Dinner with Richard Attenborough – no angry silence

Fox The Great Escape

By Ray Bennett

Lady Martin was speaking but her husband, Sir George Martin, who sat across from her, and Lord Richard Attenborough, who sat to her left, appeared determined not to listen.

I sat at dinner with them at a restaurant in Ghent during the Flanders International Film Festival in 2004. I was to the right of Sir George and opposite the acclaimed filmmaker. They responded to my remarks but whenever Lady Martin opened her mouth, they spoke over her.

Then I recalled what Colm Meaney had told me just before we sat down. The Irish actor had been a fellow drinker with me many moons earlier at the Robin Hood Pub in Los Angeles and he was on the Ghent festival jury. He apologised for not joining me and said that Jonathan Pryce, also on the jury, had urged them to sit at the other end of the table. “It’s the deafness,” Meaney whispered.

It transpired that Martin, who was there to present an award at the annual World Soundtrack Awards, was deaf mainly in his left ear and Attenborough was deaf in his right. I was positioned perfectly for an entertaining conversation but poor Lady Martin was almost ignored. I would indicate that she’d spoken with a gesture or speak over the two men so they would pay attention.

No one appeared distressed by this, thankfully, as Attenborough’s anecdotes flowed. I told him that his first film as director, “Oh What a Lovely War” (1969), is one of my favourites but he protested: “Oh, but it’s so slow!”

Attenborough, who has died aged 90, had been familiar to me as an actor when I was a kid, of course, and his first movies as a producer in the 1960s were formative in my film and general education. His first production was “The Angry Silence”, in which he plays a man who is given the silent treatment and abuse by fellow workers when he refuses to go on strike.

Blinkered organisers at the time saw it as an attack on trade unions but it is much more even-handed as it speaks for most people caught between two opposing forces as they strive to keep hearth and home together. The original story for the film was written by Michael Craig, who was a handsome leading man in British movies at the time.

Michael Craig, Richard Attenborough in 'The Angry Silence'

Michael Craig, Richard Attenborough in ‘The Angry Silence’

I was a fan and so it was disappointing to read later that Craig felt that Attenborough and co-producer and screenwriter Bryan Forbes had betrayed him. Forbes won the 1961 Bafta screenwriting award for the film and was nominated for an Academy Award. Craig also garnered an Oscar nomination along with Richard Gregson for the story but he felt that the two producers had won all the glory.

At dinner in Ghent more than 40 years later, Attenborough was quite clear as to his view of it: “It was very sad, really. Michael had come up with the story and he was keen to write a screenplay but there was a big problem: I had a screenwriter who couldn’t write.”

Craig had been a popular actor in British films such as “Campbell’s Kingdom” (1957), “The Silent Enemy” (1958) and “Sapphire” (1959) but by the mid-1960s his movie career was pretty washed up and later he emigrated to Australia where he continued to act and also created and wrote the 1970s TV series “The Outsiders” and wrote two episodes of “G.P”.

Attenborough and Forbes went on to make some of the most important British films of the 1960s such as “Whistle Down the Wind” (1961), “The L-Shaped Room” (1962) and “Seance On a Wet Afternoon” (1964). He produced 13 films and directed 12 including his 1983 Academy Award winner “Gandhi”, for which he earned two Oscars.

Richard Attenborough in 'Seance On a Wet Afternoon'

Richard Attenborough in ‘Seance On a Wet Afternoon’

Other films he directed that are worth watching are the Churchill yarn “Young Winston” (1972), which is better than many considered at the time; “A Bridge Too Far” (1977), which is star-studded with many good episodes but overall bloated; “Magic” (1978) with a great performance by Anthony Hopkins as an unhinged ventriloquist; “Chaplin” (1992), which doesn’t work as a biography of the great film comic but is a splendid showcase for the brilliance of Robert Downey Jr.; and “Shadowlands” (1993) with Hopkins as writer C.S. Lewis and Debra Winger as his American lover. William Nicholson’s screenplay for that film, based on his own play, remains the finest film script I’ve ever read.

Attenborough’s breakout performance as the teenaged hoodlum in “Brighton Rock” (1947) remains riveting and he was equally sinister as serial killer John Christie in “10 Rillington Place” (1971). He had jovial roles in likeable war pictures including “Dunkirk” (1958) and “Desert Patrol” (1958) and comedies such as “Private’s Progress” (1956), “The Baby and the Battleship” (1956), “I’m All Right, Jack” (1959) and “Only Two Can Play” (1962).

