How We Met: Diana Hawkins and Richard Attenborough

'I tell her she's to the right of Ghengis Khan and get retorts like "you're left of bloody Stalin"'
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The Independent Online

Diana Hawkins, 70 , has been Sir Richard Attenborough's business partner for 50 years. After starting as his publicist in 1959, she became his script editor and ultimately co-producer. She lives in south London.

I was this junior dogsbody at Pinewood Studios in charge of the stills library and he materialised, on the scrounge for some stills. It was in 1959. I was 21 and he was 36. I wasn't used to meeting stars so I was gobsmacked. He was very charming but he looked dreadful; he had about a week's growth of stubble and a straw hat coming to pieces. About 18 months later I became a publicist with Pinewood and I was assigned to work on Whistle Down the Wind, which Dick was the producer for. It was a fabulous experience. But not long after I got married and went to live in Italy for several years. When my marriage broke up I came back to England with a baby, in a terrible mess. Dick gave me a job here as his PA; it's typical Dick. I think he knew about my situation, but he never referred to it.

When Gandhi got the go-ahead I asked if I could come to India as the publicist. We were there for five months. We were always friends, but that sort of experience tends to bring you a lot closer. We got into some pretty dire situations but he'd always say "it'll be fine". And I'd say "but what do we do if the worst happens?" It makes a perfect balance in a funny kind of way.

While we've never had rows about work, we're different politically and likely to quarrel. But he never bears grudges; it's one of his best qualities. I do, though. I remember hurtful things he's said and remind him of them two years later.

I'm friends with Dick's wife, Sheila, but she occupies a totally different part of his life. We've worked together five days a week most weeks for 50 years. And then at the weekends he retreats into the bosom of his family and does the weekend thing – family has always been so important to him.

I remember on that Boxing Day morning in 2004 news of the tsunami broke. By the time he'd rung and told me what had happened [it killed Attenborough's daughter and niece] I was already thinking with my publicist hat on. I issued a statement saying they were missing and that Dick would not be talking to anybody, which helped to prevent the world's press being outside his door. That was the thing I could do for him. After the tsunami he couldn't listen to music for a long time. But he told me what he heard in his head, The Messiah [by Handel]. He's about to get a new car which will have a lovely CD system. So I gave him The Messiah CD for his birthday in the hope that it will allow him to listen to external music again, as well as the music in his head. We've come a long way, we're neither of us young any more, but what we do together is creative and very satisfying.

Richard Attenborough, 85, is an award-winning actor, director and producer whose prolific 66-year career has included the Oscar-winning epic Gandhi and Cry Freedom. He lives in south London with his wife Sheila.

There was this dishy young woman in charge of the stills department and I went in to try and persuade her to let me have one of these stills. I bewitched her with my tales of the excitement of film production. Diana became involved in film publicity for my next few films, and it was a relationship that turned into much more than I ever imagined. Something changed when she started to step outside being just a pure publicist; when things were really hard out in India, the person I would consult and go to for comfort was Diana.

She has a huge sense of commitment and duty – she's much more meticulous than I am and gets up at 5am every morning, working through till lunchtime. Our arguments tend to be personal rather then professional. We have certain dogmatic rows; I tell her she's to the right of Ghengis Khan and get retorts like "well you're left of bloody Stalin".

She's more amenable than I am. I can be stubborn and difficult to deal with – if a casting director, for example, cannot change my mind they will go to Diana because I'll do whatever Diana says. Her profound logic defeats me. She has a wonderful sense of humour and she doesn't take me seriously, which I think is an outrageous thing. If I am twaddling on in a press conference, Diana will make a sign with her hands as if to say say "Dick darling just come down to it". And she teases me about technology. I hate emails. I object to the tempo – you want an answer? I don't want to give you an answer; I want time to think about it. If she persists in using this thing called email, well that could break us up.

With the tsunami, Diana was wonderful. She understands the manner in which I have come to deal with that situation. She knows the extent of delicacy required, and that it's important to talk about it; she's a most marvellous sounding board when I want to talk about Jane or Lucy and I can't talk to Sheila. She is like family. She gave me for my 85th birthday a recording of The Messiah which meant a lot to me. She has extraordinary perception.

I'm devoted to her and her loyalty. She knows me so well. Our relationship has been through ups and downs but we've weathered them and come through.

'Entirely Up to You, Darling' (Random House, £20), about Richard Attenborough and Diana Hawkins' 50-year working relationship, is out now