Attenborough, Richard Samuel, Baron Attenborough
- Brian McFarlane
Attenborough, Richard Samuel, Baron Attenborough (1923–2014), actor, film director, and film producer, was born at 9 Brunswick Walk, Cambridge, on 29 August 1923, the eldest son of Frederick Levi Attenborough (1887–1973), historian and academic administrator, first at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and subsequently as principal of the University College of Leicester, and his wife, Mary, née Clegg (1897–1961), a founding member of the Marriage Guidance Council. His younger brothers were Sir David Attenborough (b. 1926), naturalist and writer-presenter of such television series as Life on Earth (1979), and John Attenborough (b. 1928), a motor industry executive.
Childhood and early breaks on stage and screen
Attenborough grew up in an atmosphere that combined the academic with a strong sense of social responsibility, but claimed modestly to be the least scholastically inclined of his family, having been drawn to acting from a very early age. He was educated at Wyggeston Grammar School, Leicester, but, unlike his two brothers, did not wish to pursue a university course, and instead, at the age of seventeen, won the Leverhulme scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), London, winning the Bancroft medal at the end of his first year.
Attenborough made his stage debut during RADA’s summer vacation of 1941 in a production of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness, at Palmers Green’s Intimate Theatre. The well-known theatrical agent Al Parker, impressed with Attenborough’s performance, took him on as a client, and this was followed by a West End debut in Awake and Sing in 1942. There were about a dozen stage appearances over the next fifteen years, most notably as the vicious Pinkie in Brighton Rock (1943), later starring in the film version, and in the original cast of The Mousetrap as Detective-Sergeant Trotter, a role he played for two years (1952–4), starring with his wife, Sheila Beryl Grant Sim (1922–2016), daughter of Stuart Grant Sim, bank manager. They had met at RADA, and married at St Mary Abbots Church, Kensington, on 22 January 1945.
Though there were popular stage successes, Attenborough’s was to be essentially a film-related career. Parker ‘heard that Noël Coward was looking for new faces for his ship’s crew in In Which We Serve  … and he got me an audition. I had a screen test as well, and as a result Coward cast me as the young stoker’, adding that ‘if you coughed you missed me’ (McFarlane, 33). That last clause doesn’t do justice to the vivid impression he made as the frightened young stoker who deserts his post when the ship is attacked. What is strange is that his role was uncredited, whereas many much more fleeting appearances were given their due. However, it was sufficient to have got him noticed by the Boulting brothers, who, along with Coward, were the mentors of his early years on screen, and would later place him under contract.
Attenborough was called up to the RAF in 1943 and, after training as a pilot, was seconded to its Film Unit, for which he appeared in the semi-documentary Journey Together (1945). This was essentially a propaganda piece, aimed at strengthening UK/US relations, directed by John Boulting and including in its cast the US character star Edward G. Robinson, who, Attenborough recalled, ‘granted me a vision of film acting which I had never encountered before’ (McFarlane, 33).
This ‘vision’ was to serve Attenborough well in the ensuing decades when he went on to rack up almost eighty film appearances as an actor. Given his later spectacular successes as a director and/or producer of big-budget productions, it is easy to overlook, and perhaps underrate, what an accomplished film actor he quickly became in the 1940s, when he made a dozen films in rapid succession. He followed Journey Together with a brief role as a pilot in Michael Powell’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946), and with leads in such varied fare as The Man Within (1947), Brighton Rock (1947), The Guinea Pig (1948), London Belongs to Me (1948), and Boys in Brown (1949). What is striking is how effortlessly he inhabited these roles. In The Man Within he played a schoolboy who has hated his father, now hates his school and its boys, and, when his smuggler guardian Carlyon (Michael Redgrave) takes him to sea, transfers his hatred to his bullying shipmates. Attenborough gives a convincing sense of ageing from innocent boy to duplicitous young man, engaged in amorous dalliance with a young woman and an ambivalent relationship with the enigmatic Carlyon.
If this film asked a good deal of Attenborough, the next two, both for the Boultings, made even greater demands, which he met with convincing ease. In Brighton Rock, repeating his stage role, he imbued Pinkie with a chilling malevolence, a sense of youthful innocence utterly corrupted and making no claims on audience sympathy—and winning Graham Greene’s praise in the process. He was aptly described as giving ‘a powerful performance as a lonely psychotic, capable of finding fulfilment in cruelty and violence’ (Spicer, 130–31). At twenty-three he could still, in The Guinea Pig, persuasively evoke the working-class teenager Jack Read, who wins a place in a posh boarding-school, and in doing so finds himself in a range of social conflicts. Directed by Roy Boulting from Warren Chetham-Strode’s play, this film gestured towards a post-war urge to greater social equality and depended heavily on Attenborough’s winning and retaining the audience’s sympathy.