While he has 78 acting credits over a long career he is probably known best to younger filmgoers as Prof. John Hammond in the “Jurassic Park” films and Kris Kringle in “Miracle on 34th Street”.  For many, though, he’ll always be “Big X” Bartlett in “The Great Escape” (1963) along with Steve McQueen (top picture)and James Garner. His appearance in McQueen’s “The Sand Pebbles” (1966) also is memorable and he acted with some other Hollywood greats including James Stewart in “The Flight of the Phoenix” (1965), Rex Harrison in “Doctor Dolittle” (1967) and as a London copper with John Wayne in “Brannigan”.

Garrulous, open and usually candid, Attenborough was, although he denied it, the original British “luvvy” – everyone was always “love” or “darling”. His influence on the British film industry was immense. The film section of the London Critics’ Circle, of which I am a proud member, renamed its annual prize for Best British Film in Attenborough’s name in 2004 to mark his 80th birthday.

My old pal David Gritten interviewed him at the time, when he said, “I’m not a great director or auteur. I’m an ensemble director. I left school at 16. I work by instinct in large measure. I’m not fascinated by technical advances in film and cineaste pyrotechnics are not for me. What I worry about is content. I can’t write, paint or compose music. If I were able to write, I probably would. But movies have given me a part of my life where I can express feelings and bring convictions to an audience as if I could write.”

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Getting back to the movies

eOne The Rover x650

By Ray Bennett

With the World Cup only a memory, distributors aim to play catch-up in August with a wide range of theatrical releases to attract fans back to cinemas.

There’s plenty of action, animation, comedy, drama, fantasy and suspense due in cinemas in August with some interesting documentaries, revivals and event Cinema, plus a little horror. Continue reading

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New ‘Doctor Who’ to bow in cinemas and on TV

BBC Worldwide Doctor Who x575

By Ray Bennett

BBC Worldwide said that Peter Capaldi’s debut in the title role of “Doctor Who” will be shown in cinemas across the UK and Ireland as well as on BBC One on Aug. 23. Continue reading

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THEATRE REVIEW: ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’

'The Importance of Being Earnest'

By Ray Bennett

Simon Brett’s adaptation of “The Importance of Being Earnest” at the Harold Pinter Theatre is not a straightforward production of the classic Oscar Wilde comedy as all the performers are far too old for their characters but that is part of the fun. Continue reading

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Alan Rickman’s ‘A Little Chaos’ to close TIFF


By Ray Bennett

The Toronto International Film Festival announced that its closing film will be Alan Rickman’s period romance “A Little Chaos” starring Kate Winslet and Matthias Schoenhaerts, which Lionsgate will release in the UK. Continue reading

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‘The Imitation Game’ to open London film fest

StudioCanal 'The Imitation Game' x575

By Ray Bennett

“The Imitation Game” starring Benedict Cumberbatch as World War II code-breaker Alan Turing will be the opening film at the 58th BFI London Film Festival on Oct. 8 with simultaneous showings of the red-carpet event in cinemas across the country. Continue reading

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So long, Gentleman Jim Garner …

James Garner as Maverick x650

By Ray Bennett

Three times I interviewed James Garner, who has died aged 86, once in a long phone call and twice on set in Hollywood, and each time it was because he agreed to talk about someone else. Continue reading

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NT Live to screen Young Vic’s ‘Streetcar Named Desire’

NT Live Young Vic 'Streetcar Named Desire' x575

By Ray Bennett

National Theatre Live announced that it will broadcast Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” starring Gillian Anderson as Blanche Dubois live to cinemas in the UK and around the world from the Young Vic Theatre on Sept. 16. Continue reading

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‘Skylight’ breaks records ahead of NT Live screening

NT Live 'Skylight' x575

By Ray Bennett

Stephen Daldry’s production of David Hare’s play “Skylight”, which NT Live will broadcast to cinemas across the UK and around the world on July 17, has become the highest grossing show ever at Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End. Continue reading

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Handa Opera’s ‘Madama Butterly’ one night in cinemas

Sydney Opera Madama Butterfly x575

By Ray Bennett

CinemaLive said it will screen the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s production of “Madama Butterfly” in cinemas across the UK and Ireland and around the world for one night only on Thursday Sept, 18. Continue reading

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