes were terrific.
Without the big set-pieces of British troops firing on the natives, Sir Dickie was less surefooted. In 1985, he took Broadway's all-time biggest hit, A Chorus Line, and killed it stone dead. It's tricky material - a cast of chorus dancers auditioning and talking about their lives - but even so... A few years ago, I asked Stanley Donen, director of Singin' In The Rain, where Attenborough's film version had gone wrong. "Well, I can only give you my view, which might not be the right answer," he chuckled. "It was a unique piece to the theatre. It was a stylistic musical conceived for the theatre. It was highly filled with unrealistic license, starting with the very simple idea of the director figure never being seen and talking to the dancers and them telling him about their lives... In truth, when you audition actors for a musical, they don't even know who they're playing to out there, and you don't ask them a word. You don't say a word. But that was the conceit on which the whole piece was based, and you can accept it in the theatre. On film, there was no reason not to show the director. Well, once you'd seen him, he lost his mysterious power. He wasn't this God-like presence, he was just a guy sitting there in a chair."
To be more specific, he was just Michael Douglas sitting there in a chair. Attenborough then compounded his basic error: if you're going to destroy the core stage conceit of the unseen God-like director, you might as well open up the whole thing and show the world beyond the theatre. Instead, Attenborough eliminated the central conceit, and then confined everything to within the four walls of the theatre."It wasn't a movie," said Donen. "It just had no cinematic idea whatsoever, it was simply a photographed stage play, and it was far worse than the stage piece."
In the Nineties, Attenborough returned to acting, to supporting roles (Jurassic Park) and occasional leads (the remake of Miracle On 34th Street), but one of his late directorial assignments is a very low-key, small-scale but tremendously assured film. In 1994, he released Shadowlands, "based on a true story" of C S Lewis' relationship with an ex-Commie Jewish-American divorcee. As with Gandhi and Chaplin, the "true story" was rather more complex, but Attenborough managed to penetrate deeper into the real shadowlands than his big biopics do, and he drew two splendid performances from his leads. "You're the truest person I've ever known," Anthony Hopkins (as Lewis) tells Debra Winger, and you believe it because you see it for yourself; she's one of those actresses whose straightforward honesty - the rueful, lopsided smiles, dark curls tousling the head - dignifies even the silliest movie. But she's even better here, dying of bone cancer without turning it into disease-of-the-year Oscar-bait.
For a love story, there's not much kissing or touching, at least for the first hour, but Attenborough manages to breathe life into the usual English movie portrait of repressed dysfunctional ninnies. Hopkins and Winger maintain a stiff formality: he doesn't know what to do; she does, but she finds pleasure in waiting for him. In the distance between them, the passion is palpable. You long for him to take her hand, to kiss her, and the longer you wait, the more intense is the sheer romance. During the Encaenia at Oxford, in the middle of the national anthem, Hopkins stares across the massed ranks of college dignitaries and finds Miss Winger, unfamiliar with the words of but nodding teasingly along. In effect, Attenborough turns "God Save The Queen" into the meet-cute love song. Later, at the garden party, she playfully reaches up and brushes something from his face. Later still, when she comes home from hospital to find he's pushed together two single beds, she asks him to describe his bedtime routine. These may well be the three funniest scenes a somewhat humorless director ever shot, and they're very affecting.
I thank him for that, and for A Bridge Too Far, and The League Of Gentlemen, and Brighton Rock, and many other and varied moments. A life well lived. Rest in peace.