How Lord Attenborough was one of our very own

With brother David Attenborough and Sir Ben Kingsley during his 80th birthday party at Sussex University

With brother David Attenborough and Sir Ben Kingsley during his 80th birthday party at Sussex University

First published in Past Views by

Legendary actor and director Richard Attenborough died on August 24, aged 90. He was born in Cambridge and lived almost his entire life in London but he had many links with Sussex and Brighton. Reporter Ben James looks through the Argus archives for more.

Lord Attenborough’s first experience of Sussex – a county he would come to love – was not a happy one.

During filming for the film Brighton Rock, see inset picture below, he and the rest of the crew were at the racecourse.

Dozens of actors, technicians and camera crew had set up for the day when a couple of jobsworth council officials showed up.

The pair ordered the filming to be halted immediately and for the cast and crew to go elsewhere.

As a result, the filming was thrown off schedule, causing an immense headache for all involved.

Lord Attenborough played the lead role of the gangster, Pinkie, in the 1947 British cinema classic.

The film, which also starred Hermione Baddeley and William Hartnell, was the young actor’s first big break and led to a lifelong love affair with the city.

He returned many times, notably for a 50th anniversary of the release of the film in 1999.

Partly organised by The Argus, the event at the University of Sussex’s Gardner Arts Centre was attended by fellow actors, fans and film royalty such as Barry Norman and director Alan Parker.

Speaking to our reporter after a screening, he joked: “It didn’t look like me at all. It looked like a rather evil photo of my youngest daughter.

“But the film is an extraordinary piece of work. It touches on aspects of society we are only really tackling now and at the time the film-makers were hounded for it.”

Lord Attenborough enjoyed his time filming in Brighton so much, he returned to the city when he turned his hand to directing.

Much of the celebrated Oh What A Lovely War was filmed along Brighton’s West Pier in the late 60s – long before it was ravaged by fire and bad weather.

Extras were recruited from the area and University of Sussex.

Other nearby locations were also used, including Ditchling Beacon and Sheepcote Valley for the trench sequences, Old Bayham Abbey for the church parade scene and hundreds of crosses were put up at Brighton Station and Ovingdean for the final sequence.

He was back in The Argus in the mid-80s when he took on the role of president of Brighton Festival.

Not only did he ensure the city had a quality arts event, but he also used the position to talk about problems in society.

In an interview in 1984, he urged festival-goers not to forget the jobless.

He said: “Merely to sit and listen to a string quartet and ignore the problems of young people down the road who have no prospects of finding work would be dreadful.

“The nation is not paying attention to the unemployed. For many the problem is likely to be permanent.”

Lord Attenborough also led calls at the time to make the festival more accessible to a wider audience.

Speaking to our reporter, he said: “If that means clowns in the streets then I’m all for it.”

Despite increasingly spending time overseas filming A Chorus Line, Ghandi and Jurassic Park, he was named chancellor of the University of Sussex in January 1998.

Although he never went to university, his children Michael and Jane were students at Sussex in the 70s.

At the ceremony to install him, he was overcome with emotion.

He said: “I don’t want my role to be just ceremonial. I want to be involved in the life of the university.

“I would like to welcome people from around the world and those people from this country who thought they would never go to university.”

He continued in the position, attending graduations and sitting at the head of the university’s ruling council, until actor Sanjeev Bhaskar took over in 2009.

Such was the scope of his work, millions will remember him for different projects. But how would he want to be remembered himself?

Speaking to our reporter in 1970, he said it was his work in the theatre he was most proud of.

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