Richard Attenborough Interview

Lord Attenborough’s recent death took me back to an afternoon in 2000 when I went to interview the director, who was promoting Grey Owl – his penultimate work and probably not his best. For some reason, which still baffles me, I had been chosen to interview Attenborough by whatever company had been retained to deal with these things. Alongside Joe Riley of the Echo, I was the only one afforded any time with the great man.

The do took place at what is now the Radio City tower with much food and booze laid on for the occasion – it was like walking into an episode of Sex and the City. Having headed straight from the office where I was laying out the next newspaper, under orders to pretend I’d seen the film at a screening and probably looking like a complete scruff, I was rather out of place. Attenborough clearly spotted this while doing the rounds and made a point of coming over to me to engage me in conversation.

It was a lovely gesture, though I would have warmed to him anyway. I was very chuffed with the interview, where Attenborough nursed me through with interesting and thorough answers to what were probably unimpressive questions and hushed the people telling him he had to make time for other interviews (there weren’t any more as it transpired, we’d talked for so long no-one else got to speak to him). Afterwards he asked: “Was that alright, Robin?”. I was thrilled with that too. He essentially sacrificed the time reserved to promote his new film to be nice to someone who he obviously thought needed it.

I’ve reprinted the interview that resulted below, which is rather shot through with an angsty pessimism that reflected my mood at the time but reflects a style that I have adopted to a lesser degree ever since: a little bit gonzo, emotive, personal. I quite like the interview, despite the lack of quotes, looking back but it wouldn’t have amounted to much without the help of the subject. Those 20 minutes with Lord Attenborough were a wonderful treat and instructive too.

Godspeed, Dickie.



Lord Attenborough. The name itself is so thick with meaning, gravity and grandiosity that the prospect of meeting the man is quite unnerving.

I’m also surrounded by so much decadence at Radio City headquarters at the top of St John’s Beacon, while surveying some of the city’s seamier quarters of Liverpool that it’s impossible not to be struck by the juxtaposition. As I enter the building I am entreated to buy a Big Issue; as I enter the room chosen to host the launch party for Grey owl, Attenborough’s new film, I am faced with plates full of food, a lobster perched slightly sadly on top, as several people try to force wine into my hand.

318px-Richard_Attenborough_1975

Slightly fazed by it all and the roll-call of people who move on to another victim once they learn that I’ve come from the student newspaper, I sit by the window to admire the view. Realising there’s someone standing next to me who hasn’t moved away once they’ve noticed my whiskers, I turn to make a comment on the scenery when – inevitably – I’m faced with the man himself: “Magnificent view!”

Lord Richard Attenborough looks like my Grandpapa.

After a fat man from the Liverpool Echo creeps to Attenborough for an eternity, I am maneuvered through the gaggle of journos – “Janet Bland from the Daily Post…” – and get to spend some time with him in a side room. He looks tired [Attenborough was 77 at the time] but that doesn’t seem to dim his enthusiasm.

“Louis B Mayer always said that films have nothing to do with messages, I don’t agree with that, I don’t accept that. I believe that movies are essentially entertainment, but I also believe they are about things that people care about: totalitarianism, racial concerns, religious persecution – things that are worth talking about.

“I do believe that the environment is of great concern. There was a statement out yesterday that said within 70 years we will have plundered the planet, there will be no natural resources left: trees, water. It’s terrible, terrifying.”

Quite what the throng of hacks outside would make of this is anyone’s guess, but there’s no stopping him.

“Now, here’s a tale that deals with these issues, but with a fabulous tale behind it. A guy who was a total phone; a liar, drunk and bigamist…”. Ah, this will be Grey Owl, the true story of the Red Indian who renounced his life as a trapper in Canadian forests to become the leading figure in global environmentalism prior to WWII, only for it to be discovered, upon his death, that he was a chap from Hastings called Archie.

Attenborough’s delight at this story is evident – and his passion when talking about environmental issues evident. Indeed, Grey Owl shares many characteristics with many of the director’s other films: tolerance, harmony and respect chief among them. Looking at the critical and box-office receptions for Ghandi, A Bridge Too Far and Cry Freedom it’s hard not to conclude that Louis was wrong after all. But where does all this come from?

“Mike Parkinson said to me: ‘Your parents were committed to good causes’. They weren’t good causes – they were committed to helping people live and breathe, everyday things. It seemed unthinkable to them that you were not concerned with people less fortunate than yourself, or people who were being persecuted. You can’t just stand by. It isn’t something special to me; it’s perfectly ordinary behaviour.”

I’m with him, but the executives who refused to bankroll Attenborough’s films when he was transitioning from Hollywood leading man to director didn’t seem to agree. They laughed Attenborough out of the room for wanting to make a film about ‘a little brown man, dressed in a sheet and carrying a beanpole’. They had reckoned without his eye for telling a good story and his tenacity. Having spent 20 years trying to get the funding together to make Ghandi, he promptly won eight Oscars.

