So Dickie Attenborough is dead, at 90.
We knew him. Well, not so much knew him, you understand, as “We met him once”.
Back in 1987, there was an election on. The Liberal Party, for which we campaigned, had entered an uncomfortable “Alliance” with a new political grouping called “The Social Democratic Party”, which was essentially a small group of right wing rebels from a Labour Party that had been temporarily overwhelmed by the irritating forces of the trotskyite Left. The new “SDP” appealed to a sort of vaguely left of centre middle class consensus type – they’d be called “soccer Mums” in America or “doctor’s wives” in Australia.
Anyhow, for some bizarre reason lost in the mists of time deep in the last millenium, the leaders of said Alliance decided to hop on a barge and meander down the River Thames one Sunday afternoon, ending up at Dickie’s pile in Richmond. The vague plan was that there were a string of Liberal-SDP Alliance target seats in a row along the river, and this was a spiffingly good wheeze to make a news impact on all of them in one hit to try and shake loose a few of the seats that had voted Tory since time immemorial in that area. Needless to say, as a photo op it simply made the Alliance leaders look like a bunch of middle class numpties and it was largely ignored.
It is why, though, late on a lovely summer’s afternoon, we came to be standing around in the Attenborough’s charming little pied-a-terre, and standing around very uncomfortably to boot, given that we were unquestionably in the presence of the great and good … a sprinkling of theatre people, some famous politicians, a clutch of local grandees … and as we (and by we, we mean a bunch of local campaigners who had been invited to turn up to rub shoulders with the glitterati who had descended upon us) were dressed almost universally in jeans, odd t-shirts covered in campaign buttons and sporting scraggly beards, we felt somewhat out of place.
Since that time we have become more familiar with the questionable joys of small talk, clinking crystal and nodding with glazed eyes while not really listening. At that stage, however, the art form was unknown to us. So we stood near the front door of what was undoubtedly the grandest room on the planet, exquisitely furnished, and shuffled uncertainly from foot to foot, muttering darkly to one another about how we’d rather be out canvassing for votes on council estates instead of all this wank.
Suddenly, though, Attenborough himself swept through the crowd, making a beeline towards us with a tray of champagnes weaving memorably past the obstacles presented by overweight councillors and gesticulating theatricals. I am reasonably sure there were black-tied waters in attendance too, but for some reason he was doing the honours himself. “You chaps look like you need a drink!” he grinned, and his charm and bonhomie was infectious. We took a glass each and smiled uncertainly. “Yell out if you want another!” he cried, disappearing back into the maw of 200 or so of his closest friends. It was a gentle and kindly act, and perfectly typical of the man, apparently.
Richard Attenborough was one of the most famous and talented actors of his generation, with a string of credits that sound like a potted history of 20th century British and Hollywood cinema. Stolid and honourable in “The Great Escape”. Menacing and psychotic in “Brighton Rock”. Avuncular and deluded in “Jurassic Park”. Pugnacious in “The Angry Silence”. Utterly chilling in “10 Rillington Place”.
As a director, he made some of the more important movies of the era, reflecting his own progressive view of the world, such as the memorable filmed version of “Oh! What a lovely war!” and in the historically accurate and star-filled exposition of the disastrous military adventure of Operation Market Garden in “A Bridge Too Far”, tackling courage against the apartheid regime in South Africa in “Cry Freedom”, and, of course, with “Gandhi”, the triumphal conclusion of 20 years effort, for which he received two Oscars.
Less well-known is that during the Second World War, Lord Attenborough served with the Royal Air Force, and was seconded to the newly-formed RAF film unit at Pinewood Studios after initial pilot training. He appeared in the 1943 propaganda film Journey Together before qualifying as a sergeant and flying on missions all over Europe filming the outcome of Bomber Command sorties. He saw enough of the horrors of war to imbue “Oh! What a lovely war!” with a heart-rending immediacy, as seen so well in the closing sequence of the film, below. As we remember the 100th Anniversary of the First World War, we could do no better to show respect those who fell than to play the whole film on free-to-air TV in all the combattant countries. It is a theatrical tour de force, and deeply moving.
And when they ask us, how dangerous it was,
Oh, we’ll never tell them, no, we’ll never tell them:
We spent our pay in some cafe,
And fought wild women night and day,
‘Twas the cushiest job we ever had.
And when they ask us, and they’re certainly going to ask us,
The reason why we didn’t win the Croix de Guerre,
Oh, we’ll never tell them, oh, we’ll never tell them
There was a front, but damned if we knew where.
As an aside, and notably, Attenborough and his wife Sheila Sim, who though stricken with dementia survives him after nearly 70 years of marriage, also co-starred in the original West End production of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap in 1952, which has since become the world’s longest-running play.
Anyhow, the afternoon drew on towards evening and the champagne grew warm, and then leader of the SDP, Dr David Owen, who it must be reported had looked grumpy and perfectly bored the entire time - an impression he managed to give for his entire career, to our eyes – decided it was time to leave.
He bustled his way towards the door. Attenborough, seeing his star guest leaving, struggled through the crowd waving to get Owen’s attention, seemingly unsuccessfully. In the end, he called out plaintively “David! David! Call you, darling!” but in vain: he was talking to thin air. Owen was gone.
I caught Dickie’s eye, and he smiled and shrugged. He waggled his hand to indicate “Another glass of bubbles?” but we politely demurred. We were heading down the pub for a proper drink. He smiled again, good naturedly, as if in understanding, and turned back to tending to his other more civilised guests. Momentarily, I considered suggesting he join us for a hand of dominoes and a couple of pints, suspecting he might enjoy himself more, but I didn’t dare.
Richard Attenborough may have been a luvvie, my darling Reader, but he was a ferociously talented and genuinely big-hearted version of that uniquely British theatrical caricature.
And that’s why everyone loved him. A decent bloke: a life well lived. Our condolences to his family and innumerable friends.
In British use, luvvie is a humorously depreciative term for an actor, especially one regarded as effusive or affected. The reference is to a stereotype of thespians habitually addressing people as ‘lovey’. When the OED revised its entry for ‘lovey’ in 2008, this sense, which had by then become established in the variant spelling luvvie, was made a separate entry. The earliest quotation found at the time was from author and actor Stephen Fry, writing in the Guardian in 1988:
Acting in a proper grown-up play, being a lovie, doing the West End, ‘shouting in the evenings’, as the late Patrick Troughton had it.
1988 Stephen Fry in Guardian 2 Apr., p. 17
The off-hand manner in which the term is used here suggests that the word may already have been somewhat established in this sense at the time.