Brothers reunited: The fabulous Attenborough boys

One name, two very different - but equally successful - careers. As Leicester honours two of its favourite sons, Paul Vallely salutes a unique sibling rivalry

Friday 14 July 2006 00:00 BST

When Richard and David Attenborough were boys, a Red Indian chief named Grey Owl came to give a lecture in Leicester where they lived. Actually, he was not a Native American but an out-of-work merchant seaman from Hastings who had gone to Canada where he pretended to be an Indian and became one of the world's first conservation pioneers. It was 1936 and he was on a tour to tell the world of the despoliation of the American wilderness. He was particularly keen on beavers.

When the boys read in the local paper about his forthcoming lecture at the De Montfort Hall they begged their father to go. That much they agree on. Thereafter their accounts diverge.

"When the curtains went back there stood this Red Indian, looking about 10ft tall, in a full war bonnet," says Dickie. David says he sported a single eagle feather. Grey Owl had published a book. "My brother, Dave, got the book signed and marched out with it under his arm and I've never been able to get that book off him to this day. Possession is nine tenths of the law, and the bugger won't give it to me."

David, the younger by three years, has a different recollection. "My dear brother maintains that he came too," he says. "I think that's rubbish; I don't think he did. Anyway, I've got the book signed by Grey Owl and he hasn't so I reckon that's some kind of evidence."

When sibling rivalry is strong, child psychiatrists will tell you, one common strategy is for brothers to avoid competition by withdrawing from a particular activity. This is why some siblings grow up with widely diverging interests and abilities and interests.

So it was in the Attenborough household. Richard, the less academic of the pair - who couldn't even pass his school certificate - took to acting and spent all his time in the local theatre. He went on to become one of Britain's best-known actors and film directors. David, who turned to collecting fossils, insects and plants on his bike rides all over Leicestershire and Rutland, went on to become one of the world's best-loved television naturalists.

Their younger brother John, who was good at languages, became fixated by cars and aeroplanes, and eventually got a job as an executive for Alpha Romeo and ran a successful string of garages in southern England. David, of course "can't bear motor cars" and has never learned to drive.

So fierce was their need for differentiation that during the Second World War Richard joined the RAF, David went into the Navy, and John, despite his interest in flying, decided he had to opt for the Army.

For all that, there are striking similarities about the disparate careers of Sir David and Lord Attenborough, who were yesterday made "distinguished honorary fellows" of the University of Leicester.

It was the place they were brought up; their father was principal of the university for two decades, and set them high standards. After Wyggeston grammar school, to which both boys went, he told David he would be allowed to take the natural science tripos at Cambridge only if he could prove his worth by winning an open scholarship. He had set Richard a tough test too, saying he would be allowed to become an actor only if he won the intensely sought-after Leverhulme drama scholarship at Rada, which the boy won.

That upbringing set the brothers out on career paths in which both would make significant step changes. Richard's began in 1942 playing a deserter in the film In Which We Serve. Over the five decades that followed, he was to act in almost 50 movies.

David too set out on a path which was to commit him for a similar period. After a couple of years editing children's science textbooks he joined the BBC in 1952 as a producer in the TV talks department where he was responsible for the quiz show Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?

Over the next 20 years, he worked his way up the BBC hierarchy becoming, in 1965, the first controller of BBC2 where he commissioned an extraordinary variety of programmes, from cultural classics such as Kenneth Clark's Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, through iconic comedy by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and The Likely Lads, to Match of the Day and televised snooker. He was promoted to director of BBC TV. But in 1972, just as he was being widely tipped to be the next director general, he quit to return to programme-making.

His big brother had made his own transition. While never entirely abandoning acting, Richard moved first into production with the 1961 classic Whistle Down the Wind and then, in 1969, he made his first film as director, Oh! What a Lovely War. It launched a career whose highlights include Young Winston (1972), A Bridge Too Far (1977), Gandhi (1982), A Chorus Line (1985) and Cry Freedom (1987). Ghandi earned him an Oscar as best director.

David launched himself into pioneering an new style of nature programme, writing and presenting nine major series. For eight years he narrated BBC 1's half-hour nature series Wildlife on One. His 13-part 1979 series Life on Earth was seen by 500 million people worldwide. It set a pattern for what was to follow: The Living Planet, Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives, The Private Life of Plants, The Lost Gods of Easter Island, The Song of the Earth and The Blue Planet.

In 2006, Planet Earth was the first natural history series to be made in high-definition format. The series produced some of TV's defining moments, such as the mountain gorillas who joined David as he was filming in the jungle and began ruffling his hair, clambering over him and untying his shoes, like children playing.