“My monstrous behaviour was that I gloated over the fact that all those buggers who turned me down then started to bid for it,” he admits a little ruefully, but with a definite twinkle.

Attenborough clearly loves making films, despite the difficulties he has encountered – he has also had to raise the cash to make Grey Owl privately – but it seems to me the overriding reason is to convey messages of humanitarianism in a format that people find palatable. The spoonful of sugar in Grey Owl is the love affair between Piers Brosnan’s eponymous lead and his wife, but the message behind it is hard to miss.

It’s a passion that has led Attenborough behind the camera more and more as his career has progressed, but it’s worth remembering that he was one of Hollywood’s key leading men during the golden age, starring in classics such as Brighton Rock, I’m Alright Jack, Seance on a Wet Afternoon and 10 Rillington Place. More recently he has appeared in Jurassic Park, where Steven Spielberg asked him to direct portions of Schindler’s List – he was too busy working on Shadowlands, a critical smash that was showered with Oscar nominations and BAFTA wins.

I waste some precious time musing on his early film career – “William Hartnell was a wonderful man!” – Brighton Rock being one of my favourite books and a strong film to boot. Attenborough’s anti-hero Pinkie is one of the most fearful, most violent figures in literature. He can’t stop himself though; a gentle chat about the films of the 40s becomes an impassioned statement about film violence: “We become inured to violence, we accept it as the norm. We should be horrified by it and we should be horrified by war.”

Time ticks by and we have to make way for Lord Attenborough’s next engagement. I leave the interview and seek out more booze. Everywhere people are chattering into mobile phones, taking wine from pretty waitresses without acknowledging them and networking furiously. What will these people take away from Grey Owl, Cry Freedom or Ghandi?

“What was he in?”

“You know, the one with the dinosaurs.”

• Image via Creative Commons, Flickr

Jimmy McGovern Interview: Failure Is Good For You

I stumbled in from the pub tonight and flicked through the channels until I came across an episode of Cracker. It was To Be A Somebody, the incendiary episode starring Robert Carlisle as Albie – a white, working-class scouser-turned-serial-killer – and I watched the last 15 minutes as rapt as I was when I first watched it at the age of 16.

Even then I knew I was watching something important – something that included Hillsborough, racism, working-class socialist bigotry and a host of other issues that send a shiver down the spine of any middle-class liberal. A disturbing confluence of issues – overlapping on a Venn diagram – as relevant today as they were 20 years ago.

Watching it back it’s hard to not view Albie’s call-to-arms in terms of Irish republican violence, 7/7 and even the rise of UKip, BNP and EDL. A touchstone for the disaffected white working-classes, denied the social gravity of work, unions, church and football. It struck me, although the outcomes may be somewhat different, that it’s hard to disagree with the thrust of his script.

Cracker Albie

I interviewed Jimmy McGovern in 2005 for Black & White Magazine, a Liverpool culture magazine I edited back in the day. At the end of some delicate negotiations I had an email exchange with Jimmy where we exchanged questions, discussion and gossip.

He was incredibly accommodating, polite, funny – I have not a bad word to say about him. Doctor Who was gearing up for a return at the time and he gave me some juicy gossip involving Christopher Eccleston, who he obviously held in high regard. I also got a lovely Christmas message from him at the end of the year – I like to think he’d appreciated something in the questions I asked.

As is always the case, we lost touch and I doubt he even remembers the exchange ten years on. But I remember his personal kindness to a young journalist to whom he owed nothing – he also allowed me to sell the interview to Tribune – and willingness to engage on subjects we both found interesting. Thanks Jimmy.

Ten years on from that interview – and 20 years from the episode’s debut – the issues we spoke of are still relevant. And, with The Street and Accused, so is Jimmy McGovern.

The following represents the compiled Q+A I assembled from our email conversations, printed in Black & White Magazine and Tribune. Inevitably I feel I was a little gauche and tactless – and wish I’d pursued certain lines on inquiry, but remain pleased with the exchange.

Can you tell us what you’re working on at the moment?

Right now I’m trying to do final polishes on the Cracker special and a six-parter for the BBC provisionally entitled The Street. As for the six-parter I’ve written only two eps and been a sort of lead writer on the others. The Americans would call it “show runner” but to hell with the Americans and their cultural imperialism. With the exception of a man called James Quirk the writers on The Street have been relatively inexperienced – but they all had good stories to tell and that’s the main thing for me. I’m sick of watching telly and seeing the same old stories being regurgitated. When I’ve finished these polishes I’ll be switching over to a musical about the history of cotton. We’re trying to blend negro-spirituals from the cotton fields with brass band music from the cotton mills. God knows if it will work.

What made you decide to come back to Cracker?

I’ve gone back to Cracker because I used to be co-organiser of the Hillsborough Memorial Golf Day and we needed a sponsor so I went to Granada and told them that if they sponsored the golf, I’d write them another Cracker.

Do the characters you create inevitably stem from aspects of your own personality – even if it’s a small one?

