Richard Attenborough: 'How I ended up signing women's breasts while brother David tickled gorillas' chests'

Actor and director Richard Attenborough is a giant of the British cinema who knows everyone, from Madonna to Mugabe. Now he is telling his own extraordinary story for the first time. Here, in the third part of our exclusive serialisation of his autobiography, he tells how the strict regime of his loving father set him - and his brothers - on the path to success... and how he and David are really the best of friends...

Once, after the success of my film Gandhi, I was at a reception when an elderly woman with a blue rinse and glittery spectacles came up to me, patted me on the arm and gushed: 'When I saw the way you handled those gorillas, I just knew Mr Gandhi was in safe hands.'

No one with 20-20 vision could possibly mistake me for my brother Dave - he's the tall, thin, clever one with hair - but the shots of him bonding with those over-friendly Rwandan gorillas in his Life On Earth trilogy made a huge impact on TV viewers throughout the world, as have his hundreds of other close encounters with all kinds of wildlife.

My own particular favourite is the one where he's in a cave, practically up to his knees in bat s**t, while talking to camera as if attending a vicar's tea party. I only wish our pa had been alive to see it; he'd have laughed himself silly.

Best of friends: Richard Attenborough,  left, with brother David

Best of friends: Richard Attenborough, left, with brother David

Pa, known to us brothers as the Governor, was a remarkable man whose mantra - long before Tony Blair came on the scene - was 'education, education, education'. He was a Nottinghamshire baker's son who rose to become a don at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, then found his true vocation as principal of Leicester's College of Higher Education. He spent the rest of his working life steering it towards full university status.

Dave, our younger brother Johnny and I were brought up in a large Victorian house on campus. Although our parents were far from affluent, we had three live-in staff - a maid, a cook and a nanny.

On occasion, the Governor could be very stern. He expected us to prove ourselves - I had to win a scholarship to RADA if I wanted to become an actor, and Dave, two years my junior, had to win an open scholarship to Cambridge before he could embark on his natural science degree.

That sounds, I know, very authoritarian. But the Governor's Achilles heel, as we boys quickly discovered, was his crude sense of humour - the bit of him that would have laughed at Dave standing in that cave.

This trait was most manifest at mealtimes, when he supposedly set out to be at his firmest. He and our mother insisted that manners were strictly enforced, and we'd be ordered to leave the room for any lapses.

I can see Dave now, aged about nine, sternly dismissed but having the last word in the doorway. 'That wasn't rude,' he's insisting. Then he puffs out his cheeks and blows the most enormous raspberry. 'That's rude!'

And the Governor sits at the head of the table, trying desperately to keep a straight face.

If he was the studious visionary, beavering away behind the closed door of his study, my mother was the doer. As teenagers, we called her Mary which, I suppose, was avant-garde at the time.

She had been a crusading suffragette, taken part in marches protesting against Franco's fascist regime in Spain, and eventually worked herself to death as one of the founders of the Marriage Guidance Council.

She was the most tactile, energetic and outspoken woman I've ever encountered, and it was she who introduced me to the stage - she was a theatre lover and chairman of the local drama society.

All together: Richard as a youngster, right, with brothers David and Johnny

All together: Richard as a youngster, right, with brothers David and Johnny

I'm sure she wanted all her sons to grow up happy and fulfilled, no matter what career they chose. But I'm equally sure that the Governor, who'd pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, yearned for us all to follow in his footsteps. For him, a university degree was the be-all and end-all.

Sadly, my school reports made it clear that his eldest son did not apply himself and was unlikely to enter higher education. Instead of concentrating on my exams, I spent every spare moment on amateur dramatics.

It was equally clear that animal-mad Dave was the clever and assiduous one who inherited our father's love of scholarship.

People have speculated that Dave and I are locked in some kind of deadly sibling rivalry. Nothing could be further from the truth; I burst with pride over everything he has achieved.

The rivalry idea probably stems from the fact that we made an early pact to keep our working lives completely separate and never be interviewed together. In fact, I and both my brothers have followed completely different paths for as long as I can remember.

Almost as soon as they could talk, Dave was obsessed with fish, insects and fossils and Johnny was fascinated by anything mechanical - going on, despite his Cambridge degree in French and Italian, to become the managing director of the Rolls Royce division of a top Mayfair car showroom.

Today, despite the different directions we have taken, Dave, Johnny and I remain constantly in touch. We speak on the phone all the time and, even as octogenarians, still tease each other.

Dave and I both live in Richmond, about a mile apart. My house on the green is Queen Anne, his on the hill is Victorian Gothic. He collects African sculpture; I collect modern paintings and Picasso ceramics.

Only once in my life do I recall my unflappable brother being in a state of near panic. One night during the early 1970s, he arrived at my home after midnight. 'Dick,' he said on the doorstep, 'the most ghastly thing happened today and I don't know what to do.'

