Remembering great talents: Richard Attenborough, Lauren Bacall, Dora Bryan, Robin Williams

Written by: Michael Darvell [29 August 2014]

The performing arts have lost many notable practitioners in recent weeks with the passing of Richard Attenborough, Robin Williams, Lauren Bacall and Dora Bryan. Michael Darvell remembers them within the context of their musical contributions…

When four great names of stage and film make their exits one after the other, it is perhaps time to look back at their individual contributions to the theatre and the cinema, but also remember that amongst the work they were most famous for also lie several contributions in the field of music.

Richard Attenborough (1923-2014)

Richard Attenborough (1923-2014) is known globally for his work as a theatre and film actor, and as a producer and director. He had a sixty-year career in films dating from 1942 when he had an uncredited role as a panicky naval rating in Noël Coward and David Lean’s film, In Which We Serve, followed by Brighton Rock, The Guinea Pig, Boys in Brown, Private’s Progress, Dunkirk, I’m All Right Jack, The League of Gentlemen, Only Two Can Play, The Great Escape, The Sand Pebbles, 10 Rillington Place and Jurassic Park among many others. With Bryan Forbes he created Beaver Films, producing and appearing in The Angry Silence, Whistle Down the Wind, and Séance on a Wet Afternoon, and went on to produce and direct a dozen or so films including Gandhi, which won eight Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director.

Attenborough studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1940 after which he was in Clifford Odets’s play Awake and Sing. The part of Pinkie Brown in the stage version of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock led to his being cast by the Boulting Brothers in their 1947 film version, which remains a classic. After many years of film-work he and his wife, Sheila Sim, landed parts in Agatha Christie’s stage version of The Mousetrap in 1952, little knowing that the play would run and run and is still on. They became a part of London’s theatrical history as well as contributing enormously to the British film industry.

Attenborough was also a great campaigner for important causes and as one of the supporters of many organisations such as the British Film Institute, Channel 4, Capital Radio, the National Film and Television School, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, United World Colleges and Chelsea Football Club. However, he also directed two film musicals and appeared in three films in which music was their raison d’être.

In 1962 he appeared in All Night Long, Basil Dearden’s movie take on Shakespeare’s Othello, which set the action against the background of a black jazz club. Paul Harris and Marti Stevens played the Othello and Desdemona characters, here called Aurelius Rex, the bandleader, and Delia Lane, a jazz singer. The Iago figure, Johnny Cousin, a drummer, was played by Patrick McGoohan. Attenborough played Rod Hamilton, the club owner. However, the main reason for the film’s setting was the use of jazz musicians Dave Brubeck, Johnny Dankworth, Charlie Mingus, Tubby Hayes, Alan Ganley, Johnny Scott and many other performers in this unique production.

Attenborough’s second association with music was playing circus-owner Albert Blossom in Doctor Dolittle (1967) in which, after he has seen the Doctor’s incredible two-headed animal, the pushmi-pullu, he has to sing ‘I’ve never seen anything like it’, one of the many fairly charming songs Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse wrote for the film. As usual Attenborough acquitted himself very well. He once said that he only took on one part in his career for the money. This may well have been it, as he was at the time trying to raise money to finance his lifelong wish to make a film on the life of Gandhi. This was not to happen for another fifteen years.

Meanwhile he tested his abilities as a director and, at the behest of John Mills, Attenborough directed the film of Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), Theatre Workshop’s show about the First World War, staged in 1963 at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East (London) by Joan Littlewood and Charles Chilton, but which later transferred to Wyndhams Theatre for a long run and then went to Broadway. Being an essentially theatrical piece – the setting was a pierrot show depicting the condemnation of the war by using soldiers’ songs from the time – there was a problem of how to film it. Attenborough and screenwriter Len Deighton chose to set it on Brighton Pier with the world’s great political figures discussing the tactics of war, alongside scenes of an ‘ordinary’ family, the Smiths, whose youngsters are excited about joining up. It boasted a star cast including John Mills, Dirk Bogarde, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Corin Redgrave, Jack Hawkins, Joe Melia, Juliet Mills, Cecil Parker, Edward Fox, Phyllis Calvert, Jean-Pierre Cassel, John Clements, Michael Redgrave, Laurence Olivier, Kenneth More, Ralph Richardson, Meriel Forbes, Jane Seymour et al. At the time it looked too squeaky-clean in colour but over the years it has gained a certain credence with its anti-war message. And who could forget the memorably sad final shot of thousands of white crosses marking the passing of a generation of patriotic soldiers?

