I’d always loved the original Miracle on 34th Street, starring Edmund Gwenn, the only actor to ever receive an Oscar for playing Santa, and a young Natalie Wood.
In 1994 I was thrilled then to discover that it was getting the remake treatment for a whole new generation, this time with the loveable Lord Attenborough in the red suit and in the dock, little did I know that only a few years later I would get to meet and chat to Kris Kringle in person…
It’s more than fair to say that I was in awe of Lord Attenborough when I was lucky enough to meet and chat to him for ten minutes almost 15 years ago.
It was the year 2000 and by then, to most of the students he was there to see, he was either John Hammond, the eccentric gent behind Jurassic Park (1993) or Kris Kringle in the John Hughes penned remake of Miracle on 34th Street (1994).
I knew more, knew of the huge breadth of roles, the impressive body of directorial work and was genuinely thrilled to be able to have an audience with this great man whose sprightliness defied his then 75 years, who was warm and happy to listen to my appreciation of his work, mentioning how much I had enjoyed both Chaplin (which I was pleased about as it didn’t do very well at the box office), A Bridge Too Far (one of my favourite war films) and his delightful performance in Miracle on 34th Street.
It turns out that he is pretty much Kris Kringle, that was certainly my lasting impression when I met him, not just in look (sporting white beard of course) but also in his calming and caring manner where, when he spoke to you it was as if you were at the very centre of his universe and he hung on every word that you said. To him it was almost as if you were the important part of the conversation.
Outside of family pictures the photo of me and ‘Dickie’ is probably one of my most treasured and although that brief encounter happened over 15 years ago it is still as clear as if it only happened yesterday.
Throughout all his personas, whether that be on screen or behind the lens, I practically grew up with Attenborough, whether that be his still mesmerising and iconic turn in Brighton Rock, his supporting roles in The Great Escape (1963) – and I really did think he had gotten away with it, back alongside Steve McQueen in The Sand Pebbles (1967) and in best supporting actor oscar nominated mode in Dr Dolittle (1968).
He stepped behind the camera the following year for ‘Oh, What a Lovely War’, in what you could say was the start of his love to explore what you could call the ‘modern historical’. Arguably this covers everything from ‘Young Winston’, ‘A Bridge Too Far’, ‘Cry Freedom’, ‘Chaplin’, ‘Shadowlands’ and ‘In Love and War’.
His cinematic pinnacle came with Gandhi, which won eight Academy Awards, storming the box office and was 20 years in the making for Attenborough.
You could almost argue that everything else that he directed was a practice run, from the historical figure biopic of Young Winston, to the epicness of A Bridge Too Far to the social commentary of Oh, What A Lovely War.
Even the off the beaten track Magic, the tale of a possessed ventriloquist’s doll, was done to help raise funds for bankrolling Gandhi, the same reason Attenborough cropped up in John Wayne’s Dirty Harry-lite London set Brannigan.
Clearly, and why not, he was taking a leaf from fellow luvvie and Oh, What a Lovely War actor, Laurence Olivier, and taking some jobs just for the money. The hard work and effort obviously paid off, on both a professional and personal level, bagging two of Gandhi’s eight Oscars for his producing and directing duties.
Attenborough was held in such high regard by fellow filmmakers and directors, he has long been a lynchpin of the British film industry and is credited with introducing independent in the UK and has been a passionate supporter of the next generation, both behind and in front of the screen. And that was the reason I met him at Ravensbourne, he was there supporting the next gen of people in television.
It was Steven Spielberg that managed to coax Attenborough out of acting retirement for Jurassic Park, the director said: “He was the perfect ringmaster to bring dinosaurs back to life.” All of which just shows in what high regard he was held by everybody that he met and that he had a positive impact on.
Fittingly his roles in both Jurassic Park and Miracle on 34th Street capture the essence of the man I was lucky enough to meet on that sunny June day, his sense of wonder and magical glint in his eye. Even today I can still feel the moment he put his arm on my shoulder, he could have just simply shook my hand and stood next to me, but that small and simple action seems to just sum him up so much and all that he stood for and I’ll never forget it.