You’re right: if you’re in any way serious as a writer, you will always write characters based upon your own personality. That’s easy to say when it’s people like Fitz [from Cracker] because people like him despite his flaws. Not so easy when it’s characters like Albie [from the episode To Be A Somebody] but Albie was based on how I felt in the aftermath of Hillsborough. I don’t think I could have killed anybody over Hillsborough. In fact I’m sure I couldn’t. But I certainly felt like killing Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher and every single member of the South Yorkshire Police. And as for The Sun… I think every single killer in Cracker has come from somewhere deep within myself.

Hillsborough seems to be something of a touchtone across more than one of your works; something that has deeply affected Liverpool. Is this a fair reflection?

And you’re right again: because of that, some people think I’m a headcase, a hot-headed, angry, frustrated Scouser. But I’m not. I’m fifty-six. I’ve been married for thirty odd years; I’ve got grandkids; I play golf. The secret is, I know I’m nothing special. I know I’m not particularly good. Or particularly bad. I’m just like everyone else. And if I’ve felt like doing horrible things, then I’m bloody sure everybody else has as well. Nobody’s unique. Well, everybody’s unique but you know what I mean.

I have always seen myself as left-wing but, honestly, throughout the eighties it was hard to be a left-wing, white, working class male. We were blamed for everything: racism, sexism, fascism. And, of course, the epitome of the white working class male was the football fan. People hated them, especially people on the left. Hillsborough came out of all that and, after Hillsborough, I said to myself that I would never let people attack us (white working class males) like that again. And Fitz came after that – the first post-feminist, post political-correctness TV series.

I never had any doubts about writing the story of Albie in Cracker. In fact the Hillsborough families came to a screening and supported it. They, more than anyone, understood Albie’s anger. As for the drama-doc itself, I wrote it because the families asked me to write it. As simple as that.

Do you still have a personal faith, or are you a cultural Catholic?

I have never attacked the Catholic faith. I have never attacked any religion. There was one particular journalist who slyly hinted that I might be anti-semitic but I can tell you I’m not. The great religions, when they are properly adhered to, are a force for good. It’s the institutions that sprout up around those religions that get up my nose. And the hypocrites within them. One example, the Catholic Church sheltered child abusers for years. If it had done this out of compassion for the abusers, well that might, just might, be understandable. But it sheltered the abusers because it was frightened of losing its great wealth in the courts.

What would be the worst and the best we can expect to come out of Liverpool winning Capital of Culture?

I’m ambivalent about Capital of Culture. On the one hand, if we ever get my cotton project onto the stage it will probably be because of Capital of Culture money. On the other hand I’m not prepared to be gagged because of that. I think 2008 will pass the vast majority of Scousers by, just as whatever-year-it-was passed the Glaswegians by.

Liverpool has given you a lot of source material in the forms of Hillsborough and Dockers, albeit frequently tragic and terrible. Does this make you ambivalent about living here?

No. I thank God I was born here. I have always loved this city and the older I get, the more I love it. The people above all, their humour and passion and sensitivity, but also the river, the architecture, the parks, the history of the place…

I have always had a soft spot for Ireland. My wife has 100 per cent, pure Irish blood in her veins. And, of course, I have the obligatory great grandad who came over in the Famine. But I see myself as a Scouser, a catholic, white, working class Scouser. That means I’ve plenty in common with the Irish but, no, I am not Irish; I am a Scouser. Lots of people see themselves like that, I think, and that’s healthy surely.

Where did The Lakes come from? Was there an element of it being something that was ‘fun’ to write?

I am proud of the first series of The Lakes. The trouble was the second series. We brought in a lot of very good writers, each with his or her own “voice” so the second series went all over the place. But the first I liked. And a lot of it was autobiographical. As was Hearts and Minds of course.

I know I’ve got this reputation for grittiness but, actually, the first two things I wrote, other than Brookside, were Felix Randal and Traitors. Felix Randal was based on the poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, about a farrier in Liverpool in the late nineteenth century and Traitors was about Father Garnet’s involvement in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot.

Are there particular actors who you prefer to work with?

Because I write a lot about working class characters, I like to work with actors who are working class. It’s the hardest thing to pull off for an actor, I think: to act outside your socio-economic group. Interestingly, Irish actors can do it. It’s often very hard to spot an Irish actor’s background. But for the English it’s not so easy.

I used to fight like mad to get my programmes made in Liverpool. But I got tired of people accusing me of portraying Liverpool in a bad light. You know, the people of Manchester have never said to me, “Hey, you Scouser, how dare you portray our city as full of headcases and psychopaths!” That’s because they understand that film and TV production brings millions into the local economy.

What are you most proud of of your scripts?

No matter how well something has been done, it could always have been done better. I’m proud of Hillsborough of course because it helped people. I’d say the same thing about Dockers, Sunday and Priest. But Heart, a small movie, was a bit of a failure as was the second series of The Lakes. As for Mary Queen of Scots, I wrote it as a big-budget movie and, in hindsight, I should have fought to get it made as such. But failure is good for you, you know. Particularly if you’re Catholic.