The filming of Gandhi in 1982 proved to be Attenborough’s finest hour as a director. Sadly three years later he directed A Chorus Line, one of the longest-running stage musicals. Maybe he was the wrong man for the project – British, not used to handling singers and dancers, out of his comfort zone but fine when he was directing more epic productions, but on a personal level in A Chorus Line, which deals with a director auditioning on a one-to-one basis, he just couldn’t get Michael Bennett’s original concept with music and lyrics by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban to work on film. Heroic failure would best describe it.

Attenborough’s final association with the musical theatre was in 1999 and a video recording of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, in which he played Jacob, with Joan Collins as Mrs Potiphar, Christopher Biggins as the Baker, Alex Jennings as the Butler, Donny Osmond as Joseph and Maria Friedman as the Narrator.

Robin Williams (1951-2014)

Robin Williams (1951-2014) was arguably the most celebrated and for some the funniest stand-up comedian of his time. He was unstoppable and was just as manic and funny in real life as he was on the screen. Having acquired an audience through Mork and Mindy on television, he soon conquered the movies too and, although not all his films were classics, he proved that he could play a range of both comic and dramatic roles with great feeling and insight. Many of the films with which he was associated include music and song and he proved to be a fine interpreter of lyrics. He made over one-hundred film and television appearances, including some exceptional work in The World According to Garp, Moscow on the Hudson, Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, Awakenings, Aladdin, Mrs Doubtfire, The Birdcage, Good Will Hunting, One Hour Photo and The Butler, among umpteen others.

Musically he exhibited his singing voice first of all in Mork and Mindy (1978-80) and then in his first film, Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980) for which he did look and sound like the titular hero and even sang ‘I’m Popeye the sailor man’, ‘I yam what I yam’ and ‘Blow me down’. His singing voice was subsequently heard in Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, Toys, Mrs Doubtfire (singing ‘Largo al factotum’ from Rossini’s Barber of Seville)), Death to Smoochy, Jimmy Kimmel Lives!, Happy Feet and Happy Feet 2. Perhaps his outstanding musical performances come in Disney’s Aladdin (1992), the animated feature in which Williams played the Genie, singing ‘Friend like me’ and ‘Prince Ali’ as well as concocting his own stream of consciousness dialogue, or rather monologue, as nobody ever got to talk when Williams was on. In The Birdcage (1996) Mike Nichols’s US remake of the La Cage aux Folles, use was made of some songs by Stephen Sondheim including ‘Can that boy foxtrot’ which was cut from Follies, and Williams got to sing his ‘Love is in the air’, cut from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, as well as Lerner & Loewe’s ‘I could have danced all night’ from My Fair Lady.

Lauren Bacall (1924-2014)

Lauren Bacall (1924-2014), glamorous star of more than seventy films and television programmes over a period of the same number of years, was probably most famous as the wife of Humphrey Bogart, although she was the first to say being married to ‘Bogie’ and being his widow did not make a career. She was first and foremost an actress. It just so happened that she played opposite Bogart in her first film in 1944, Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not, based on an Ernest Hemingway story. Not exactly well-known then as a singer – that came later when she became a star of musical theatre – she did sing ‘How little we know’ and ‘Am I blue?’ in that first film (and no, she wasn’t dubbed by Andy Williams; that rumour was scotched a long time ago). She went on to appear in other classic films such as The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, Key Largo (all with Bogart) and How to Marry a Millionaire (with Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe), Written on the Wind (with Rock Hudson), Designing Woman (with Gregory Peck), North West Frontier (with Kenneth More), The Moving Target (with Paul Newman), Murder on the Orient Express (with Albert Finney) and The Shootist (1976), John Wayne’s last film.