By then, he had steadily worked his way up the TV ladder. He'd started as a producer and gone on to become the presenter of Zoo Quest, followed by Quest In Paradise which took him to some far-flung places. He was having the time of his life, but then he had been sidelined into TV management.

He became controller of the new BBC2, where, instead of making his own shows it had been his job to commission others. Promotion followed and, still unhappily deskbound, he'd become director of programmes for BBC1 and BBC2.

What he had come to tell me in such a state of alarm was that he had been called in that day and asked to become director-general of the entire BBC. And he didn't know what to do.

Richard's wife Sheila

Richard's wife Sheila

I understood his dilemma. This was the most tremendous honour and one that would undoubtedly make our father, then approaching the end of his long life, very proud indeed. However, I knew without a shadow of a doubt it would be disastrous for Dave.

'I don't want to do that, do I, Dick?' he asked. 'You?' I replied. 'Sit on your a**e, chairing meetings and making endless policy decisions until you collect a gold watch and a pension? Of course you don't.'

His relief was instant and palpable. 'You're absolutely right. I'll say no first thing in the morning.'

He turned his talents instead to the deeply satisfying and wildly successful Life On Earth series, which has taken Dave, the brilliant presenter, reluctant celebrity and best-selling author, to every corner of the globe.

Like me, he relishes his work and has no intention of retiring despite the death of his beloved wife, Jane, in 1997 and the need for new knees - which he obstinately ignores.

Believe it or not, I once managed to get him into drag. At the age of 12, I decided to put on a variety show in the local church hall. From boys in my Scout troupe I assembled a number of acts including a singer, a juggler and a conjuror so inept he might have inspired Tommy Cooper.

But the centre-piece of the show was to be a comedy skit about two female cleaners, entitled Lydies Wot Come To Oblige. Naturally, I was to star as one of the 'lydies', but needed to find the other.

For once Dave was proving immune to both my bullying and my blandishments. He said he'd rather die than put on a dress.

I resorted to low cunning and made him an offer he simply couldn't refuse. I said every penny of the show's profits would go straight to the RSPCA. He gave in and did it. And very pretty he looked, too.

He got his revenge some years later. When my first film, In Which We Serve, came to Leicester, he was buttonholed by a reporter who wanted to know if we were related. Dave replied with disdain: 'Only distantly.'

*  *  *  *  *  *

When I went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London (RADA), it was 1940 and, with so many men away in the Services, male students were at a premium. In the play The Lady With The Lamp, I found myself in the leading male role opposite three different Florence Nightingales.

One of them was a girl in the year ahead of me. Her name was Sheila Sim. She was not only stunningly attractive, but sweet-natured and natural, without any snobbish airs or graces. Over rehearsals, we got to know each other and embarked on an old-fashioned courtship.

We have been married, now, for more than 60 years. No matter where I've travelled, either to make films or appear in them, she has travelled too. She is, as Mary Mills, wife of Sir John, once said, 'the woman who follows her stubborn old man to the ends of the earth'.

Taken in 1976, here is Richard with wife Sheila and daughters Charlotte, 16, (left) and Jane, 20, at their home in Richmond. Tragically Jane died in the 2004 tsunami in Thailand

Taken in 1976, here is Richard with wife Sheila and daughters Charlotte, 16, (left) and Jane, 20, at their home in Richmond. Tragically Jane died in the 2004 tsunami in Thailand

Until I asked her recently, I couldn't remember how or when I asked Sheila to marry me. She informed me that while we were at RADA I'd asked every day, first thing in the morning. 'But we both knew we were playing a game and it was far too early to settle down.'

Soon after graduation, she was appearing in a play directed by John Gielgud at the Westminster Theatre and I used to go every night and watch from the wings.

How the Mail covered the tragic news of Richard's family loss in the tsunami

How the Mail covered the tragic news of Richard's family loss in the tsunami

'One evening,' she went on, 'you didn't propose and I became a little anxious. So on my exit I stole over to you in the dark and asked if you still wanted to marry me. A bit puzzled, you gave me to understand that you did. And I said: "Well ask me then!"'

We became officially engaged and were married in January 1945 at St Mary Abbots church in Kensington. Sheila wore a long, blue-grey dress, looking beautiful, and I wore my RAF sergeant's uniform, which still hangs in my wardrobe today.

By then, I'd already had a series of lucky breaks - most notably, while I was still at RADA, being auditioned by Noel Coward, who was looking for a young unknown to play a small part in the naval propaganda film, In Which We Serve.

Sir Noel was then at the pinnacle of his fame. Overtly gay long before it was legal, he was a witty, clever, powerful and wealthy man. He was also probably the kindest, most generous person I have ever encountered.

His thoughtfulness was apparent from our very first encounter. I was the awe-struck teenage nobody, standing in the middle of a huge soundstage, nervously awaiting the arrival of this famous person and terrified I'd make a fool of myself.