In the short space of two or three years Attenborough had become a consummate film actor. He never believed he was conventional leading-man material, but from this early period it was clear that he would, like Robinson, become a much sought-after character star. He could play frightened young men, such as those in London Belongs to Me and Boys in Brown, and make one fear for him. Increasingly, and not surprisingly in light of his family background, he wanted to appear in films of greater social significance. In later life he was liable to be too severe on the acting paths he trod in the 1950s. Certainly there were some minor, more or less anodyne pieces such as Father’s Doing Fine (1952) and The Baby and the Battleship (1956), and rather too many wartime adventures, but in the Boulting brothers’ satires—Private’s Progress (1956), as the scrounger Cox, Brothers-in-Law (1957), as a know-all barrister, and I’m All Right Jack (1959), as a profiteering arms manufacturer—there were sharp enough comic shafts directed at institutions such as the army, the law, and the trade unions to satisfy Attenborough’s urge for a more socially alert cinema.
There were also several films of the decade that gave him opportunity for dramatically satisfying challenges. In The Ship That Died of Shame (1955), a drama resonating with post-war malaise, he was again involved in corrupt sales practices, and in The Man Upstairs (1958), still retaining his youthful appearance, he is virtually solo-starred, and brilliantly conveys the eponym’s loneliness, mounting terror, and suppressed guilt as a dangerously disruptive presence in a crowded lodging-house. From Attenborough’s own point of view, the film of this period that mattered most to him was The Angry Silence (1960), for which he and Bryan Forbes set up Beaver Films, and in which he played (after Kenneth More declined the role) the factory worker who bravely refuses to join a wildcat strike. He infuses his character with an impressive mix of integrity and fear, and the film’s controversial attack on corrupt union practices was a major success. Attenborough claimed that, in taking on this project, he was determined to break with the ‘baby-faced ingenues’ he characterized as having been his acting lot in films until then (McFarlane, 33). But the evidence of the films attests to a good deal more range and versatility than this self-denigration suggests. Beaver Films went on to make the very successful Whistle Down the Wind (1961), with a screenplay by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, based on the book by Mary Hayley Bell, and the unusual and compelling Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), based on a novel by Mark McShane. Both films were produced by Attenborough and Forbes operating under the umbrella of Allied Film Makers, a consortium of which they were key founders.
Attenborough appeared in several war films of varying distinction: Morning Departure (1950), in which he was again a stoker; Gift Horse (1952), as an ‘Ordinary Seaman’; Dunkirk (1958), as a timid boat-owner who finds courage in the famous emergency; and Sea of Sand (1958), top-billed but in a minor role as a hard-drinking army regular. In these he never plays the traditional officer types accorded John Mills or Trevor Howard, but his most famous war film lay ahead in the 1960s, when he was in demand for such major American successes as The Great Escape (1963), in which he was the instigator of the title’s exploit. Other big US-based commercial hits included The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) and The Sand Pebbles (1966), but arguably his most memorable performance of this period was the home-grown 10 Rillington Place (1971), though it too had, in Richard Fleischer, an American director. Now looking older, and indeed bald, he creates a truly alarming figure as the real-life mass-murderer John Christie, with an impassive visage that could be hiding anything, and a soft-spoken voice full of possibilities. What motivates the terrifying impulses behind this almost benign exterior holds the viewer enthralled, and at least part of what motivated the always socially conscious Attenborough was the idea that the film would be ‘a plea for the permanent abolition of the death penalty’ (Attenborough and Hawkins, 173): another man had been hanged for Christie’s necrophiliac crimes and was posthumously pardoned. There were many more acting roles: they included huge box-office ventures such as Jurassic Park (1993) as well as comparatively esoteric pieces such as the Indian historical film The Chess Players (1977), a walk-on part in the romantic comedy E=mc2 (1996), and Kenneth Branagh’s prestigious Hamlet (1996), as the English ambassador in the film’s final moments.
