Sir Ben Kingsley, Geraldine James & Dame Penelope Wilton mark Richard Attenborough centenary in Chiswick

Image above L to R: Sir Ben Kingsley, Geraldine James, Dame Penelope Wilton, Michael Attenborough, Kevin Mc Nally, George Fenton; photograph Chiswick Cinema

Some of the biggest names in the British film industry talk about what it was like to work with Lord Richard Attenborough

Sir Ben Kingsley, Geraldine James & Dame Penelope Wilton were among the actors and luminaries of the film industry to mark the Richard Attenborough’s centenary on Saturday (16 September) at Chiswick Cinema. Also there to pay tribute were actor Kevin Mc Nally and film music composer George Fenton.

Any one of the panel talking to Richard Attenborough’s son Michael in front of the packed audience (which also boasted a few celebs) could easily have talked for an hour or more about their own illustrious careers, but they were there because they had all worked with the late, great actor, producer and director who has given more to the British film industry perhaps than any other, Lord  Richard Attenborough (1923 – 2014).

Ben Kingsley was well-known in theatre, playing leading roles with the RSC when Richard Attenborough offered him the part of Gandhi, but the film turned him into an international film star. For Geraldine James playing Mirabehn in Gandhi (1982) was also a landmark moment in her career, as it was one of her first film appearances. The same was true for Kevin McNally and Penelope Wilton in Cry Freedom.

George Fenton had composed music for theatre, television dramas and documentaries, but writing the music for Gandhi gave him his big break into film. He wrote the score for five of Attenborough’s films: Gandhi, Cry FreedomShadowlandsIn Love and War and Grey Owl and has a clutch of Academy Award, Emmy and Golden Globe nominations to show for it.

Images above: Ben Kingsley and Geraldine James; Penelope Wilton and Michael Attenborough; photographs Andrea Carnevali

“Can you just move into shot, angel boy”

What was Richard Attenborough like to work with as a director / producer? A dream by the sound of it.

Ben Kingsley described filming a crucial scene in Gandhi where the light was going fast and the vast number of people involved – the actors, the extras and the crew were willing him to get it right so they could wrap for the day.

“Ben darling”, said Richard Attenborough, “you have all the time in the world.”

“He was the first director of any great substance I worked with in cinema. There is a critical difference between the director who is always auditioning you and the one who has given you the role. One ruins any creativity or spontaneity you might bring to the role; the other gives permission for your intuition to take over. You felt encouraged by him.”

Geraldine James agreed: “You never felt you were being tested and he had that extraordinary ability to make you think you were the only one who mattered.

“He would aim straight for the emotion: ‘darling, think of your mother. He just had the knack of pointing you in the right place.”

Image above: Geraldine James and Ben Kingsley watching a clip from Gandhi; photograph Chris Parker

Penelope Wilton remembered how he showered actors with praise: “You’re great, you’re wonderful. He had such great humanity. He never over-noted you. If it was going well he just left you alone.”

Kevin recounted putting the phone down on the great director when he offered him his role in Cry Freedom, thinking it was one of his mates mucking around.

“I went to the audition with him and then I had a few drinks with my friends and fell asleep on the sofa. I woke up at eight o’clock to the phone ringing and this voice said: ‘it’s Dickie here’. I thought it was one of my mates being a pain and put the phone down.

“It rang again and he said ‘Don’t hang up, it really is Dickie here. There’s a Rolls Royce parked outside [a pea green one]. You’re coming to see me to discuss the role.”

New to film as he was, he remembers pestering Richard Attenborough with questions, but he never lost his rag.

“Can you just move into shot angel boy.”

Image above: Audience; Penelope Wilton; Michael Attenborough; Kevin McNally; George Fenton; photographs Chiswick Cinema

“It’s only a movie, darling”

There is immense pressure on a director, being in charge of everything and conscious always of the budget. Richard Attenborough liked to produce his films as well as direct them. He said himself that he like to be in charge, but that piled on even more pressure.

There came a point during the filming of Gandhi where the money was in danger of running out and they almost had to stop production. Neither Ben nor Geraldine was aware at the time of the grave financial threat the film was under.

“We were totally protected” said Ben.

Attenborough would switch between the two roles.

