Last month we lost Sir Richard Attenborough. He was one of Britain’s greatest character actors and he went on to become one of Britain’s most important movie directors. Many of the movies in which he appeared, from his scintillating debut as Pinkie Brown in Brighton Rock, to his chillingly vivid portrayal of the mass murderer and necrophiliac John Reginald Christie in 10 Rillington Place, defined an era in British history, and indeed British cinema, that sadly has simply vanished. Despite his towering achievements in British cinema, Attenborough remained modest in a way which most Hollywood actors simply cannot comprehend.
During the making of the classic The Great Escape, Steve McQueen, who was practically unknown at the time, insisted on top billing or he wasn’t going to star. He nearly pulled out even during filming as he felt his role was not sufficiently substantial. Many of his scenes were written on the set. At the time Richard Attenborough was an established star, but to smooth things over and get the movie made he agreed to be booted further down the billing.
When asked by interviewer Michael Parkinson which of his starring roles he thought was the best he said ‘‘well, they were all pretty awful, but perhaps the least worst was Séance on a Wet Afternoon.“ Shot one year after The Great Escape, this was a movie in which not only did Attenborough star, but he also found the financing himself. It’s about a psychic who convinces her weak-willed husband to kidnap the child of a wealthy couple so she can use her ‘abilities’ to locate the child and thus achieve fame.
Perhaps his single greatest achievement was the Oscar winning movie Gandhi, starring Oscar winning actor Ben Kingsley. The profits from the movie were poured into charities such as the Save the Children’s Fund and many of Gandhi’s own supported charities in India.
It’s possible to think of great British actors and great British movie directors, but when it comes to a glittering career in both fields, Attenborough was in a party of one.
Like British movie making, British made watches have all but disappeared from sight. But, for the sake of nostalgia and as a tribute to this remarkable actor, director, Labour peer and lifelong Chelsea football supporter, here is a selection of his movies, together with watches which would have been entirely appropriate to have been glimpsed upon his, or his fellow actor’s wrists.
The movie: Brighton Rock (1947)
Directed by John Boulting, Attenborough’s dramatic opening scene in this faithfully reproduced version of Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock (with a screenplay by Graham Greene himself) is a little slice of cinema magic you simply don’t see any more in a world where sadly most Hollywood directors have handed all creative decisions over to the CGI nerds. It opens on an over the shoulder shot of him lying on his grubby bed idly toying with a cat’s cradle – a simple piece of string – while one of his flunkies shows him a newspaper cutting about who has just arrived in town.
This was genuine post war Britain, shot just two years after the war ended. Incidentally, the flunky was William Hartnell, who ultimately became the first Doctor Who.
The watch: Richard Automatic
There’s certainly a need for a reliable watch in Brighton Rock, because Attenborough’s character, Pinkie Brown, needs to know exactly what time Kolley Kibber left a calling card in a restaurant. It forms the driving narrative of the movie. The appropriately titled Richard Automatic would have been perfect for the job. This Swiss made watch was a sturdy, reliable three hander which worked perfectly at 13,000 feet, and is even waterproof, which is just as well seeing as Pinkie ultimately falls off Brighton Pier.
The movie: The Great Escape (1963)
This movie a perennial favourite, is rolled out on BBC TV schedules every year at Christmas. It’s a must watch ensemble movie about a real life escape attempt from a German prison of war camp during World War II. McQueen’s character, while unforgettable, is entirely fictitious, whereas Richard Attenborough’s character, Squadron Leader Bartlett, was based on Roger Bushell, who planned the Great Escape. As in the movie, he was shot dead for escaping and his body is buried in Poznan, Poland. In this scene Attenborough and his fellow escapee fall for the oldest trick in the book, and their time is most definitely up.
The watch: Rolex Monoblocco
This actual watch was ordered from Rolex by Pilot Officer Gerald A. D. Imeson of the RAF, while he was a prisoner of war in Stalag Luft III. Imeson was involved in the efforts to escape from the prison that inspired the movie The Great Escape. This particular style of early Rolex Oyster chronographs (Oyster was the designation for all Rolex waterproof watches) dating to the 1940s is called the “Monoblocco” or “one block,” as the solid steel case including its bezel was made out of one solid piece of metal. Most cases at the time had a removable bezel piece. Two-tone steel and gold reference 3525 examples are also typically called Monoblocco chronographs. Monobloccos feature Valjoux movements (typically the Valjoux 23). Unlike many neutral Swiss watch manufactures during World War II, Rolex made it explicit that it was supporting the allies.
