Lord Richard Attenborough: Actor, Producer, Director and Phenomenal Creative Executive

05/09/2014  -  3.32

Dorothy Hobson, Senior Lecturer & Course Leader in Contemporary Media

Lord Richard Attenborough died on 24th August and we lost an actor, producer, director, whose many achievements are well known and audiences can see his performances in many films, including In Which We Serve, Brighton Rock, The Great Escape, Jurassic Park, Miracle on 34th Street, or we can see his skills as a Director in Oh What a Lovely War and his Oscar winning production of Ghandi followed by Cry Freedom.    

Perhaps a lesser known part of his phenomenal cultural and artistic career was that of a leader and patriarch of the British Film and Television industry at The British Film Institute, BAFTA, The National Film and Television School and as Vice Chair and then Chairman of Channel 4 Television.

I met Richard Attenborough when I was researching my book about Channel 4 Television from 1982-87 (1). While in terms of influence he was an omnipresent figure right from before the Channel began in 1982, his full time involvement was interrupted by the years he spent making the film Ghandi.  

When the IBA were looking for a first Chairman, it was Richard Attenborough then Chairman of Capital Radio, whom they approached believing that he had the necessary qualifications as a media leader and a programme leader to be Chairman of the  new channel and to support Jeremy Isaacs as Chief Executive.  

It could not have been worse timing as he explained: “I had to say immediately that I had at last got the money for Ghandi and consequently I simply could not take on the responsibility at this time. I told them, My business is making movies.”

He went away and made Ghandi but took the role of Deputy Chair and his influences and passion about cinema and was carried forward into the remit for Channel 4. He spoke of the things which determined whether he would join the channel.  

“Film Four was one of my absolute conditions for taking the job. I believe that television had in large measure eroded the position, particularly in financing of British cinema and that somehow or another the chief executive who came in, whoever he was, in my judgment had to be persuaded, if not already holding those convictions, of the equity and logic of television putting back some of the potential it had taken from cinema.  

“The majority of drama directors had come to television with some film training and now that the situation was totally reversed and television is roaring away, we must use that opportunity to get something back into the cinema.”

Film on Four became one of the great successes of Channel 4 and many of its productions had theatrical releases and it has been recognized making a significant contribution to the renaissance of British cinema.  

His second criteria, which he called ‘not quite a condition’ for agreeing to be Deputy Chairman, was what he termed: “‘….that we must permit failure, and that was a phrase I actually used at the first press conference, that programme makers must be allowed to fail. If we didn’t venture, if we didn’t try things that were new, if we did not attempt to find the opportunity for people to try out wholly new concepts and ideas then we might just as well be another ITV company.”

He continued to say that as Chairman of an organisation you should  employ a chief executive in whom you have total and absolute faith and then -  “you granted him by virtue of that conviction, maximum right  of decision.”

In these three comments he revealed his commitment to executive power which was enabling and supportive and definitely not controlling.  After Channel 4 had been on the air for five years at the end of 1987 and when he had taken over as Chairman I asked him what he thought had been the achievements of the channel since it began in 1982.  

He responded: “‘I think that Film on Four has been a triumph. I think that the 7 o’clock News is the jewel in the crown, I really do. I think that the calibre and quality of reporting and presentation is superb.  

“I don’t think the channel crows about itself, but when one talks about the achievements of the channel in large measure, of course, its existence is a major achievement – the fact of its concept, that is its achievement. The concept of Commissioning Editors, the unique quality of the station.   And I believe that its existence surpasses everything else.  And of course, it works - there is no question whatsoever.  Of course, there are ups and downs, there are successes and there are failures, there are outstanding programmes and there are some diabolical mistakes, but fact is that we have created….”

At this point Richard Attenborough changed his tack and moved to talk about the achievements of Channel 4 and his own great achievement of the film Ghandi.   It shows his total commitment to his role as the Chair of the Channel, and how he is totally unselfish in linking the praise for his film and the success of Channel 4.   

He told me: “I have been going round the world since October. Talk about Channel 4 in Tokyo, talk about Channel 4 in Helsinki, talk about Channel 4 in San Francisco. It is the envy of every creative television executive and programmer you meet. And fascinating, that I go out with a 20 million dollar movie to Amsterdam or to Brussels or to Vienna and you can bet that at the end of every press conference, someone will say, ‘May I change the subject?’  and ‘I would like to ask you about Channel 4.’ And it has achieved this staggering position.”

So in the midst of talking about his own most precious achievement he was still ready to share the praise with Channel 4 and its creative people and revealed why he was such a success in all the roles which he undertook. He was a great creative enabler and he allowed others to develop their abilities and supported them in any way he could.

1. Hobson, D. 2008 Channel 4 The Early Years and the Jeremy Isaacs Legacy IBTauris 

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