Michael Coveney: 'Richard Attenborough's roots were in theatre'

Lord Attenborough, who died on Sunday, was a man of enormous influence on stage as well as screen

'Remarkably intense and chilling': Richard Attenborough in 10 Rillington Place
'Remarkably intense and chilling': Richard Attenborough in 10 Rillington Place
Ten years ago, Michael Attenborough directed a rather underrated musical version of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock (by Giles Havergal, John Barry and Don Black), with Michael Jibson perfectly cast as Pinkie Brown, the angel-faced hoodlum first played on stage, and film, by Richard Attenborough, the director's dad.

It's a neat illustration of how close, and how interactive, were father and son. Richard Attenborough, who died on Sunday a few days short of his 91st birthday, was probably the outstanding "Mr British Cinema" of the last century, not only as actor, director and producer (Ghandi, Chaplin and Shadowlands, the latter with Anthony Hopkins as C S Lewis, are exceptional biopics) but also as standard-bearer, champion, even patron saint, through his work at Channel 4, the BFI, the London Film School and Bafta.

Two of his less successful movies, as it happens, were of iconic stage shows: Oh, What a Lovely War! and A Chorus Line; the "theatre-ness" of them evaporated on celluloid. But Attenborough's roots were in theatre, having gone to RADA aged 17, and making a stage debut in 1941 at the Intimate, Palmer's Green, in Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness.

Although his significant small role as a young stoker in Noël Coward's In Which We Serve (1942) led to an amazing film career – his remarkably intense and chilling performance as the creepy murderer John Christie in Richard Fleischer's 10 Rillington Place (1970) is my personal favourite – his stage career continued after the war for ten years; he played Det Sgt Trotter in the original cast of The Mousetrap for two years at the Ambassadors, alongside his wife Sheila Sim.

Perhaps his greatest quality was his persistence. It took him over 20 years to raise money and overcome countless obstacles in the making of Ghandi. And he spent nearly as long trying to make a film about the great British socialist Tom Paine, scripted by playwright Trevor Griffiths. In the end, and after his stroke in 2008, he gave up, and the project became a knotty new play at the Globe (starring John Light and Dominic Rowan), directed by Dominic Dromgoole, in 2009.

Everywhere he lived and worked, "Dickie" (as he was generally known) got involved in so many practical ways, fundraising, serving on boards, campaigning. Born in Leicester, his father was a don at Cambridge and principal of Leicester University. Most of his married life he lived on Richmond Green and was a proud supporter of both Richmond Theatre and – there's a room named for him – the Orange Tree. He was an immensely popular and pro-active president of RADA, too. And following the example of his great hero, Coward, he was closely involved in maintaining Denville Hall, the actors' care and convalescent home where he concluded his life; Sheila survives him there, living in the room next door.

"He got so much done, and so well done, too"

He and his younger brother, David, the great documentary filmmaker of wildlife and animals, and first controller of BBC2, are surely the most extraordinary siblings in the history of the modern media. And the dynasty continues not only in Michael's career, but in those of Michael's sons, Tom and William, the first a theatre director, the second an actor last seen in the fine revival of Julian Mitchell's Another Country at the Trafalgar Studios. The great sadness in their lives was the loss of Michael's elder sister, Jane, Jane's daughter Lucy, and her mother-in-law, all killed in the south-Asian freak tsunami on Boxing Day 2004.

Some years ago, Sir Richard – knighted in 1976, Labour life peer in 1993 – rang a West End film and theatre PR office and as ever cheerily announced himself over the phone to a new girl: "It's Dickie, darling." At that moment, the boss walked in and the girl passed the phone over, saying that the caller was a Mr Dickie Darling; the chuckles at the other end of the line filled the silence of embarrassment, and normal service was resumed immediately, and hilariously. That was the impact Attenborough had on any room, even if he wasn't in it. And why he got so much done, and so well done, too.

Richard Attenborough in 2006
'Dickie darling' – Attenborough in 2006
© Dan Wooller

In the spirit of Dickie, I'd wholeheartedly recommend two delightful, handy volumes of theatrical anecdotage: Michael Rudman's I Joke Too Much: The Theatre Director's Tale, from Capercaillie Books, and David Weston's Covering Shakespeare: an actor's saga of near misses and dogged endurance, from Oberon.

Rudman, still busy, and married to Felicity Kendal, ran the Traverse in Edinburgh in the early 1970s and was succeeded as artistic director of Hampstead Theatre (1973-8) by Michael Attenborough, going on to work for Peter Hall for ten years at the National, Chichester (for one season) and Sheffield Theatres. His humour is wry, self-deprecating and laced with acerbity, and he has great stories about Mike Leigh, Michael Frayn, Dustin Hoffman, Shirley MacLaine, Rex Harrison et al, though not the one about me.

Okay, it was when David Hare's Fanshen opened on the night of a flash flood and storm in Hampstead and I parked my car and more or less swam to the theatre on opening night. The weather conditions were Biblical, to put it mildly, and I was the first critic – the first person, actually – to arrive, at just one minute past the appointed 7pm starting time. As I wrung out my shirt and socks and stood dripping in the foyer like a wet dog, Rudman appeared at the top of the stairs and barked fiercely at me: "You're late!"

Weston's book documents his experience of all Shakespeare's plays – he's acted in 29 of them – in a mish-mash (his word) of "tattle" (gossip, academic gobbets, history of performance) and "memories" (shows seen, shows appeared in). I particularly relish his account of a disastrous Hotspur (his own) in Henry IV Part One at Ludlow, where the set was designed with "twelve edges of stage to fall off." Inevitably, he ended up in hospital, then in a cinema with his Lady Percy, having freely imbibed of her brandy flask, only to stumble out and discover a plaque which read: "The body of Harry 'Hotspur' Percy was hung here in chains after the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1402." Hotspur was suffering again that night, notes Weston, "on the same bloody spot."

Dickie Darling would have loved these books, and also the fact that Weston groups him with Laurence Olivier and Bernard Miles (founder of the Mermaid Theatre) as one of only three actors ever to have been awarded a life peerage; Julian Fellowes got one, too, and he is (or at least, was) an actor, but his gong is for services to the Conservative party, and not even Downton Abbey.