Richard Attenborough held my hand and touched my life

Sir Richard Attenborough, pictured here with his wife Sheila Sim in 2007, was passionate about access to high quality arts for everyone. EPA/ Gerry Penny

When I was appointed to the role of director of the Richard Attenborough Centre in 2005, while excited about the new job, I assumed that the founding patron Lord Attenborough would just be a name on our letterhead, who might be persuaded to help with fundraising every now and then.

It came as a surprise that Richard – who died on Sunday, aged 90 – was one of the first people to contact me to congratulate me on my appointment and to invite me to lunch to discuss future planning.

Meeting the man that I knew best as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street (1994) was somewhat surreal and slightly daunting. Before our meeting I decided to have a look at some of his earlier work and, watching 10 Rillington Place (1971), had been scared witless by Richard’s portrayal of the serial killer John Christie.

So I was intrigued – who was the real Richard Attenborough?

In the flesh, Richard was definitely more Kris than John. He had an amazing ability to put me at ease, and welcomed me into his home as though I’d known him all my life. We talked about his art and he showed me some of his collection, he particularly loved his Picasso ceramics which he was later to entrust to the City of Leicester where he grew up.

Richard Attenborough in Leicester is a video celebration of Lord Attenborough’s 90th birthday and his contribution to culture in Leicester.

He also showed me pictures of his children and we talked about his daughter Jane and granddaughter Lucy who had tragically lost their lives in the Thailand tsunami in 2004. Richard was clearly devastated and was not afraid to talk about how difficult he and his wife Sheila had found the months following their deaths.

Richard was a long time supporter of disability and the arts and he’d spearheaded the campaign that led to the opening of the Richard Attenborough (RA) Centre in 1997. As part of the University of Leicester, the RA Centre had won design awards for its approach to accessibility – at a time before legislation made this a requirement.

As we talked, it became clear that Richard was passionate about access to high quality arts for everyone. He wanted to ensure that disabled people had first-class opportunities in the arts, whether this was creating, watching, experiencing or performing. His vision was for a place where disabled people were fundamentally included, where disability was not viewed as a negative, where everyone could thrive.

Coming away from that first meeting I was struck by how much Richard had done with his life that wasn’t in the public domain. He used his influence to bring about positive change, and he was determined to change peoples’ lives for the better.

Richard Attenborough gesturing during the presentation of his film Closing the Ring in Barcelona. EPA/ Andreu Dalmau

Richard was much much more than a name on a letterhead. He regularly travelled to Leicester to attend board meetings, greeting everyone with a huge hug and remembering details about people’s lives, asking about children, parents and being genuinely interested in the lives of others.

He would often sit in meetings with his eyes closed and there was one occasion when I’d wondered if he’d drifted off to sleep, only to find that he went on to ask the most astute questions of fellow board members. Richard would usually hold my hand throughout meetings, whispering encouraging comments during difficult discussions.

There were no airs and graces – he would arrive in Leicester in a thick cable-knit cardigan often with the buttons in the wrong holes and would walk through the building making time to talk to visitors, sign autographs and pose for pictures.

In 2006, Richard and his famous brother David were made Distinguished Honorary Fellows of the University of Leicester, the highest award the University can bestow. He made a point of coming to the RA Centre for a press photo call, knowing that the rare appearance of him and David together would bring additional publicity for the centre. I sat in the car with the brothers as they discussed what they might say in their speeches.

“Have you prepared anything?” asked David.

“I have no idea what I’m going to say,” responded Richard.

Richard delivered his speech with no notes and spoke not of himself and his own achievements, but his regret of not going to university.

He talked about the value of education and how a university brought together a community of people from a huge expanse of backgrounds who would not have met under other circumstances. He made it clear that the graduates in the audience had an obligation to face up to the shortcomings of the civilised world, to try to understand one another and show tolerance, passion and concern for every creature on earth.

Marco Marini

Richard was selfless. He was extremely generous of his own time and resource. This was demonstrated again when in 2007 he announced that he and his wife were to entrust their collection of Picasso ceramics to the City of Leicester to commemorate the lives of their daughter and granddaughter.

I last saw Richard in November 2008. We had a long meeting, discussing future ideas for the RA Centre. He was particularly interested in how we could both fundraise and increase the profile of the centre’s work. Just a few weeks later Richard’s fall led him to become less and less mobile, something that I know frustrated him greatly. I can imagine that he didn’t make a great patient.

While we corresponded over the next few years, it became clear he needed to take a step back. In 2013, I commissioned a film to celebrate Richard’s 90th birthday focusing on Leicester, the city where he grew up.

We interviewed many people whose lives he had touched and asked them to record their memories. All contributors mentioned the same things: Richard’s generosity, his ability to make you feel you were the most important person in the world, his energy and dynamism, his passion and determination to create positive change and to make an impact.

Richard was a very special man; he used his own profile to influence others and he cannot be replaced.

I miss our meetings, his wisdom, his sharp wit, his humour and especially the hugs.