Director and producer
Remarkable as his acting career was, in its range and versatility, there was from 1969 another immensely impressive string to Attenborough’s bow as a key figure in British cinema. By his own account it was his friend John Mills and the popular thriller writer Len Deighton who, in 1967, proposed that he should direct Oh! What a Lovely War, the highly regarded stage musical directed by Joan Littlewood at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, four years earlier. Attenborough had had no experience as a director and, as he wrote: ‘Even on first reading, it was evident that Oh! What a Lovely War was not only extremely complicated, but a totally original, surrealistic and highly-stylised film subject’ (Attenborough and Hawkins, 237). In the event, he showed prodigious control over this demanding material, effecting the ongoing movement between the stylized and the realist, between Brighton Pier and the muddy horror of trench warfare in the First World War. As he moved his all-star cast (including Mills, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, John Gielgud, and, very memorably, Vanessa Redgrave in a cameo as Mrs Pankhurst) through the familiar images of war, he also mounted a scathing satirical critique of its madness. Though some shifts between theatre and reality might have been rendered more fluidly, the overall impact of the film, released in 1969, sometimes horrifying, sometimes comic, and finally poignant, was an extraordinary achievement for a first-time director.
This was followed three years later by an equally ambitious directorial venture, Young Winston (1972), in which Attenborough again showed his capacity for the deft admixture of epic action with the intensity of personal drama. The account of Churchill’s rise from unremarkable scholar at Harrow to war correspondent in the South African War, in which he was taken prisoner but escaped, as he ‘leapt from a train into celebrity’, as the film’s voice-over recorded, and thence to the politician whose rousing maiden speech led Lloyd George to concede ‘You’ve got something’, gave point and purpose to the brilliantly staged action sequences, in India and South Africa (actually Wales and Morocco). Attenborough firmly believed that the director’s function was to make the actor’s way clear, and in Simon Ward’s Churchill he secured a performance which credibly took the late teenager to the maturity that enabled him to command his audience, whether in Parliament or in the Oldham Theatre, where Attenborough contrived a warmly emotional moment when Churchill is made aware of the presence of the widow of a former valued colleague.
Speaking later of his ‘first and most vital battle [with the producer Carl Foreman], which was the choice of Simon Ward’, Attenborough recalled that ‘he eventually allowed me to have my way. And I am immensely happy because that was a really remarkable performance’ (Robinson, 50). His generosity to and about his actors was characteristic, and as a director he saw himself as an ‘actor-manager’, believing that his purpose as director was realized essentially through them. This was nowhere more patently the case than in his choice of Ben Kingsley as the star of Gandhi (1982), the film with which Attenborough’s name as director is most tenaciously associated. Certainly the action sequences are brilliantly staged, with teeming crowds of extras giving credence to a nation on the move, but again and again the film comes back to Kingsley as a man to whom self matters less than the cause he stands for. What might have seemed over-didactic in lesser hands becomes an ongoing argument about that cause. The film won a staggering number of awards: eight Oscars, including those for best film, best director, and best actor, as well as five Golden Globes and five BAFTAs.
Attenborough’s concern for major social issues found further expression in Cry Freedom (1987), an account of the South African journalist Donald Woods volte-face from white supremacist to impassioned seeker after the truth of the black activist Steve Biko’s death, in the process becoming himself a wanted person. As Attenborough’s publicist Diana Hawkins wrote: ‘The impetus for [Cry Freedom] … was rooted in the parental mantra that it wasn’t enough to stand on the sidelines and wring your hands about an injustice, you had to fight to put it right … he always believed that the mass entertainment medium of cinema not only can but should on occasion be used for this purpose’ (Attenborough and Hawkins, 152).
What these directorial enterprises, starting with Young Winston, also have in common is their strongly biographical interest, as though Attenborough believed that the best way to explore matters of social and political history on film was through a focus on those crucial lives that bring about change. His 1992 biopic, Chaplin, was less obviously concerned with social issues than with portraying a famous life, but, as he said: ‘My wish is that people will come away from Chaplin with a greater feeling for what a wonderful medium the cinema is; a deeper understanding of the human foibles and frailties exemplified in this man who was a genius’ (Robinson, 92). In the following year he made Shadowlands, a moving study of the celebrated author and scholar C. S. Lewis, who finds late-arriving love, and who was played by Attenborough’s frequent collaborator Anthony Hopkins. His penultimate film as director, the UK/Canadian co-production Grey Owl (1999), combined his fascination with the biographical with his concern for larger social matters, as it records the exploits of a man who, besotted with the lives of American Indians and how white civilization has treated them, decides to live as one of them. In this, as in all his large-scale dramas of remarkable protagonists at the centre of wider human and social issues, Attenborough was never guilty of mindless pictorialism. His feeling for the landscapes his cameramen so vividly captured was always tempered by recognition of the ways in which man interacts with them.
