Richard Attenborough was a gifted actor and director, but so much more than that

Kindly-old-uncle façade hid inner steel and prodigious gift for the macabre

British actor and director Lord Richard Attenborough has died at the age of 90. Photograph: EPA

British actor and director Lord Richard Attenborough has died at the age of 90. Photograph: EPA

Mon, Aug 25, 2014, 02:08

Lord Richard Attenborough, who has died at the age of 90, was never all that keen on his frequent satiric representation as a sort of endlessly lachrymose luvvie. Quite right too.

A hugely gifted actor, who, starting out as an all-purpose jack-the-lad, went on to exhibit impressive versatility, Richard Attenborough achieved more than any other representative of the British Film Industry. He was, of course, associated with the renaissance in the nation’s cinema during the early 1980s.

When Gandhi won the best picture Oscar in 1982 – a year after Chariots of Fire had managed the same – it was rather as if a rotting corpse had been slapped into unexpected good health.

Scene from '10 Rillington Place'

Do not forget, however, that, as well as directing that biopic, he actually managed to get Young Winston, a characteristic epic, into production 10 years earlier and directed A Bridge Too Far, the story of the Arnhem landings, in 1977. This was the era when British cinema kept its pallid flesh throbbing with poor sex comedies and bad adaptations of worse TV sitcoms. He was one of the few men who believed the industry had a future. So it is not fair to overstress his cuddly tendencies.

On the other hand, Attenborough really did evolve into an ornament of the nation. There were two in the family. His brother David, the broadcaster and naturalist, is one of the few contemporaries who kicks up quite that level of affection.

Richard Attenborough was born in Cambridge in 1923. His father was an academic and his mother was a powerful force in the Marriage Guidance Council. In 1932 the family moved to Leicester and it was at that city’s Little Theatre that Richard got his first taste for acting. He went on to study at RADA and serve in the RAF during the second World War.

He can first be seen as a deserting sailor in Noël Coward’s irresistible patriotic melodrama In Which We Serve from 1942. He can also be spotted giving a wonderful cameo as a dead serviceman meeting the afterlife in Michael Powell’s immortal A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

Attenborough’s arrival as a true force came, however, with his turn as the religiously obsessed psychopath in the Boulting brothers’ version of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock in 1947.

We now think of Lord Attenborough as a perennially warm character. Nobody much batted an eyelid when he turned up as a version of Santa Claus in the 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street. But he had a prodigious gift for the macabre and the uncanny. Nearly a quarter century after playing in Brighton Rock, he was, arguably, even scarier as real-life murderer John Christie in the brilliant 10 Rillington Place.

Make no mistake Attenborough had the gift of total immersion and transformation. There is a clamminess to his Christie that seems to seep from the walls of the seedy Notting Hill terrace that serves as his lair. His most undervalued film as director was, perhaps, his 1978 adaptation of William Goldman’s horror novel Magic. Starring a young, creepily distracted Anthony Hopkins, the film is among the very best in the sub-genre dealing with ventriloquists possessed by their own dolls.

By that stage, Attenborough was seen as a director who occasionally acted. And there is no doubt that his films were very fine things: huge, historical epics creaking with distinguished stars. Oh! What a Lovely War brought Joan Littlewood’s legendary musical take on the Great War to the big screen. Young Winston gave us Churchill in his youthful pomp. Cry Freedom dealt with the aftermath of Steve Biko’s death. But, in the 1970s and 1980s, the Attenborough aesthetic already felt a little dated.

The pictures were deeply humane and very nicely honed, but their yearning for the breadth of David Lean seemed ever so slightly desperate. None of this is to diminish his achievement with Gandhi. The film made a star of Ben Kingsley, educated a generation on a great hero and proved that, contrary to popular belief, it was still possible to finance epics on the scale of major land wars. This writer will admit that, seeing both in the same month, he much preferred A Bridge Too Far to Star Wars. The former still plays better on a rainy bank-holiday afternoon.

For all that, it remains a shame that Attenborough didn’t act more from his fifties onwards. In this regard, he invites comparison with Sidney Pollack. Both men won Oscars for directing rather grand films. But, when they appeared on screen, it was hard not to bemoan the fact that their performances were so infrequent. It was not said often enough when Attenborough was alive. So, we’ll say it here in this appreciation: he was one of Britain’s greatest screen actors.

Seek out Brighton Rock and 10 Rillington Place for confirmation. If it’s Christmas find time to watch him one more time as the arrogant “Big X” in The Great Escape.

We did, in later years, have his turn in Jurassic Park (which was to Attenborough as Star Wars was to Alec Guinness: a portal to a new generation). And we had his performance as himself. It was sometimes said that there was calculation to his slightly batty act.

“Entirely up to you, darling,” Lord Attenborough would say as a way of coercing a reluctant colleague towards an unwanted position. Kindly old uncles often hide steel behind the soft façade. You don’t achieve what Attenborough managed without oodles of determination.

Yes, on balance, he was right to resist the “luvvie” parodies. He was a greater man than that.