The acting roles of Richard Attenborough

Tend to think of Richard Attenborough as a kindly old man? Aliya digs into his early career to find some far nastier roles...

British cinema has always liked its angry young men: Richard Burton, Albert Finney, Laurence Harvey and others all played the 1950s and 60s social animal, raging against the class system and the staid attitudes of post-war Britain.

But they weren’t the first angry young man on the screen. Maybe that crown could be claimed by an unlikely actor – Richard Attenborough. Attenborough is best known now as a director and producer, for films such as Gandhi, Chaplin and Shadowlands. When he gets thought of as an actor, it’s often as a kindly old man with a white beard. Misguided, sometimes, as when he played John Hammond, the owner of Jurassic Park, but not downright nasty. A lot of his earlier work in front of the camera gets forgotten, so here’s a reminder of some roles in which he excelled, long before he became the face of Luvviedom.

Attenborough started out as an actor who was more than capable of projecting a lot of emotions, and sometimes his characters weren’t pleasant people. They could be downright nasty. His skill as an actor was to draw you into his performance; there’s something about the openness of his face that encourages you to look more closely, so you always feel something other than simple dislike, even towards the murderers he has portrayed. This can make for an uncomfortable viewing experience at times, but it means you’re always interested, and that’s a trick that not many actors manage to pull off.

So here’s a look at five films, in chronological order, in which Attenborough gave a really strong performance that might be outside of what you’d expect from him. They’re all well worth a watch, and, for my money, he deserves to be thought of as one of the best British actors of the post-war generation.

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1. Brighton Rock (1947)

I can’t talk about Richard Attenborough’s acting skills without mentioning Brighton Rock. He’s just brilliant in it. He played the role of Pinkie on the West End stage in 1943 (his breakthrough role) and by the time he made the film version he had that sharp sneer down to a fine art.

Pinkie is a gang leader in Brighton, and he likes the feeling of power. We can see he’s on a path to destruction, but the focus of the film is on the girl he might take down with him. Naïve waitress Rose (a great performance by Carol Marsh) has fallen in love with him, and he manipulates her in ways that are painful to watch. Graham Greene and Terence Rattigan wrote the script, based on Greene’s novel, and John Boulting directed, finding the perfect balance between the harshness of Pinkie’s world and the redemption offered by Rose.

Before angry young men became popular, there was Pinkie: terrifying in his youth and lack of empathy, clever and mean, and impossible to forget.

2. London Belongs to Me (1948)

A normal street in 1930s London, upon which a boarding house stands. The people who live there deal with their problems, small and large, sad and funny, and make up this ensemble film with a strong cast and a bittersweet feeling to it. At times it strays close to film noir, but then veers into screwball comedy; not easy to predict, it has a charm all of its own.

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I have to point out that the absolute star at the heart of London Belongs to Me is Alastair Sim. Here he plays Mr Squales, a very unscrupulous medium who goes into trances at the drop of a hat and worms his way into the affections of the landlady. When he first turns up on the doorstep and inquires about a room you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re watching Ealing comedy The Ladykillers. I would be amazed if Alec Guinness hadn’t based his character there on Sim’s performance. It’s the overbite, the hat, and the wisps of lank hair.

The more serious storyline falls on Attenborough’s shoulders, as Percy Boon, the young lad who lives in the upstairs flat with his mum and ends up getting into trouble with the law. Percy squirms his way through life, getting in deeper and deeper with the wrong sort, and Attenborough does a brilliant job of showing us the fact that he still has a good heart, even when he ends up in the blackest of situations. It’s the flipside of Pinkie, as just as believable.

3. The Guinea Pig (1948)

So this is the first film ever made in which somebody said the word ‘arse’. And, yes, it was Richard Attenborough who said it. He plays Jack Read, the teenage son of a tobacconist who is awarded the first scholarship to a public school, and finds his life and his aspirations changing as a result.

Attenborough was twenty five when he played this, yet another teenage role, but then he did always have that fresh faced look. And he doesn’t come across as anything other than a normal lad in The Guinea Pig. There’s a moment where he tries to run away and gets stopped by one of the teachers; when asked what’s wrong, Jack says, “I want to go home” in a voice that encapsulates the loneliness of a boy away from his mum and dad for the first time. His character changes slowly, without any obvious signs, and the public school changes too, becoming more accepting of a different social class.

It’s a heartwarming film, because it suggests that we can learn to be tolerant of each other without great upheaval taking place; in a way, sadly, it seems very old-fashioned because of that notion, and as nostalgic as Goodbye Mr Chips. It’s strange to think that it was considered to be controversial upon its release.

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4. Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)

Nearly twenty years later, and Attenborough finally escaped the teenage acting roles to become a producer, setting up a company called Beaver Films with Bryan Forbes as writer/director. Films such as Whistle Down the Wind (1961) and The Angry Silence (1960) followed, but I think their best film together is Séance on a Wet Afternoon. It has a serious creepiness and a psychological nastiness, with a great use of sound, and a really interesting, claustrophobic script.

Attenborough plays Billy Savage, a weak man who is married to a medium called Myra (Kim Stanley). Myra holds séances in their house and is obsessed with death. She has a horrible plan to get her talents recognised, and Billy will be the one doing the dirty work. He can see things are going to end badly, but he is bound to Myra by their tragic past, and he can’t seem to refuse her anything.

On the original trailer, which doesn’t do the film any favours, the line – “For you who enjoy unusual entertainment” flashes up, which makes it sound like some kind of journey into degeneracy, but I find it to be a very moving film by the end. I think a lot of that has to do with Attenborough’s performance. Kim Stanley gives the grandstand acting masterclass, but it’s the quiet suffering of Billy that gets me every time.

5. 10 Rillington Place (1971)

Here’s Attenborough being as nasty as it gets. He plays John Christie, and this is the true story of a serial killer who went undetected for over ten years. Christie was a quiet man who offered to perform abortions for desperate women; he then killed them and secreted the bodies around his house and garden.

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So you’re expecting a nasty film, but 10 Rillington Place is a far cry from sensationalism. There’s very little shouting or screaming. Attenborough plays Christie as so very softly spoken and fastidious. He uses that open face here as a blank sheet of paper. There’s no suggestion of digging deep into Christie’s character to explain his actions; the film has a different focus, and that’s the events that led to another man being accused of some of Christie’s crimes. Timothy Evans, a lodger in Rillington Place, is played by John Hurt, and his confusion and fear is palpable. It’s a terrible story, made worse for being an accurate representation of what happened. It was even filmed in on the very street where Christie committed the murders, and hangman Albert Pierrepoint acted as a technical advisor.

Throughout the 80s Attenborough became a celebrated director, and when he did act he often played quite warm characters: from Doctor Dolittle, Miracle on 34th Street, and Jurassic Park, he was a familiar face in family movies, and a figurehead for classic British film.

But it’s the early, morally more interesting, roles that continue to fascinate me. He could use his youthful looks to play either the misguided teenager or the downright sadistic, and in the 60s and 70s he took on some very challenging characters. For all his brilliance as a director and producer, I think it’s important to remember that he’s also a very talented and surprising actor. From Brighton Rock to 10 Rillington Place, nobody represented the realistic face of British evil quite as convincingly as he did.

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