During my short and probably best forgotten acting career, I found myself on the pointy end of Dickie Attenborough’s camera on two memorable occasions. The first was a cough and a spit (well, maybe just a cough) as footman to Lady Churchill (Anne Bancroft) in Young Winston where the prospect of welcoming Mrs Robinson home was about as overwhelming as it gets for a fledgling actor with stars in his eyes.
It was a tiny scene, pretty much all in long shot, but the time Attenborough spent ensuring that I and the other household staff knew the full context of it and how that knowledge might colour our unease as characters in the scene was extraordinary. It was gone in the blink of an eye but, during the two days of shooting it, this young actor had the full attention of the director (not the first assistant) and precisely the right motivation for the moment. I doubt anyone remembers seeing me, let alone the motivation, but I was in the moment and that’s what always mattered to Dickie.
Watching him at close quarters for the three months I spent in Holland filming A Bridge Too Far was even more illuminating. Me and two dozen or so other young actors had been hand-picked as the core of the British regiments in the film (many, many more were Dutch extras padding out the ranks of Brits and Germans) and after a full week’s arduous military training (his insistence) individual small parts – such as mine as the padre to Colonel Frost (Anthony Hopkins) – were assigned. We officially became known as the APA (‘Attenborough’s Private Army’). Having us look authentic was crucial to Dickie who encouraged even a willing star like Hopkins out of his caravan to mingle with the boys in his unit.