But there was something else their apparently different careers had in common. Richard Attenborough put his finger on the root of it recently. "My parents were radicals," he wrote. "In the late 1930s, my father chaired a committee devoted to bringing Jewish refugees out of Hitler's Germany. In most of the cases, it meant housing them for a few days while their papers were put in order to go to relatives in the United States or Canada.

"One day my mother went up to London to fetch two German girls, Irene, aged 12, and Helga, nine. But while they were with us, war broke out, ending all transport to America."

He and David and Johnny came back from school one day and were told to see their parents in their father's study. "My father explained that Irene and Helga were stranded and there was nowhere for them to go. Their mother was in a concentration camp, and their father likely to be."

The boys' parents wanted to ask their children whether they would agree to adopt the girls. It would strain the family finances and holidays and other treats would have to be reduced. "My parents said, 'This is what we would like, but we won't do it without the agreement of you boys, because they are going to become your sisters'."

Compassion, their parents taught them, was not a theory. "From the age of 14 on, I have always believed that no man can live as an island. I know that in the movies I direct, I want to make a cry for compassion and a plea for tolerance.

"I suppose the most obvious example is Cry Freedom, an anti-apartheid movie about South Africa. If I had not had the beginning I did, if I had not known Irene and Helga, I doubt that I would have had the passion and the determination to demonstrate these feelings through my work."

There is a high moral intuition at the core of David's vision too. In his early years, he was criticised by some environmentalists who claimed he gave a false picture of idyllic wilderness and minimised the threat posed to it by rapacious humans. But as the years have passed, a sense of judgement and of indignation has encroached.

He has spoken out against the longline fishing boats that kill albatrosses. He has backed campaigns to have Borneo's rainforest declared a protected area. Most recently he has become a proselytiser for action on climate change which he describes as "the major challenge facing the world". President George Bush, he has said, venturing untypically into politics, is the top "environmental villain" of our age.

"The future of life on earth depends on our ability to take action," he says. "Many individuals are doing what they can, but real success can come only if there's a change in our societies and our economics and in our politics."

Both Attenboroughs have been showered with honours through their long careers, TV and film awards, academic honours like the one conferred yesterday in Leicester, and state honours; both have CBEs, and knighthoods and where Richard has a life peerage David is a member of the exclusive Order of Merit to which the Queen appoints only 24 members. Both hold long lists of honorary and charitable posts; Richard at Bafta, (Rada), the British National Film and Television School and many more; David at the British Museum, Kew Gardens and the Royal Society for Nature Conservation.

Old age has led them into affectionate parodies of themselves. David's posh tones of hushed boyish enthusiasm are a routine targets for mimics and comedians. Richard's luvvie manners have reached the point of caricature.

Their latter years have also brought personal tragedy. David's wife of 47 years, Jane, died in 1997 and Richard lost his elder daughter and granddaughter in the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. Through it all the two men have remained close friends and neighbours - one on Richmond Hill, the other on Richmond Green - who see each other often. Both share a horror of retirement. "The thought," says Richard, "is anathema to me. I can't imagine anything worse."

As for his younger brother, David spent his 80th birthday in May back on the Galapagos islands filming his 10th major series, this time of the lives of amphibians and reptiles. His camera was trained on the island's giant tortoises, the most famous of whom - Lonesome George - is about the same age as himself. For all we know, the great beast may have an older brother.

Different paths

The eldest of three brothers, Richard Samuel - later known as "Dickie" - was born 1923 in Cambridge. After graduating from RADA, his acting career began aged 19 as a deserting sailor in In Which We Serve. His breakthrough came as the psychopathic gangster Pinkie in Brighton Rock and he was the doomed leader of The Great Escape (1963). His directorial debut came in Oh! What A Lovely War (1969), followed by epics like Gandhi (1982), which won eight Oscars, and the apartheid drama Cry Freedom (1987). Married to British actress Sheila Sim, he was made a life peer as Baron Attenborough in 1993. President of both RADA and BAFTA, he jokes: "At my age the only problem is with remembering names. When I call everyone darling, it has damn all to do with passionately adoring them, but I know I'm safe calling them that. Of course, I adore them too."

Younger brother David Frederick, born 1926 in London, is the world's pre-eminent natural history journalist. A collector of fossils as a boy, he studied at Cambridge before joining the Navy and later the BBC, where he pioneered nature documentaries. After introducing Monty Python's Flying Circus and Match of the Day as BBC2 controller, he turned down the chance to become director general. His hushed delivery in the presence of nature's majesty became his trademark. He once fed armadillos caviar and Californian peaches on a flight to stop them getting hungry. In East Africa he woke up with a lioness on his chest. He was knighted in 1985. Sir David says the public occasionally mistake him for his brother: "They say, 'It's wonderful to meet you. I think the best thing you've ever done was Gandhi!' And then you say, 'Thank you very much!'"

By Oliver Duff and Harry Stoneley

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