You are here

Attenborough at Eighty

5 November 2009
Lord Attenborough Landscape

Writer Quentin Falk profiles Academy President Lord Attenborough on the occasion of his 80th birthday and, one year later, talks to him him on film about key moments in the Academy's history.

80: Richard Attenborough Birthday Tribute, October 2003

Among, doubtless, a trove of 80th birthday presents for Lord Attenborough was one of Alan Parker’s inimitable framed cartoons from ‘All at the Film Council’. One little man is confiding to another, ‘I hear Dickie’s got Roman Abramovich to bankroll his new movie.’

The typically topical and wittily juxtaposed caption rather neatly encapsulated at least two aspects of Attenborough’s extraordinarily varied life: as Life Vice-President of his beloved Chelsea Football Club, and his ongoing career as an active, award-winning, film-maker.

However there was a particularly timely poignancy about the cartoon, one that afforded the birthday boy a wry chuckle. For, as of this very moment, Closing The Ring, scheduled to be his twelfth film as a director, is, Attenborough confided, only ‘87 per cent financed’.

But, laughing heartily at the very suggestion, he wouldn’t confirm or deny whether he would seeking that final deal-making 13 per cent from The Blues’ rather mysterious new Russian Mr Moneybags.

Of what he was absolutely and disarmingly confident was that, come next April, the cameras [would] most definitely begin turning on what sounds like a rather intriguing, time-leaping $22 million love story starring Shirley MacLaine, Dennis Hopper, Mena Suvari and Colin Hanks. You wouldn’t bet against him.

As, in the cosy confines of the viewing theatre at his lovely Richmond home, Attenborough sits hunched forward explaining almost every detail of a convoluted plot which constantly jumps 50 years between wartime and 1994, it’s quite clear that film-making – or at least the continuing prospect of it – is what still drives him.

He has been ‘tap-dancing’ – as the film pitching process is often picturesquely described – for more than 40 years ever since he started trying to set up Gandhi at the turn of the 60s. Over the next 20 years it became his magnificent obsession.

‘This,’ he once told me and anybody else who would listen, ‘is what I’ve wanted to do more than anything else I’ve been involved with. Everything I’ve directed has been a sort of training for this picture. I didn’t want to direct as such. I wanted to make Gandhi.’ He was in his 60th year when he finally made the film.

At the time he hinted darkly that he hadn’t ‘much longer to go as a director,’ adding, ‘you need phenomenal energy to get a movie through. In ten years time I’ll be tired and probably couldn’t manage it – it’s all to do with energy, objectivity and artistic realisation.

‘And I couldn’t bear not to have an element of the contemporary. I’m not an innovative director. I’m a narrative film-maker, a storyteller, and I would hate to just be churning stuff out. So, since I would like to have a go perhaps once or twice more, I must get on with it.’

I didn’t know whether I could tell a story or not although I knew in my heart I was a good raconteur...

Well, another two decades have come and gone during which time the apparently tireless Attenborough has directed a further six films including Cry Freedom, Chaplin and Shadowlands. And he is today, as he was then, still thinking even further ahead to the realisation of another long-held dream– an epic, seriously expensive, film about Rights of Man author, Tom Paine.

For Attenborough, directing has given him a voice in the wider world that he claims might have eluded him had he continued on his original career path.

‘I began to find that there were so many things about which I cared deeply, about which I wanted to say something pro or con. The way I could do it was partially as an actor by the selection of what I played in. But that wasn’t satisfactory because it wasn’t really my signature. Yet, in many ways though, I was still perfectly happy acting and producing with Forbsie [Bryan Forbes] writing and directing.

‘But when I read this goddamned biography of Gandhi I suddenly began to contemplate doing something I’d never done before. I thought to myself, “Shit, I think I can now find a way of saying something which I have not been able to say before intellectually.” I didn’t know whether I could tell a story or not although I knew in my heart I was a good raconteur.

‘Directing Gandhi, and the films that would come before and after, finally granted me the opportunity through cinema of saying and doing things which I was unable to do in any other form.’ And here it’s perhaps worth remembering that Attenborough starred in nearly 50 films before making his directing debut with Oh! What a Lovely War in 1969.

