Baron Attenborough of Richmond Upon Thames
“Everything is nice about living in Richmond,” Richard Attenborough told Time Out in 2012. Now it is the borough’s turn to pay tribute to one of its greatest residents, who passed away on 25 August 2014 five days short of his 91st birthday. The much-loved actor, director, producer and campaigner led a life of extraordinary breadth, energy and achievement, and it was played out against the backdrop of Richmond upon Thames.
Richard Attenborough and his wife and fellow actor Sheila Sim lived in Richmond for over 60 years. They moved to Old Friars, on Richmond Green, in 1949, two years after Attenborough had created one of the most enduring screen characters when he reprised his stage role as Pinkie in John Boulting and Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (1947). Old Friars is a beautiful Queen Anne house dating back to 1687, which in the nineteenth century had been the headquarters of the Richmond Liberal and Radical Club. At the bottom of the garden is Beaver Lodge, a concert room in the 1720s, which was sound-proofed and employed by Attenborough as a home cinema, complete with editing suite, screening room and projection room. He also maintained offices at Twickenham Film Studios in The Barons, St Margarets, which until 2009 remained his post-production base. For nearly forty years, the director mixed his films at Twickenham, from Oh What a Lovely War! (1969) to Closing the Ring (2007). Other notable credits include Cry Freedom (1987), Shadowlands (1993) and Gandhi (1982), which won eight Oscars including Best Film and Best Director. The studio’s Theatre 1 is named the Richard Attenborough Theatre in his honour.
There is a long list of charities and organizations Richard Attenborough embraced as president, chairman, patron or passionate supporter, including the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, UNICEF, United World Colleges, RADA, BAFTA, the BFI and the National Film and Television School. One role that gave a particular pleasure was as Honorary Vice President of Chelsea Football Club, whose Stamford Bridge ground is only a 20-minute drive from Richmond. Attenborough trained with the club to improve his physical conditioning when preparing for the role of Pinkie, and became friends with legendary centre-forward Tommy Lawton. His love of football was such that when he appeared in the first run of The Mousetrap at the Ambassadors Theatre in 1952, he had a clause in his contract stipulating that the Saturday matinee should start late enough for him to attend Chelsea’s home games. Lord A, as he was known at the club, was on the Chelsea board from 1969 to 1982, and attended games with friends including Laurence Olivier, John Mills, Frank Sinatra and his co-star from The Great Escape, Steve McQueen. He said of his time watching football at Chelsea "I can go to a game at the Bridge on a Saturday afternoon, with maybe a thumping headache or the cares of the world on my shoulder and at the end of the game, they're gone. I find it the most extraordinary period of relaxation." Characteristically, Attenborough found time to improve access for disabled supporters and to launch Help A London Child, Chelsea’s official UK charity partner.
Closer to home, Attenborough actively promoted the arts in local schools and supported the building in 1988 of the new Orange Tree Theatre, of which he was patron. The founder of the Orange Tree, Sam Walters, paid tribute: “The death of Richard Attenborough is of course a loss that goes way beyond the community of Richmond upon Thames, where he lived, and the small Orange Tree Theatre, for which he did so much. His death is a loss to all who were privileged to know him, and indeed a loss to the world.”
Richard Attenborough was knighted in 1976, and when he was made a life peer in 1993 he took the title Baron Attenborough of Richmond upon Thames. A commemorative plaque was placed in St Mary Magdalen’s church, Richmond, after the devastating tsunami of 2004 tragically claimed the lives of Lord Attenborough’s daughter, Jane, and his granddaughter Lucy.
Lord Attenborough was an integral part of British cultural life, and his home, life and work were part of the fabric of Richmond upon Thames. The borough has lost its most remarkable baron, and the world of film has lost a most remarkable man.