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Lord Dickie Attenborough at the Oxford Playhouse
11 June 2001
Report by Steve Crook
Well I'm just back from a lovely afternoon spent amidst the dreaming spires of Oxford.
I went there early to go & see Lord Dickie as the scarfaced gangster in Brighton Rock (1947). A charming little film - we're assured at the beginning that such characters no longer exist - which raised a laugh with the audience.
It was showing at the Phoenix where Natacha Thiery organised the screening of AMOLAD where Jack Cardiff did a personal appearance. That was when Natacha was studying there, she's now gone back to Paris (come & see us again soon). (See report & pictures)
It's a medium sized cinema but was only about 1/4 full.
Thence to the Oxford Playhouse where I met Neal, Richard & Nicky to hear Lord Dickie give an illustrated talk about "Sixty Years in the Movies"
He started by assuring us he'd never called anybody "luvvie" (as he is often portrayed by impersonators or on Spitting Image) but did often call them "darling" when he couldn't remember their names.
He is a bit of a "gusher" though - always full of praise for everyone. We were trying to recall, over a drink in the pub down the road afterwards, if there was anyone he mentioned who wasn't "wonderful, the best" etc etc.
The talk was accompanied by stills from the movies (8x10 studio stills projected behind him) and a few from his family photo album.
A story about how many people confused him with his (younger) brother, naturalist and narrator of those wonderful natural history documentaries David Attenborough, was accompanied by a few photos that I'm sure David wishes had been burned many years ago. Such as the one of David dressed as a woman in a school play :)
Then onto the movies.
He started with In Which We Serve. Lots of praise for Noel Coward & David Lean. "Johnnie Mills was given his big break by Noel, to whom we all owe so much - he was so self assured because he was 'The Master'." Yes, well, if you ignore the 21 films he made before "In Which We Serve" (some where he had quite major roles, such as in Cottage to Let) and his stage career then that might be the case. But we won't let the facts get in the way of a good story :)
A few stories about the six weeks they spent in the big tank at Denham, how rancid it got etc & a comment from Noel after he jumped in, wiped the oil covered water from his eyes & claimed there was "dysentery in every ripple".
A brief mention of how, at that time, British films had learned so much from the documentary styles of Jennings etc. That acting in a film was different from acting on stage (as they'd all been taught at RADA and similar schools). British films then were all about realism. "Apart from a few exceptions like Powell & Pressburger" (Neal & I suppress a cheer)
On via Journey Together (1946), a propaganda piece he made with Edward G. Robinson ...
No mention of his so crucial role in AMOLAD :(
Brighton Rock (1947) - Dickie was in the stage play (as was Hermione Baddeley who was also in the film). Apparently Graham Greene didn't really approve of the stage play, thinking Dickie was all wrong for his gangster, Pinkie Brown. But by the time they'd made the film a few years later, Greene sends Dickie a first edition of the book, signed "To my ideal Pinkie"
No mention of London Belongs to Me (1948) with Alastair Sim. Maybe because it was another "minor criminal" role. He did say that he was getting typecast as either minor criminals or snivelling cowards (or even a combination of the two).
Brief mention of The Guinea Pig (1948) where Dickie played a school boy & Sheila played the house mistress. He said that was all right on the set but very odd when they got home :)
He mentioned a few in passing but said that he did do some films about then that were best forgotten. Skipped lightly over Private's Progress (1956) & Brothers in Law (1957) - he was a minor criminal again, a major role in each film but they were similar characters.
A picture of "The League of Gentlemen (1959)" sitting around a table was all the mention that got.
He made a big thing out of "The Angry Silence (1960)" but ignored the similar role & topic of "I'm All Right Jack (1959)"
Whistle Down the Wind (1961) served as an introduction to his long time partner, Bryan Forbes - known to us as the dying gunner in SBR. Bryan is an actor, writer, director & producer. Dickie thinks he should direct more. But of those he has directed none have been great since the ones he did in the sixties (The L-Shaped Room (1962), S ance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), King Rat (1965), The Stepford Wives (1975) etc
And so to The Great Escape (1963) "Seen on TV almost every Easter" said Dickie. "And almost every other public holiday" I added under my breath. A tale of Dickie hanging on for grim life on the back of Steve McQueen's motorbike - because the honour of Britain was at stake :)
A brief aside to explain how for Guns at Batasi (1964) he worked with The Coldstream Guards for a few weeks and people used to stop outside the Chelsea Barracks to wonder why there was one tiny guardsman in amongst all the other tall ones.
Then onto his directorial debut - Oh! What a Lovely War (1969) A few tales about how the writer/producer pair of Len Deighton & Brian ... errm ... Brian "Darling" (laughter from audience) (it was Brian Duffy you were trying to remember Dickie) said that they either wanted a very experienced director who knew all the tricks and could make a difficult film - or someone who knew nothing. So they went to Dickie :)
He then added a few tales about how, to raise the money he claimed he could get everyone (Olivier, Richardson etc) involved even before he'd asked them. But when he did ask them they agreed, and agreed to do it for Equity minimum as the money was short.
And so via "10 Rillington Place (1971)" and "Young Winston (1972)" (missing Loot (1970)) and "A Bridge Too Far (1977)" we come to Gandhi (1982). It had long been his ambition to make this film, ever since he read a book on the life of Gandhi some 20 years before.
A picture of Dickie talking to Ben Kingsley on set led to the odd comment that anyone who saw that & didn't know it was a film would think that Kingsley was Gandhi.
Then a story of a long shot in the funeral procession. Starting with a close up on Gandhi on the bier, a crane shot pulls back to reveal the soldiers standing around, then back further and further to reveal the thousands of people (no computer effects, there were hundreds of thousands of people there) lining the route of the procession.
"But we couldn't use that shot" says Dickie, "because right at the end a small Indian boy pulled a face at the camera. I hate small Indian boys" (said with a smile)
A brief stop at "A Chorus Line (1985)" (The Americans not happy with a Brit directing such an American picture & trouble getting people to believe Michael Douglas could do it), "Cry Freedom (1987)" (another of his favourites) "Chaplin (1992)" (poor Bob Downey, it's all his father's fault), "Jurassic Park (1993)", "Shadowlands (1993)", "Miracle on 34th Street (1994)", "Elizabeth (1998)" etc
And so to "Grey Owl (1999)". Apparently Dickie & the boy David saw the real Grey Owl when he toured England.
A few sorry tales about the making of Grey Owl brought us up to date and the end of an interesting evening.
Of course I don't agree with all the conclusions he came to, not everyone can be as nice and as important as Dickie would like them to be - but he's such a nice man how can you argue with him? :)
I tried to get to see him afterwards to see if he'll agree to adding his name to the campaign for the Blue Plaques for Micky & Emeric, but he was being whisked off to a reception. I'm sure he will - I'll write to him.
Other P&P trips