It is regrettable that Attenborough was never able to realize his wish to make a film based on the life of the radical thinker Tom Paine, author of The Rights of Man. He was on less sure ground with his American productions: the US/UK co-production A Bridge Too Far (1977) lacked the narrative clarity of his other large-scale films, and neither Magic (1978), with Anthony Hopkins as its ventriloquist protagonist, which suffered from comparison with Ealing’s Dead of Night (1946), nor his adaptation of the Broadway musical hit A Chorus Line (1985), no match for either its stage predecessor or the great Hollywood musicals of the past, would figure among his major credits. However, in so vast a career, whether as actor, director, or producer, he generally maintained an extraordinarily high level of achievement, and it is scarcely an exaggeration to claim that no other film-maker was so persistent an exponent of the strengths of British cinema—and that over a period of more than sixty years. Mere prolificacy would not justify such an accolade but, when allied to rigorous commitment to the potential of cinema as a vehicle for the expression of powerful motives in human behaviour, it is hard to think of his equal.
Wider involvements, and honours
It is not as if cinema commanded all of Attenborough’s interests—or resources of time and energy. He held a large number of important public positions, some of which, but not all, were connected to film or theatre. His Who’s Who entry for 2014 listed some four dozen institutions in which he was involved either as office-holder or as recipient of fellowships and other awards. For instance he was a director of Chelsea Football Club (1969–82), president of the Muscular Dystrophy Group of Great Britain (1971), and chairman of the Actors’ Children’s Trust (1956–88), as well as such film- or theatre-related functions as chairman of Goldcrest Films & Television Ltd (1982–7), vice-president of BAFTA (1971–94), director of the Old Vic (1974–84), and member of the council of RADA (1972–2002). There were also numerous fellowships and honorary doctorates bestowed in recognition of his services to film and other causes. He was made a CBE in 1967 and created a life peer in 1993, as Baron Attenborough, of Richmond-upon-Thames. His wide-ranging commitments, which by all accounts he took very seriously, wholly justified such honours. He was a man as much honoured for his personal qualities as for his professional triumphs.
Attenborough’s marriage, one of the longest in film history, lasted until his death. He and Sheila Sim had three children: the theatre director Michael Attenborough (b. 1950), the actress Charlotte Attenborough (b. 1959), and the arts administrator Jane Holland (b. 1955), who was tragically killed in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. He died of heart disease at Denville Hall, Northwood, the theatrical retirement residence where he and his wife were living, on 24 August 2014. Sheila Sim died on 19 January 2016.
- J. Hacker and D. Price, Take Ten: Contemporary British Film Directors (1991)
- D. Robinson, Richard Attenborough (1992)
- B. McFarlane, An Autobiography of British Cinema (1997)
- A. Spicer, Typical Men: The Representation of Masculinity in Popular British Cinema (2001)
- R. Attenborough and D. Hawkins, Entirely Up to You, Darling (2008)
- S. Dux, Richard Attenborough (2013)
- B. McFarlane, The Encyclopedia of British Film, 4th edn (2013)
- The Times (26 Aug 2014); (28 Aug 2014); (3 Sept 2014); (11 Sept 2014); (18 Sept 2014); (18 March 2015)
- Daily Telegraph (26 Aug 2014)
- The Guardian (26 Aug 2014)
- The Independent (26 Aug 2014)
- WW (2014)
- personal knowledge (2018)
- private information (2018)
- photographs, repro. in Attenborough and Hawkins, Entirely up to you, darling (2008)
- photographs, repro. in Dux, Richard Attenborough (2013)
- I. Smith, pencil sketch, 1988, NPG
- I. Smith, portrait (oils), with his brother David Attenborough, 1989, NPG
- G. Argent, bromide print, 1969, NPG
- bromide print, c.1971, NPG
- Lord Snowdon, colour print, with Ben Kingsley, 1982, NPG
- J. Edelstein, bromide fibre print, 1985, NPG
- J. Drysdale, resin print, with Sheila Sim, Bryan Forbes, Nanette Newman, NPG
- C. Lucas, bromide print, 1982, NPG
- B. Organ and the Redfern Gallery, London, acrylic painting, ‘Portrait of Sir Richard Attenborough’, 1985–86, Leicester Arts and Museums
- B. Organ and the Redfern Gallery, London, portrait (oils), 2003, RADA
- B. Organ and the Redfern Gallery, London, painting, Attenborough Arts Centre, University of Leicester
- D. Willis, photograph, Dave Willis Photographer
- photographs, Getty Images
- photographs, Rex Features
- photographs, Alamy
- photographs, BFI
- photographs, Bridgeman Images
- obituary photographs
- photograph, 1993, Getty Images [see illus.]