The reel thing

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 44, Autumn 2015

Page 46

The reel thing

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 44, Autumn 2015

Page 46

The reel thing

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 44, Autumn 2015

Page 46

Sir Howard Hodgkin (British, born 1932) Indian Tree Etching with carborundum in vermillion red and red ochre, with hand colouring in veronese green egg tempera, 1990-91, on Arches, signed with initials, dated lower centre and numbered 51/55 in pencil, printed at 107 Workshop, London, published by Waddington Graphics, London, the full sheet printed to the edges, 910 x 1020mm (35 3/4 x 47 1/4in)(SH)

The reel thing

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 44, Autumn 2015

Page 46

Mary Newcomb (British, 1922-2008) 'Landscape, Suffolk'

The reel thing

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 44, Autumn 2015

Page 46

Barry Norman celebrates the life and work of Richard Attenborough, one of cinema's most remarkable figures – and his friend for 50 years

Richard Attenborough, who died last year aged 90, was not only one of the most significant figures the British film industry has ever produced, but an art collector and connoisseur, the energetic patron of countless charities and, for more than 50 years, a friend of mine. My father Leslie directed him in the film Dunkirk and 'Dickie' and his wife Sheila Sim came to my wedding.

Journalistic hacks, unbiased by any knowledge of the man, sneered at him as a 'luvvie', but he was never that. Yes, he called everyone 'Darling' but only, as he told me, "because I can never remember anyone's bloody name".

He was sentimental, too, confessing once that he could shed tears if someone merely greeted him in the street. But along with that he was instantly likeable and unfailingly polite. He was small and plump but also tough, driven and given to getting his own way with relentless courtesy.

William Goldman, who wrote the screenplay for Dickie's film A Bridge Too Far, said that given the amount of work he got through he was entirely the wrong shape. "Because of the incredible energy he uses every day he should be tall and gaunt and slim like Henry Fonda. Instead he's cherubic."

Cherubic – and indefatigable. During a movie career that began in 1942 in Noël Coward's In Which We Serve, he appeared in 60 films, produced 13 and directed 12. As an actor he starred in films such as Brighton Rock, which made him a star, The Great Escape, 10 Rillington Place (as the serial killer John Christie) and Jurassic Park. But it was as director and producer that he made his biggest contribution to the industry.

This prodigious output is represented in a collection of personal memorabilia – including film posters, stills, screenplays and awards – to be sold by Bonhams at Knightsbridge in October, along with paintings from his modern British art collection.

Lord Attenborough was quite simply a man who got things done, who would never take no for an answer and who regarded no obstacle as insurmountable. This he proved in the 20 years he spent getting Gandhi made. In that time, to help finance the production he sold much of his original art collection and was deterred by nothing, not even the crass Hollywood executive who dismissed his project with the words, "Hey, Dickie, who wants to see a movie about a little brown guy in a loincloth carrying a pole?"

Well, actually, almost everybody did, especially when Gandhi won eight Oscars – including one for Dickie as the director, an award which he immediately tried to give to Steven Spielberg who, he thought, deserved it more for ET: The Extra-Terrestrial.

That was typical of both Dickie's modesty and his honesty – the latter quality was to be seen in the films he directed. Not for him blockbusters aimed at teenagers; he liked films with a political bite such as Gandhi and Cry Freedom, the story of Steve Biko and an angry attack on the iniquity of apartheid in South Africa.

But at the same time he had a deep appreciation of the commercial side of the film business. "The Oscars aren't everything," he said, "but anyone who says he doesn't care about them isn't telling the truth. The Oscars changed Gandhi from an art-house movie into a blockbuster."

His career as a director began more or less by accident with the musical Oh! What a Lovely War in 1969. Originally he intended only to produce it, but he told me, "I couldn't find any other bugger willing to direct it, so I had to do it myself – even though I knew bugger all about directing and was an innocent abroad."

The film, a star-studded satire on the British military handling of the First World War, was an immediate success and Dickie rapidly became one of the main driving forces of Britain's film industry as the director/producer of movies such as Young Winston, A Bridge Too Far, Magic, Chaplin and Shadowlands – all serious works which required an audience to bring its brain with it.

His approach to directing was simple and straightforward, shunning flamboyance and fancy directorial tricks. When I was talking to him just before his 80th birthday he said, "Somebody once said about me, 'The trouble with Attenborough is that he cares more about the story than the style.' And, you know, that's the nicest compliment anyone ever paid me."

Another time, reflecting on his life, he said he was sometimes angry about "stupidity and intolerance" but "never a pessimist and very, very rarely depressed". One thing that did bother him, though, was the increasing emphasis on film as a business rather than an art form.

If he were around now with cinemas full of prequels, sequels, remakes and comic-book movies, he would be bothered about that. "People must be allowed to fail," he said then. "Today they're not, but if we don't venture, cinema will die and become merely a form of money-making."

In the best sense of the words he was an old-fashioned filmmaker, one who wanted people to feel the quality not the width. He was always prepared to fail, to take a gamble, to persist against the odds – and there was an endearingly Quixotic aspect to him in the way he was constantly tilting against the hostile windmills of Hollywood and its safety-first policy, which made it unwilling to allow anyone to venture and, terrible thought, fail.

He showed that quality in the years he spent getting Gandhi made – and he was still showing it in the last two decades of his life as he tried and tried again to raise finance for a film about Thomas Paine, the 18th-century English republican, who was involved in the French and American revolutions and was tried for sedition.

That was one battle Dickie didn't win but, had he lived, he would be fighting still, because he knew no other way. It will be a very long time before anyone comes close to replacing him.

Barry Norman is a writer and leading authority on film.

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