‘So, yes,’ he sighs happily, ‘directing has been the most important thing for me. That’s what I’m in love with. It’s allowed me to feel that it’s worthwhile getting up in the morning. An actor faces his pages and then does the best he can. If I hadn’t been a director there would have been a terrible frustration. I might even have gone into politics!’

Describing him as ‘an indefatigable champion of the cause of British cinema’, the … Methuen/BFI Encyclopaedia of British Film goes on to say, “it is no exaggeration to say that Attenborough’s is one of the careers most closely associated with the history and maintenance of a British film industry in the last half-century … he has achieved a huge amount as actor, director and producer and as a focus for the idea [their italics] of film as a key element in the national life.’

Attenborough is clearly flattered by these comments but asked to comment on them begins what seems to be a wholly unrelated if typically modest ramble into his childhood past.

To properly understand him (and probably his younger brothers David and John too), you must, he would surely insist, understand the legacy of his parents, known affectionately as ‘the Governor and Mary’. Whether it was taking needy local kids on summer holidays with them or, even more significantly, providing a haven for German Jewish refugee children, it was all about Giving Something Back.

As a result of this social concern which sometimes spilled over into authentic radical action, he says, ‘I found myself with all sorts of feelings – some inherent within my own being, but hugely by virtue of the context, ambience and atmosphere in which I’d grown up. There were certain values and certain things you just did because That Was The Way You Lived. It had nothing to do with charity; it was more to do with the way you could justify yourself on this earth. That has been part of my credo, part of my existence.’

What it has actually meant in practical terms is that whenever Attenborough has signed up for something – be it a television, radio, film or theatre company, the British Film Institute, an initiative in his home town of Leicester or even the proposed new £180 million Dragon Studios complex outside Cardiff – he has gone in feet first and time-consumingly.

BAFTA, with which he has been intimately involved for almost its entire existence before becoming, last year, its fourth President, is no exception as he seems omnipresent at every Academy occasion from the various award-givings to individual tribute evenings.

He says: ‘I believe passionately in BAFTA. It allows film-makers to meet and question, to dissect and attack, as well as providing a voice for them. BAFTA has jumped forward hugely in the last five years and is now not just vital but is, I think, contributing fundamentally to Government understanding of what cinema means as an ensemble art form to our culture.’

I believe passionately in BAFTA. It allows film-makers to meet and question, to dissect and attack, as well as providing a voice for them...

The man who once played Father Christmas on screen actually describes himself as ‘Mary Poppins, always have been, won’t change’. But he’s much steelier than that and punctuates our conversation with the kind of fruity language which would never even remotely cross Mary’s lips.

Normally the eternal optimist, the only real note of real movie regret creeps in when he muses about the changing nature of the film industry with this cleaned-up reflection on Hollywood Then and Now.

‘When I first went to Hollywood in the 1950s, the old buggers, like Jack Warner and Darryl Zanuck, were still there. Although they were really tough buggers, they were there because of movies and not there as officers in the major conglomerates which mostly run the American film industry today. However tough they were, at the end of the day what mattered was The Movie. I fear what only matters now is The Deal, and therefore The Bottom Line.

‘I remember going with Closing The Ring to the [expletive deleted] head of Universal, someone who I thought I knew really rather well who shall here remain nameless. His reply, was “Gee, great … we’ll send it to the marketing boys and then we’ll let you know.” He wasn’t even interested in knowing about the subject matter, let alone the quality of the script.

‘Every movie I’ve done, almost without exception, has required terrible problems raising the money. It’s often meant cutting things back sometimes to the detriment of the subject. It’s frustrating, it’s aggravating – but I don’t resent it because I want a degree of autonomy.’

He acknowledges that, for a variety of reasons, his last two films, In Love and War and Grey Owl, were box-office flops. ‘I am not flavour of the month,’ he admits, ‘In terms of current cinema and conventional box-office wisdom, I am old-fashioned.’ But that makes him even more determined.

‘I have since Gandhi been one of the now five or six directors who have what’s called ‘final cut’ – rightly or wrongly. It means I can make the movies I want to make in the form I want … provided I can raise the money.” It seems that, even in his 81st year, Closing the Ring will be absolutely no different.