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Dickie Attenborough

Richard Attenborough, who died yesterday, was always in recent years Dickie, a diminutive form that perfectly matched his personality and his physique.

I ran into him once at some charity function. 

“Look,” my companion exclaimed, “there’s little Dickie Attenbourough”.

“Where?” I said.

“Over there,” she said, pointing with a slightly less than horizontal arm at a short, plump, bald man who was hard to spot through the crowd of talking heads.

He looked older but otherwise scarcely changed from the first time I ever encountered him on the screen.  This was a Boulting Brothers film called The Guinea Pig, in which the then 25-year old actor, somewhat unbelievably, played a 15-year old schoolboy from a working-class family placed in a posh boarding school as a social experiment. 

I am sure that Dickie was a kind and likeable man, as I’m equally sure all his friends from the film world will be attesting over the next few days.  His admirers are legion. 

To be honest, I was never one of them.  

Not of his acting, or his directing, and later his immersion in London’s chattering classes as a ‘luvvie’ of the left –  although I’m bound to say that if I’d ever sat next to him at a dinner party, I would have found myself agreeing with him on most issues.  And, I’m certain, liking him immensely.

His film portrayals took only two forms: rat-like and cowardly or open-faced and earnest.  The coward roles often used to take him below decks to share quarters with the likes of John Mills (another small man, always Jonny to his friends) and Bernard Lee, and a whole host of familiar faces from a British directory of the ‘types’ needed to fill the casts in a long string of black and white British war films.  These we all dutifully trudged to see ‘at the pictures’ back in the 1950s. 

His directing was competent, pedestrian, and at times obviously self-indulgent, whatever Steven Spielberg might have thought of it.  His first effort, Oh What A Lovely War, succeeded only in taking the snarl out of Joan Littlewood’s brilliant attack-dog of a stage production.  Cry Freedom, about the troubles of Steve Bilko, an activist in the South Africa of apartheid days, missed the point – reduced in Attenborough’s hands to a conventional thriller.  Even his ultimate personal achievement, Ghandi, which Attenborough had spent his entire working lifetime dying to make – and which mystifyingly won a cabinet-load of awards – proved to be a dud.  A long, spectacular and expensive dud, mind you, but cloyingly worshipful and earnestly dull.  

But many Britons of my age will miss him, as I will, because Richard Attenborough has always been around for ever, a familiar piece of furniture in Britain’s living room.  Some figures from the entertainment world, of equal or greater talent, will not be missed in the same way because they simply weren’t part of our growing up.  The brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman comes to mind in that respect – I hadn’t heard of him five years ago – and to some extent Robin Williams, who sadly allowed an acerbic wit to be smothered by a crass sentimentality. 

But Dickie Attenborough, like Lauren Bacall, another recent loss, was one of those links that bridge childhood and adult life.  So, the fact that I didn’t as a whole much care for his work is neither here nor there.  They are nearly all gone now, the entries in that directory: Mills and Lee, Jack Hawkins, Victor Maddern, David Lodge, William Hartnell, et al. 

With that lot as a crew how could we possibly have lost the war? 

I dare say some of Attenborough’s early films will now start appearing on television.  I shall watch them, the good, the bad and the indifferent, bathing comfortably in the warm glow nostalgia. 

And perhaps a slightly heightened sense of my own mortality.

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