Blog Post

DWF honours Sir Richard Attenborough

25 August 2014


‘The Greatest Living Englishman’

These were the words used by Donald Woods to describe Richard Attenborough in the late 1980s. Many will equate Attenborough’s achievements with his visual triumphs on screen, but Donald Woods was referring to his character, drive and steely determination to achieve the seemingly impossible against great odds, which he witnessed first-hand.

Being brought up during the Second World War amid anti-fascism, a sense of values and morality were strong elements in Attenborough’s formative years. This thread developed throughout his career with masterpieces like ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’, ‘The Angry Silence’ and ‘Gandhi’. Over the years he had received many approaches to make a film about South Africa, but the subject matter involving great leaders or incidents had featured primarily in the 1950s or early 1960s and were dated for western film audiences of the late 1980s.

One of the key elements Woods was referring to was that for decades, no major film studio would touch the subject of South Africa, believing that a film could not be made without suffering huge financial losses and without connecting to the western public of the late 1980s. While Steve Biko was the basic theme, “the way into the movie” – as Attenborough put it – was the Woods relationship with Biko if mass audiences were to be reached in Europe and the United States.

Woods’ first impression of Attenborough was that he was “someone full of fun but thorough about what he took seriously. … He looked full of energy and was a dynamo of activity. Over the years I was to realise the inadequacy of this description.”

He travelled and consulted extensively in South Africa, prior to coming to a final decision on the go-ahead to make ‘Cry Freedom’. He met with and garnered support from many leading figures in the ANC, PAC and Black Consciousness, including Oliver Tambo, Ntsiki Biko and Winnie Mandela. All expressed the view that the main target audience was Europe and North America, as Africa was already convinced of the evil of apartheid, but the West had the power to change it. The other message they offered regarding the project, was to “make it strong”.

During this visit to South Africa – initially in secret, but later on with the Security Police in tow – Attenborough experienced apartheid’s henchmen first-hand when in a rural roadside petrol station toilet break, he was roughed up by two Security Policemen, who threatened that he was not out of their reach.

All the power in Hollywood at the time was throwing their money behind several films about Vietnam and other ventures with direct American interest. None wanted to touch a film about South Africa, as no major productions had yet been made. Despite this, Attenborough threw himself into the challenge and overcame all the seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

The greatest achievement in the film was not just the historical subject matter, the powerful music, Denzel Washington’s moving performance, the film’s widespread success, but the mere fact that the film was made, and made well. This one aspect alone surpasses all others in the film’s impact and achievements. It is this drive and determination, combined with energy and warmth that Woods was referring to. Getting a major film production on anti-apartheid spawned several films on South Africa in the subsequent 18 months after release.

After Woods’ death in 2001, Attenborough went on to work with Wendy Woods, John Duffy and Dillon Woods on a monthly basis for several years to get a nine-foot statue of Nelson Mandela erected in Parliament Square, London – a project started by Donald eighteen months earlier. Again his energy, character and drive shone through having to overcome several seemingly insurmountable obstacles, but in the end, seeing the unveiling with Prime Minister Gordon Brown with Mandela as honoured guest.

In addition to the dozens of films, Richard Attenborough was variously chairman of Capital Radio, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, the British Film Institute, Goldcrest Films, the Actors Charitable Trust and Combined Theatrical Charities; a Trustee of the Help a London Child Fund; president of the Muscular Dystrophy Ground of Great Britain; Pro-Vice Chancellor of Sussex University; board member of the Martin Luther King Jr Foundation; deputy chairman of Channel 4; ambassador of the Donald Woods Foundation and chair of the UK Trustees of Waterford Kamhlaba School in Swaziland.

The staff and Board of Trustees of the Donald Woods Foundation pay tribute to the life of Richard Attenborough.

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