His last film Closing the Ring was about death, loss, loyalty and faith. Richard Attenborough knew more than his fair share about all of them as he told me in 2008.
It’s difficult to be precise about the moment when Dickie Attenborough became a national treasure.
Perhaps it was when the epic that was Gandhi stormed the Oscars in 1982, scooping eight of the 11 awards for which it was nominated and allowing Attenborough to make a lengthy speech of thanks.
Maybe it as a decade earlier than that, when he coaxed a phalanx of stellar names into guest spots and cameos in Oh! What a Lovely War, an excoriating musical on the futility of conflict.
Or it could have been his work in movies like The Angry Silence, Séance on a Wet Afternoon and 10 Rillington Place.
Whenever it was, Dickie Attenborough has consistently fought to deliver movies with a message. At 84, he’s still at it, and has recently wrapped his fourteenth film as director, Closing the Ring.
In the canon of Attenborough epics it is a far cry from the likes of Young Winston, A Bridge Too Far and Chaplin yet it is precisely the kind of film that Attenborough has made throughout his 30-year career as a director.
“I don’t make innovative movies,” says Attenborough. “I make craft movies – they have beginnings, middles and ends. I’m not interested in the pornography of violence. In fact I’m distressed by it. I’m not interested in special effects. I’m interested in people, human beings and relationships. This is a film about death and loss and loyalty and faith… all those things.”
His voiced cracks as he contemplates his own loss – the death of daughter Jane and granddaughter Lucy in the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. One understands how he ploughed his emotions into the creation of Closing the Ring.
“We’ve had to deal with loss. How do you deal with it? People ask you if you’ve got over your loss and pain and you say no. What you do is find a way of dealing with it. What this picture does do and does say is that to become so self-indulgent is a mistake. Loss is a very personal thing and it’s very difficult to cope or to find a way that you can cope. That’s a fundamental part of the movie but it’s not the sole question of the movie.
“I’m not an auteur. I’m not a great filmmaker. I’m a craftsman. I have tried to make films about the dilemmas and the problems and sacrifices that human beings are involved in. When you get to my age – and I’m too old really – you ought to be packing it in and saying goodbye but I can’t contemplate the idea of retirement.”
Attenborough is a patient man who bears his frustrations with grace. He battled for 20 years to bring Gandhi to the screen. Closing the Ring was another long slog: seven years. If his next film takes as long Lord Dickie will be well into his 90s.
I mention his pet project, an epic about the 18th century republican revolutionary Thomas Paine. The idea has been floating around for years. It sits at the back of Attenborough’s mind, never quite fading away.
“Nobody wants to make it because it’s period, it’s politics, it’s religion, there’s no violence in terms of really graphic violence. Pornographic violence is not there – it’s utterly justified. But I doubt if I will ever make it. It would cost $70 million.
“I have always believed that writing is the initial creative element and that without a good screenplay you’ve had it. The script is the most important thing and I have the most terrific screenplay written by Trevor Griffiths. It’s marvellous: a bewildering piece of creativity.”
Attenborough is the first to accept that he makes the kinds of films that producers run scared of. The focus on the individual rather than eye-popping special effects makes him a living byword for a style of olde-worlde cinema that, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists.
“Filmmaking is not a precise science. You make poor films. You make misjudgements. I’m not for one hundredth of a second saying that in making this kind of film you automatically have an audience. But I do believe, more and more, that there is a genuine audience which is not served.
He says he’s now retired as an actor, having appeared in 63 films as leading man, supporting player and guest star. Directing is the real thrill. “I shake with excitement when I go on the floor at the beginning of a day’s work. And because I’m a bossy bugger I like being the boss,” he reveals.
“I would like to end my life on the last day of shooting – say ‘Cut!’ and drop dead. That will be my perfect end.”