Champagne socialist

Gandhi (1982), an epic but intimate biographical film, was Richard Attenborough's greatest triumph.

By: New York Times | Published on:August 26, 2014 12:04 am

cost, but it wound up earning 20 times that amount.

After Gandhi came a 1985 adaptation of A Chorus Line, Michael Bennett’s musical about Broadway hoofers. It was a misfire — a faithful but uneasy translation to film. Attenborough had more success with Cry Freedom! (1987), a stirring look at the friendship between the anti-Apartheid fighter Steve Biko (Denzel Washington) and a journalist (Kevin Kline) in South Africa in the 1970s. Five years later, after a hiatus from directing, Attenborough returned with what was largely considered to be his biggest flop: Chaplin, a long, sprawling biography of the silent film star Charlie Chaplin. Like many of Attenborough’s movies, the story of Chaplin, the lowly born clown who defied the odds by achieving world renown, celebrated courage and endeavour. “All my work questions the establishment, authority, intolerance and prejudice,” he said.

Yet his life was entwined with the establishment. He was made a Commander of the British Empire in 1967. He was knighted in 1976, made a baron in 1993 and given a seat in the House of Lords. He was variously chairman of the British Film Institute, Channel Four Television, Capital Radio and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and president of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. If his heroes were those who challenged institutions from without, he sought to effect change from within. He was credited with inspiring Diana, Princess of Wales, whom he coached in public speaking at Prince Charles’s urging, to start her campaign against land mines. In his maiden speech in the House of Lords, he criticised the government for neglecting the arts. Christopher Hart, writing in The Sunday Times in London, called him “an ennobled Champagne socialist of the old school, a mass of good causes and inconsistencies.”

Richard Samuel Attenborough was born in Cambridge on August 29, 1923, the eldest son of Frederick Attenborough, an Anglo-Saxon scholar who became the principal of University College, Leicester, and his wife, Mary, a writer who crusaded for women’s rights and took in Basque and German refugees. The Attenboroughs adopted two Jewish sisters who had arrived in Britain from Berlin in September 1939, too late for them to be sent safely to relatives in New York.

He returned to directing in 2007 with Closing the Ring, a romantic drama starring Shirley MacLaine. But the prospective film that had come to preoccupy him almost as much as Gandhi, a biography of Tom Paine, remained unmade at his death. In 2008, in collaboration with his longstanding associate Diana Hawkins, he published an autobiography, Entirely Up to You, Darling. The book chronicles  a full and eventful life. But it ends with the death of his daughter and granddaughter in the 2004 tsunami, and his regretting the time he never spent with them. “Work,” he wrote, “always took precedence.”

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