“He would go through a door into an office and become a pugilist. He would turn from being a mentor and a guide, as relaxed as a ballet dancer physically, to a bull, a gladiator.”

He never passed his stress on to the actors, or the rest of his creative team.

Images above: Remembering Sir Richard Attenborough; Chiswick Cinema

“I knew him over five films but my main memory is of Gandhi” George Fenton told the audience at Chiswick Cinema. “It was so monumental, the expectation was so great, but he had this way of taking the pressure off you and protecting you from others.

“Columbia was already announcing it as a world event and I found it really difficult to get started on the score.”

Richard asked him how it was going and he admitted he hadn’t started it and was finding it really difficult. There was a pause and the director said: “It’s only a movie darling.”

Image above: Oh What a Lovely War; IMDb

Director and producer

Richard Attenborough was very adept at getting what he wanted out of people, in the nicest possible way. Michael Attenborough told the story of when his father had been trying to raise the money for Oh What a Lovely War!

He went to see the money man, Charlie Bluhdorn at Paramout Pictures and virtually acted it out and sang the songs for him. Once he had him sold on the idea he then asked the inevitable question they always asked – who have you got lined up to be in it?

“He reeled off a list of names – Olivier, Gielgud, Edward Fox, Susannah York, Maggie Smith, John Mills, Vanessa Redgrave, Dirk Bogarde – he didn’t have any of them. Bluhdorn said ‘you’ve got the money’ and he then had to scuttle round to see them all as quickly as he could to persuade them to do it, and they all did it.”

Image above: Poster for Cry Freedom

His tenacity also put him in danger. Making Cry Freedom, the story of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, in what was still apartheid South Africa, he was beaten up in a public toilet.

He had met Winnie Mandela when he was researching the film. She was then a ‘banned person’, unable to meet more than two people at a time in public. They met in a wide open space so the security services watching could see there were just the two of them.

Richard gave her a big hug, which the spooks photographed and used in a publicity campaign to discredit him and the film, inferring they were having a sexual relationship and that his intention was to overthrow the government, which made him a marked man in South Africa.

Penelope Wilson remembered how they all had security men looking after them and guarding them while they slept.

She also said that being both the director and the producer gave him the freedom to keep the pressure off the actors and crew so they could just get on with their jobs.

“Sometimes you can feel the director being watched over by the producer. That didn’t happen with him because he was the producer.”

Image above: Watching a clip from The Angry Silence

He always made films “for a reason”, not just for money

Richard’s parents had taken in two Jewish girls from the Kinder transport during the Second World War, and explained to their children that instead of being a family of three siblings they would now be a family of five and that they may feel the girls were more loved than them, but the girls needed more love at that point.

He inherited not only their humanity but a passion for justice and doing what was morally right. He always started a film by giving a little speech explaining why they were doing they film, recalled Michael.

“It was very important to him that everyone from day on knew what it meant to him and why they were there, and he always did films for a reason, never just for the money.”

Image above: Richard Attenborough, Judy Geeson and John Hurt in 10 Rillington Place

He was successful very early as an actor, but became disillusioned with acting as he kept on being given parts which required him to act roles much younger than his age, so he gave up acting and went into production, forming the production company Beaver Films, with his friend Bryan Forbes.

He found out quite quickly he would have to play the lead role in one of their first films, The Angry Silence, because they could not find anyone to do it on a profit-sharing basis. Paradoxically it broke the age barrier because he was playing a role of someone older than himself and it led to other roles of older men, such as the serial killer John Christie in 10 Rillington Place.

Christie’s neighbour Timothy Evans was wrongly accused of murdering two of Christie’s victims and he was hanged for the murders, of his own wife and child.

“He did it because he was passionately against the death penalty and it was a miscarriage of justice,” said Michael.

Richard Attenborough was involved with a huge number of charities and as his son, Michael found he had to book time to speak to him at times. Bryan Forbes said he was president or chairman of “everything except the AA”.

Geraldine James recalled him bringing that “extraordinary empathy” to bear on cases dealt with by the Actors Charitable Trust, where they would be looking to find funds to help the orphaned child of an actor for example.

“He would have this beam of light which would focus on the problem and get it done…

“He was a phenomenal man to have as a mentor and guide.”

Images above: In the bar afterwards; photographs Chiswick Cinema

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