Remembering Richard Attenborough (and the day he patted me on the bottom)

I was very sad to wake up this morning to the news that Richard Attenborough has died. While ‘Brighton Rock’ and ‘Gandhi’ will rightly be remembered as amongst his greatest acting and directing roles, two other films have a huge importance in my life, ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’ and ‘Cry Freedom’. This post is a personal reflection about how two of his films touched me, and how he personally touched me!

‘Oh! What a Lovely War’ was the first genuinely anti-war film. It was set on Brighton’s West Pier in the late 1960’s and as an end of the pier show. The contrast between the light-hearted songs and the full horror of the trenches still makes such uncomfortable viewing. I first saw the film when working at St Dunstan’s, the home for blind ex-servicemen, most of the men I cared for being 1914-18 veterans.

I was at at a wedding on the Bandstand on Saturday talking to some American guests about the film and how it was set on the pier, as we gazed over the skeleton of the pier. Hopefully, as one of the many tributes to Attenborough, one of the television channels will screen ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’. Watch it for its brutal portrayal of war but also look at the West Pier in its heyday.

‘Cry Freedom’ focuses on the events surrounding the murder of Steve Biko, the South African black consciousness leader murdered by the apartheid police in 1977. It brought home to audiences in the UK and USA some of the horrors of apartheid, particularly at that time following the youth uprising in 1976, an event that reinforced my own decision to become a conscientious objector and to leave South Africa when I was called up to the apartheid army in 1979.

I met Attenborough once, at an event at the University of Sussex, where we were attending an event which included a lunch in the Refectory Building. It was quite surreal walking across the campus in a small group of about six people including Attenborough, who was charm personified. When we got to the lift in the Refectory Building, we were the last two to get into the lift. I said “After you” but he replied , “No, after you, Dear Boy” as he put his hand under my jacket and patted me on the bottom. To this day I feel as though I had well and truly been ‘lovied’ by the greatest Lovey of all.

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