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Richard Attenborough — when cricket was a hit

Richard Attenborough © Getty Images
Richard Attenborough passed away on August 24, 2014 © Getty Images

Richard Attenborough, the academy award winning film personality, passed away on August 24, 2014. Arunabha Sengupta relates how cricket left a mark on this legendary actor director.

We recall him as Pinkie Brown of Brighton Rock, Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett of The Great Escape, Lt. General Outram of Shatranj Ke Khiladi and,  of course, John Hammond of Jurassic Park. We know him as the academy award winning director of Gandhi. It is perhaps less popularly known that one of the rather unfortunate hits Richard Attenborough was associated with took place on the cricket field.

No, I am not referring to the 1969 film Oh What a Lovely War. The most tenacious movie buff can of course link Attenborough to cricket through this musical which assembled one of the biggest ever star casts. Attenborough directed this remake of a stage musical with a roll call of celluloid greatness including Dirk Bogarde, John Gielgud, John Mills, Kenneth More, Laurence Olivier, Jack Hawkins, Corin Redgrave, Michael Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Maggie Smith, Ian Holm, Paul Shelley, Malcolm McFee, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Nanette Newman, Edward Fox, Susannah York, John Clements, Phyllis Calvert and Maurice Roëves. The film summarised and satirised the events of World War I using popular songs of the time, parodies and allegorical settings. In a sarcastic comment, cricket scoreboards were used to show the death count.

However, Attenborough’s collision course with cricket took place 14 summers before the film. It was in 1955, when a team of politicians took on the personalities from stage and screen in a match held at East Grinstead. The cast of characters was given additional cricketing lustre by the presence of Denis Compton.

During the game, Leo Genn, nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Petronius in the 1951 release Quo Vadis, ran up to bowl to the conservative British politician Lt Col Walter Henry Bromley-Davenport. The Knutsford Member of Parliament hoiked at it, sending it skying into the air and Attenborough ran to get underneath it. However, he misjudged the flight of the ball and it landed smack on his face.

A film documenting the event shows John Mills, Rex Harrison and others crowding around Attenborough as he lies on the ground. Another snippet of the film shows Attenborough being carried away on a stretched by Sir Archibald McIndoe, the famed New Zealand-born plastic surgeon. Attenborough’s wife Sheila Sim looking on with concern.

The actor had to spend two days in the hospital, but luckily the blow was not critical. He was soon back in the thick of things, playing Pvt. Percival Henry Cox in The Private’s Progress and portraying Knocker White in The Baby and the Battleship. However, we can perhaps say with some degree of conviction that the noble game did leave a mark on him.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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