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PETER FROST looks back on the career of the director who brought Steve Biko and Gandhi to cinema screens

Richard Attenborough, one of Britain’s best known actors, film directors and producers has died aged 90.

Richard-Attenborough-Magic 

Much has been written about his fine acting performances and the many award winning films he made, about the archetypical luvvie the world media called Dickie and who himself seemed to call everyone “darling.”

What I want to do however is to show another side of the man who was true to his socialist principles and who supported so many good and progressive causes.

In 2005 Attenborough told Guardian readers he had voted Labour 60 years previously in the post-war khaki election. He had also joined the Labour Party, the victors in that 1945 election. 

Except for a brief flirtation with the Social Democratic Party in 1981, a flirtation it didn’t take him long to realise was a silly mistake, he remained a Labour Party member and supporter right up until his death.

Indeed when John Major made him a supposedly non-political life peer in 1993 for services to the cinema he rather annoyed Major by immediately taking the Labour whip.

That didn’t stop him having differences and strong criticisms of some Labour policies. He voiced strongly his opposition to the Iraq war. 

Attenborough never shied away from contentious issues. As early as 1954 he played a young man wrongly accused of paedophilia and murder in Eight O’Clock Walk. 

He explained a key motivation in the thinking behind his film-making. “I believe we need heroes.” It was these heroes that became the themes of some of his best movies.

Steve Biko was the hero of his 1987 film Cry Freedom. It showed Attenborough’s hatred of apartheid and indeed all kinds of racism. It was the high point of Attenborough’s anti-apartheid activities and support for Mandela’s rainbow South Africa. 

With his wife Sheila Sim  (below) he established a number of educational colleges in South Africa and Swaziland.

Lady-Attenborough_2289395c

He battled for 20 years to raise the funds and support to bring another of his greatest heroes, Gandhi, to the screen. Many believe the film was his greatest triumph. It won many awards.

Attenborough was never reluctant to state his progressive views on a wide range of subjects and reflect those views in his work.

“I am passionately opposed to capital punishment, and I have been all my life,” he said.

He backed up this strong view when he acted the lead role in the 1971 film 10 Rillington Place, based on the Ludovic Kennedy book that exposed the hanging of innocent Timothy Evans for a murder carried out by John Reginald Christie, played by Attenborough in the film (below).

10rillingtonplace

“I believe in trade unionism, and I believe in democracy, in democratic trade unionism,”  was another of his oft-stated positions. 

A couple of rather dubious parts in anti-union comedies early in his acting career need to be weighed against his long and active membership of actors’ union Equity. He served on its council and held many leading positions. 

In 1983, Attenborough was awarded the Padma Bhushan, India’s third-highest civilian award, and the Martin Luther King Jnr. Nonviolence Peace Prize. They meant as much to him than his countless movie industry awards.

This year in particular we should not forget he directed Oh! What a Lovely War, perhaps the best film ever made showing the futility of war.

Later films from him would tell the story of Hollywood giant Charlie Chaplin, who was accused of being a communist and banned from returning to the US during the period of blacklisting and red-baiting that plagued the US movie industry in the ’50s and ’60s.

In Shadowlands he addressed the question of what happens when US atheist and communist poet Joy Davidman challenges Christian theoretician and children’s book writer CS Lewis’s faith. 

Perhaps the greatest disappointment of his life, and ours, was that he was never able to make a film about a man he admired as much as any other.

He had a life-long ambition to make a film about his greatest hero, the political theorist and revolutionary Thomas Paine.

He called Paine “one of the finest men that ever lived. I could understand him. He wrote in simple English. I found all his aspirations – the rights of women, the health service, universal education…Everything you can think of that we want is in Rights of Man, The Age of Reason or  Common Sense.”

Sadly the money could never be raised. Perhaps the thought of Richard Attenborough and Thomas Paine coming together still had the power to frighten the life out of those who hold the political and cultural purse strings in our country.

This obituary was first published 27 August 2014.

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