The movie: Seance on Wet Afternoon (1964)
In the same year that Julie Andrews won the Oscar for the bright and chirpy Mary Poppins came this dark, low budget thriller from the excellent team of Richard Attenborough and director Bryan Forbes. Both actress Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough are suberb as a middle aged couple that time has passed by. Hen pecked Attenborough seeks to console his wife’s frustrations at their shortcomings by agreeing to kidnap a child so that when the police are baffled and press coverage has reached a fevered pitch, she will have a miraculous “vision” that will lead to the child’s recovery and the reap the rewards of publicity. Of course, it does not go to plan. This overlooked, underrated gem remains as compelling today as it did 50 years ago when it was first released. It’s richly ironic that P. L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, came from a background every bit as unsettled as the one Séance portrays. Attenborough acknowledges this movie as his best performance on film.
The watch: Smiths Imperial
Smiths Watches were manufactured in my own home town of Cheltenham and were the last mass production hurrah for the British watch industry. Production began during the war years, but by the late 60s, with a workforce of 400, Smiths were producing their own movements. Suddenly, and very unexpectedly, Smiths management changed course and dropped the whole idea of in-house production and reverted to ordering ready-made Swiss movements for their watches. And then came the quartz crisis which kissed many a watch brand goodbye. For a while though, a British made Smiths watch was a common sight on the wrist of the middle income, middle class Englidhman, and the Smiths Imperial would not have been out of place on the wrist of Attenborough’s character in Séance on a Wet Afternoon.
The movie: 10 Rillington Place (1970)
Every now and then Britain produces a mass murderer so outrageous he haunts the annals of criminal history for decades to come. Jack the Ripper is undoubtedly the most famous, but John Reginald Christie, who strangled and then had sex with at least 8 women, and probably many more, is chillingly portrayed by Richard Attenborough in this accurate dramatisation of the detailed book about the case written by Ludovic Kennedy in 1961. For added authenticity the filming took place in the exact house where the murders actually occurred. 10 Rillington Place was soon after torn down. So subtly disturbing was Attenborough’s performance that many who saw the movie at the time of its release reporting feeling engulfed in a wave of depression for days after seeing it.
The watch: Roamer 1950’s Automatic
Despite no doubt the brand’s protests, Roamer is a Swiss brand that has remained studiously unfashionable throughout a 120 year history. The real John Reginald Christie was said to have submitted a Roamer watch in the prison to which he was last confined, prior to being hanged in July 1953. It’s a brand that even watch enthusiasts cannot exactly pinpoint, or tell you much about. The watch shown here is a rare automatic from the 1950s, and at the time the company were making their own movements. Noawadays they rely more upon Ronda Swiss quartz or some ETA movements. Their collection however is extensive, with a range of both dress and sporty watches.
The movie: Gandhi (1982)
As a Director, this Oscar-winning movie is considered Attenborough’s crowning achievement. It is of course the biopic of the life of Mohandas (Mahatma) K. Gandhi, the lawyer who became the leader of the Indian revolts against the British rule through his philosophy of non-violent protest. It took Attenborough over 20 years to raise the money for Gandhi, and in one exasperating meeting one Hollywood executive said “Dickie, it’s all very noble, but at the end of the day who the hell will be interested in a little brown man wrapped in a sheet carrying a beanpole?” When Attenborough returned from filming Gandhi after months in India he was asked what he looked forward to most about returning to Britain, he replied with simple honesty ‘A dry fart.’.
The watch: Gandhi’s Zenith alarm pocket watch
One of Gandhi’s very few possessions was a Zenith Alarm pocket watch gifted to him by Indira Nehru, who served as Prime Minister of India from 1966 to 1977, gifted a sterling silver version of this timepiece to her friend Mahatma Gandhi.
Gandhi loved punctuality and precision, particularly when it came to prayers, and he made daily use of his Zenith watch with its alarm function. Unfortunately the watch was stolen from him during a train journey to Kampur. Saddened to have lost one of the rare material objects that he possessed he wrote a couple of days later in one of his notes, dated May 28th 1947: “I may add that it had a radium disc… and also a contrivance for alarm. It was a gift to me. The cost then was over 40/-. It was a Zenith watch.” Six months later in New Delhi, the thief, consumed by remorse, asked to see Gandhi in order to return the stolen object and beg for forgiveness.
The watch was passed on by Gandhi to his grand daughter Abha Gandhi. In 2009, Antiquorum auctioneers offered Gandhi’s famous round spectacles, a bowl and a dish, an alarm watch as well as his leather sandals in one lot.These few possessions of Mahatma Gandhi were sold for the sum of US$1.8 million to Indian billionaire Vijay Mallya and have since been returned to India.