How 'Shorty' allowed me a glimpse into his private world

Richard Attenborough

Richard Attenborough

First published in News
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Oxford Mail: Photograph of the Author by

Richard Attenborough had many titles – Dick, Sir, Lord, Luvvie – so when I interviewed him I asked at the very beginning, “How shall I address you?”

Without a moment’s hesitation he shot back, “Shorty, or even Baldy… but certainly Shorty.” How was I going to deal with this one? Here was an icon of the cinema, an Oscar-winner, suggesting we go for the unexpected.

I was offered an interview when he came to inaugurate a new arts centre in Oxford, The North Wall, at St Edward’s School in Summertown. I thought this would be a short sound bite. Thirty minutes later everybody there was almost in tears.

I knew some of the details of the struggle to bring Gandhi to cinematic life and I asked him what he achieved with that film.

Shorty: “Gosh… I don’t know. It took people by surprise. It took 20 years to raise the funds and get the script that was required for such a project. I remember going to a dreadful head of an American studio and I won’t use the exact language he used. After I told him what I thought about the subject and why it was important and worthwhile making it, he paused a moment and said, ‘Well, Dick, we’ve done a lodda things together and we audda be able to help you, I’m quite sure. But Jesus, Dick, who the hell is interested in a little brown man dressed in a white sheet carrying a bean pole?’ Well, that was a fair way of summarising the attitude of the industry.”

Bill: “You’ve looked at this man, Gandhi, and you’ve had a canvas and you’ve painted a picture of his life. Let’s paint a picture of yours.”

‘Shorty’ spluttered, protested, stalled, but eventually began: “I’m very conventional. I’m a traditionalist. I adored and hero-worshipped my parents.

“They were liberal with a small ‘l’. My mother was, to a certain extent, a suffragette. My father was a very early member of the Labour party, and I joined the Labour party when I came out of the air force in 1945; and I’m a passionate supporter of the principles of Labour.

“So we never went on holiday, my brothers John and Dave and I, without a boy or two boys from somewhere in our city of Leicester who had never seen the sea. We always went with somebody.”

“I remember my mother was horrified by the Spanish Civil War and used to march down the main street in Leicester under the hammer and sickle, protesting against Franco. She brought 60 Basque refugee children to Leicester and set them up in a great hall, and raised funds to take care of them after the bombing of Guernica.

“One day Dave and Johnny and I had just come home from school and war had been declared literally a day or so beforehand, and we were told to go to the governor’s study.

“‘You boys, you know we have these two girls in the house who are on their way to their uncle in New York. The war has been declared, there are no more passages to America.

So we have to decide what to do with these girls. Your mother and I think that what we should do is to adopt them, not legally, you know they call us Aunt and Uncle or whatever, not Mother or Father, because we hope their parents will come out of Germany (but of course they never did)… and so boys what do you think?

‘It does mean a number of things. It means we can’t go on holiday for quite so long as we usually do because instead of being a family of five we are a family of seven. Shoes will have to last longer; clothes will have to be patched up. There will be sacrifices and there will be jealousies and you will find that this is very difficult…”

“My mother said, ‘Darlings, we adore you, as you know, we are a very united family but there will be problems. You will be jealous because you know how much we adore you, but we have to give love to Irene and Helga, the girls, to a much greater extent than we can even give it to you because they have nothing.

‘You have us, you have the love and the security and the knowledge of our love. They have nothing.’ So Irene and Helga became our sisters and lived as part of the family for eight years.

“I don’t know why I’ve got into all this, but you asked me a question about what I care about and I care about the manner in which my mother and father conducted their lives and I have attempted, failing inadequately, but I have attempted in my life and my work and in what I do to try and demonstrate how aware I am of how fortunate I am and my desperate desire to try and share some of that, and equal it out a little.”

Maybe he didn’t know why he got into this space but he was no longer resisting it. I knew by the way he sounded; there was a slight smile behind the voice as well as serious sadness. I felt there was some way to go yet.

“I went to Mozambique on what’s called a goodwill visit. It’s a ridiculous title, I know, but I was a Goodwill Ambassador for Unicef. And I remember walking down a passageway between hovels where people were living under a piece of canvas or under a piece of corrugated iron with sewage running down in the pathway between the two. I was about to talk to a huge black woman who was hammering out Coca Cola tins and she so self-evidently had nothing. She was going to give these tins to a little child who would run up the hill and obviously hope to sell them… and I said – oh I am so ashamed to be mentioning it to you now – ‘If you had a wish what would you wish for?’ “At least, I thought, she would say clean water or some food or work or clothes. And almost without hesitation she said, ‘Education for my children’.

“I am so ashamed of how little I have ever contributed to other people’s welfare, and trying to be in some way of help and assistance. I often wonder…we’re in St Edward’s School, we’re in Oxford, we’re in the UK.

“Do we actually know how fortunate we are? Are we actually conscious of how important education is to that woman who had absolutely nothing?

“And she had the perception and the feeling and the intelligence to know how vital education was.

“Why I’m telling you this story, I haven’t the remotest idea. I don’t remember what you asked me…It was something to do with Gandhi, and then I said, well, it had to do with my parents, which is true.

“Most of my life I suppose I’m quietly ashamed of the fact that in some measure I’m motivated by wanting to justify myself to my parents and to say, ‘Darlings, I am aware of who you were and what you did and what you stood for and what you contributed, and I am a disappointment in that I was anything but an intellectual.’ “Academia was a foreign world to me, except when my father was eventually Vice-Chancellor of Leicester University.

“He would have loved me to go to university, passionately believing in the value of education in its broadest sense.

“So in a way because I left school at 16 or 17 and went to RADA and went to the Air Force... Dave and John, bless them, were the academics and they fulfilled much of what the governor stood for and cared about… I didn’t. “I was a clown at school. All I wanted to do was to perform, and ultimately I think there must have been a feeling of, ‘Oh dear, what a pity Dick didn’t have a job to do, didn’t do something of some value’.

So perhaps when I do Gandhi, or Cry Freedom, or Lovely War or Shadowlands they are about things that he would have liked me to examine.

“My apologies for the length. Jesus!”

I thought, ‘his’ apologies? That’s nice! What do I do? I can’t apologise now, but maybe I should.

He’d allowed me into a private place. Maybe I had overstepped a mark and pushed it too far.

People can feel exposed, maybe even betrayed in these circumstances. Perhaps I should apologise to him… but I kept my silence.

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