Bacall was also heard vocalising in other films such as Royal Flush and The Big Sleep (both 1946), Sex and the Single Girl (1964) singing ‘What is this thing called love?’, and in The Shootist singing ‘Willow, tit willow’. She performed ‘Hearts not diamonds’ in The Fan (1981) and sang a couple of times on the annual Tony Awards show, in 1970 and 1981. However, her greatest musical achievements came in the two stage musicals she starred in, Applause (1970) and Woman of the Year (1981). The first was based on Joseph Mankiewicz’s All about Eve, the Bette Davis movie about an ingénue actress who tries to take over the career and the private life of a fading star. The music by Charles Strouse, the lyrics by Lee Adams and the book by Betty Comden & Adolph Green were exemplary, full of great songs offering marvellous opportunities for Bacall to shine, and including ‘But alive’, ‘Welcome to the theatre’, ‘Fasten your seat belts’ and the title song. The show ran on Broadway for nearly 900 performances and secured Bacall a well-deserved Tony Award. The show came to London with Bacall in 1972 – she was terrific.

Although it may not have been one of Kander & Ebb’s top shows, Woman of the Year, their musical based on a 1942 Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn film about a married couple’s difficulties in reconciling their careers with their personal lives, was almost as successful as Applause, notching up nearly 800 performances in 1981. The songs included ‘One of the boys’, ‘The two of us’, ‘I wrote the book’, ‘Sometimes a day goes by’ and ‘The grass is always greener’ – and it was another personal success for Bacall and it won her a second Tony Award. Sadly London never saw the show.

Dora Bryan (1923-2014)

Dora Bryan (1923-2014) had a long career on the stage and in films and television which began when she was a child in pantomime followed by a stint at Oldham Rep during her teenage years. She was in Coward’s Private Lives and worked with ENSA during World War Two, mixing comedy with music. She started appearing in films in 1947, a small role in Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out which led to a bigger part in the same director’s The Fallen Idol (1948). For many years she was a fixture in British films playing common girls, or as she said “tarts and barmaids”. She made some fifty films up to 1960, mostly in small parts including The Blue Lamp, Cockleshell Heroes and Carry On Sergeant until she was cast in Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey, as Helen, mother to Rita Tushingham’s Jo in the film of Sheila Delaney’s play, for which she won a Best Actress BAFTA award.

In the early 1950s she was in many of the Lyric Hammersmith Revues which often transferred to the Globe in Shaftesbury Avenue. She was then in further revues including Living for Pleasure, The Dora Bryan Show, An Evening with Dora Bryan & Friends, and Six of One. Earlier she was in Vivian Ellis’s musical of A. P. Herbert’s The Water Gypsies (1955) with some good songs including ‘Why did you call me Lily?’, ‘You never know with men’ and ‘It would cramp my style’. The show had a respectable run of over 200 performances. She was also in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1962 and took over from Mary Martin as Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! at Drury Lane in 1966. She was the best thing in the revival of Charlie Girl at the Victoria Palace in 1986, despite having Cyd Charisse as the nominal star. She was hilarious and still doing the splits (a famous trick of Dora’s) in 70, Girls, 70, the Kander & Ebb show which played Chichester and London in 1991. Earlier she had appeared in Cameron Mackintosh’s London production of Follies (1987) singing ‘I’m still here’, a fitting tribute to a veteran trouper such as Dora herself.

I met Dora Bryan during her time in 70, Girls, 70 when she bemoaned the fact that she never had a long-running television comedy series. Well, she only had to wait a few years and she was appearing in Victoria Wood’s dinnerladies, with Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley in Absolutely Fabulous and then for five years from 2000 she joined the cast of Last of the Summer Wine. A terrific musical performer, Dora Bryan was at heart a great actress equally at home in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shaw’s Pygmalion (on Broadway), Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer or Pinter’s The Birthday Party, for which she won an Olivier Award. As with all these passing talents, the UK entertainment scene will be sadder for the loss of Dora Bryan. There really was nobody quite like her…

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