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Attenborough, Lord Richard (1923-)

Director, Actor, Producer

Main image of Attenborough, Lord Richard (1923-)

Richard Samuel Attenborough was born in Cambridge on 29 August 1923, one of three brothers including the BBC naturalist and presenter David Attenborough. After obtaining a scholarship to RADA, he gained his first great acting success playing Pinkie, the sinister young spiv in Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, first on the West End stage in 1943 and then four years later in the Boulting Brothers' film version.

Attenborough eventually became dissatisfied with the character roles he was offered. In 1959, in partnership with Bryan Forbes, he set up Beaver Films, through which he produced The Angry Silence (d. Guy Green, 1960) and Whistle Down the Wind (d. Bryan Forbes, 1961). His first film as a director was Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), a project inherited from John Mills, who had developed the screenplay with Len Deighton from Joan Littlewood's stage production. This satiric fantasia on the First World War is largely set on Brighton Pier, but Attenborough and cinematographer Gerry Turpin successfully open out the play with a number of bravura sequences, the best remembered being the final shot which pulls back to reveal an entire hillside covered in white crosses.

Young Winston (US/UK, 1972), adapted by Carl Foreman from Winston Churchill's book about his early years, is seemingly a more conventional film. But its complex flashback structure is supported by a voice-over that develops into a dialectical discourse, emphasising the contrast between the letters written by the young Churchill at the turn of the century and the autobiography he wrote some fifty years later. This effect is largely lost in the truncated television version, which cuts fifteen per cent from its roadshow release length of 167 minutes. Particularly regrettable is the removal of a final scene where the older Churchill dreams of a conversation between his dead father and his younger self.

Attenborough then made two films in partnership with independent producer Joseph E. Levine and screenwriter William Goldman. The first was adapted from Cornelius Ryan's book A Bridge Too Far, clearly an attempt to emulate the success of Darryl Zanuck's film version of Ryan's The Longest Day (US, 1962). The resulting film (US, 1977) is a sporadically effective but very episodic dramatisation of the disastrous attempt by the Allies to take possession of a series of bridges behind enemy lines in Holland. It was the last epic dealing with events from the Second World War until Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (US, 1998) and painstakingly authentic - letters to The Times from disgruntled generals notwithstanding. Perhaps surprisingly in view of its slow pace and downbeat ending, the film was a financial success. But instead of going on to make Gandhi, as he had hoped, Attenborough was persuaded to direct an adaptation of Goldman's best-selling novel Magic (US, 1978). Despite a fine performance by Anthony Hopkins as the demented ventriloquist, Attenborough never really seems comfortable with his sinister subject matter.

Gandhi (US/India/UK, 1982) eventually found financial backing from Jake Eberts' ambitious British company Goldcrest, and proved to be an enormous commercial and critical success (it won eight Academy Awards). Attenborough was faulted for his broad and untarnished presentation of his protagonist, but he shows complete mastery in his handling of both the intimate and the spectacular sequences and inspires an extraordinary performance by Ben Kingsley as Gandhi. Once again, Attenborough followed up with a subject he seemed ill-suited to, an adaptation of the Broadway musical A Chorus Line (US, 1985), which resolutely failed to come alive either dramatically or commercially.

Gandhi's true successor was Cry Freedom (US/UK, 1987), one of the few serious films made in the 1980s attacking apartheid in South Africa. Although the film was criticised for being too partial a view of the South African activist Steve Biko, and for giving too great an emphasis to the role played by the white journalist Donald Woods (on whose book the film is based), Attenborough's sincerity shines through. As so often with his films, Cry Freedom is characterised by very strong performances and concludes with a complicated stylistic flourish, in which the escape of the Woods family is inter-cut with flashbacks to a massacre of young black demonstrators and to scenes between Woods and Biko.

Attenborough's films of the 1990s have all been biopics that look at self-deception, showing the contrast between the private and public faces of their famous subjects while focusing on the meeting point between European and American cultures and sensibilities. Anchored by an extraordinary central performance by Robert Downey Jr, Chaplin (UK/US/France/Italy/Japan, 1992) is Attenborough's most underrated film. Co-written by Bryan Forbes and William Goldman (and others), structurally it extends the approach of Young Winston, undercutting Chaplin's self-perpetuated myths about himself and his career, most memorably in the scene showing two contrasting versions of how Chaplin came to create his famous tramp persona. Shadowlands (UK/US, 1993) is a heavily fictionalised and romanticised look at the tragic love affair between author C. S. Lewis and the American poet Joy Gresham; it was an immediate critical and commercial success. In Love and War (US, 1996) is a tritely written look at the early life of Ernest Hemingway, while the little-seen Grey Owl (UK/Canada, 1999) tells the fascinating true story of Archibald Belaney, an Englishman who after emigrating to Canada passed himself off as an Indian guide, becoming a world-renowned environmentalist and an advocate for beavers. Despite the complex flashback structure and a memorable scene where the protagonist returns home in his new guise, the film is over-earnest and humourless in performance and execution. Appropriately, it was made under the banner of Beaver Productions.

Attenborough married the actress Sheila Sim in 1945; he was knighted in 1976 and made a life peer in 1993. He was chairman of the British Film Institute between 1981 and 1992 and continues to play a crucial role in British film culture. His ambitious and stylistically adventurous films represent a fine and often very personal body of work in genres not obviously in keeping with his manifestly liberal sensibilities. In fact his films have gained strength and individuality by his willingness to incorporate such seeming contradictions into the very fabric of his productions.

Attenborough, Richard, In Search of Gandhi (London: Bodley Head, 1982)
Dougan, Andy, The actor's director: Richard Attenborough behind the camera (London: Mainstream Publishing, 1994)
Goldman, William, Adventures in the Screen Trade (New York, Warner Books, 1983)
Hacker, Jonathan, Take ten: contemporary British film directors (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991)

Sergio Angelini, Directors in British and Irish Cinema

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