The great man swept in, flanked as always by his two lady associates, and advanced towards me, hand outstretched. 'You won't know me - I'm Noel Coward. You, of course, are Richard Attenborough.' As he'd known it would, his self-deprecation put me at my ease. After we'd talked a while, Noel told me I'd landed the part of the young stoker. It was the start of a 30-year friendship, during which he would become godfather to my son Michael.

Within weeks, I was back on that same soundstage. It now contained a huge tank filled with tepid water, representing the North Sea, in which we shipwrecked sailors - including Noel, who was both director and star - were to cling to a life-raft.

It was hardly a glamorous introduction to film-making. The water was covered in oil, supposedly from our sunken destroyer's fuel tanks, which quickly turned rancid in the studio heat. This foul-smelling slick clung to our faces and hair.

Pictured in 1979, David Attenborough with mountain gorillas for Life on Earth

Pictured in 1979, David Attenborough with mountain gorillas for Life on Earth

On the very last day, the rest of us lowered ourselves gingerly into the tank, holding our noses. Noel's approach was rather different.

Launching himself from the camera platform, he performed a spectacular bellyflop and surfaced, covered in slime, to pronounce with hauteur: 'Darlings, there's dysentery in every ripple.'

It was Noel who also gave Sheila her first break, in a six-month theatrical tour. Both our careers took off in the immediate post-war years as the whole population went crazy over a crop of young film stars.

It wasn't to do with acting or talent. We just happened to be in the right place at a time when the public wanted an escape from years of austerity and the illusion of glamour.

After the film Brighton Rock came out in 1948 - in which I played the would-be gangster, Pinkie - I experienced celebrity on a scale I could never have envisaged. The publicity director would collect me in a chauffeured Austin Princess, and off we'd go to clubs, pubs, mayoral parlours, ballrooms, bathing beauty contests and Odeons up and down the country.

I've never heard so many screaming women in all my life. Dozens of the handkerchiefs I wore in my breast pocket were snatched as souvenirs. While some women thrust autograph books at me, others proffered their hands, arms and even their breasts for signature, yelling: 'Sign me here, Dickie.'

Heads turned everywhere we went. It reached the point where I couldn't venture into King's Road in Chelsea, where we then lived, to buy a pound of potatoes without being mobbed.

We were ordinary young people suddenly transformed into these objects of adulation; openly smoking like chimneys, which was considered sophisticated, but forbidden to be photographed holding a glass, or - something I particularly resented - to express a political view.

And I'm ashamed to say that for three or four years I basked in all the attention.

There was a Richard Attenborough Fan Club, whose quarterly magazine at one time had 1,500 subscribers. Like idiots, Sheila and I would pose for ghastly codded-up pictures of domestic bliss, cooing over the breakfast table or mugging amazement beside our first car, a Citroën, when I finally passed my driving test.

Richard says there is no sibling rivalry with David

Richard says there is no sibling rivalry with David

We weren't rich, despite the illusion of wealth fostered by first-class travel, red carpets and hired limousines. We were, however, carefree and comfortable. In the late Forties, when a manual worker was lucky to earn £5, I was being paid £120 a week to play a film lead.

At the end of 1952, we were asked to appear together on stage in a new whodunit. My film career had gone into the doldrums at the time and, the impresario teased me, it was Sheila that the distinguished lady playwright primarily wanted.

The play was The Mousetrap, and the authoress who eventually accepted me as the male lead was Agatha Christie. We took it to the provinces for a twomonth try-out and the first performance in Nottingham was anything but a triumph.

A gloomy post-mortem was held in our hotel lobby. Agatha sat there, absorbing our pessimism but saying nothing. Then she got up to go to bed. Halfway up the stairs, she leaned over the banisters and delivered one of the greatest understatements in theatrical history.

'Don't worry, my dears. I'm sure we shall get a nice little run out of it.' I began to think so too, and Sheila and I decided to take a 10 per cent stake in the production. It was the wisest business decision I've ever made. Indeed, as it went on to become the world's longest-running play, it should have made us comfortable for the rest of our lives.

Foolishly, I sold some of my share to open a short-lived Mayfair restaurant called The Little Elephant. Later still, I disposed of the remainder in order to keep afloat Gandhi, a film I was ready to sacrifice almost anything to make - and which, as I'll describe tomorrow, became one of the greatest adventures of my life.

• Abridged extract from Entirely Up To You, Darling by Richard Attenborough and Diana Hawkins, published by Hutchinson tomorrow at £20. ©2008, Richard Attenborough and Diana Hawkins. To order a copy for £18 (p&p free), call 0845 155 0720.

No comments have so far been submitted. Why not be the first to send us your thoughts, or debate this issue live on our message boards.

We are no longer accepting comments on this article.

Who is this week's top commenter? Find out now