Lord Attenborough

PUBLISHED: 12:36 02 October 2008 | UPDATED: 15:29 20 February 2013

Lord Attenborough: Such an exciting university

Lord Attenborough: Such an exciting university

The curtain came down on the ten-year role of Oscar-winning film director and actor Richard Attenborough as Chancellor of Sussex University this summer. More than 900 friends gathered to say goodbye to Lord Attenborough, affectionately known as 'D...

My parents were great believers in the importance of education. My brother David is a great scholar. But I always wanted to be an actor. All my spare time was spent with the local drama group. I went to RADA in 1941, where I met my wife, Sheila. I was in my first film in 1941 called In Which We Serve, with Noel Coward, and from that I appeared in a couple of plays, including the stage production of Brighton Rock in 1943. But later that year, having volunteered for the Air Force, I was called up. So I never went to university.

Some 25 years later, in 1968, I was in Brighton, making the film Oh! What A Lovely War - the anti-war musical set in World War One. The vital thing in telling this story was that the troops should look like the boys they were: 17 and 18 year olds. I didn't want normal film extras: I wanted young men who looked like ... well ... undergraduates. So I contacted Asa Briggs, who was vice-chancellor at the University of Sussex, asking for volunteers to act in the movie. We got God knows how many! However, there being no such thing as a free lunch, Asa asked if I would become patron of the newly-built Gardner Centre. Of course, I said yes and that's how I became involved with the university.

Two of my children, Jane and Michael, graduated from the university and I became more involved in university life, becoming pro-chancellor in the 1970s.

What I found at Sussex was the antithesis of an ivory tower. The doors were open. The campus was beautiful. I found the community, the atmosphere and the endeavour so exciting and the commitment of the undergraduates so warm and open. People walk by me on the campus saying good morning or good afternoon to me - or hello, how nice to see you. I just love it. I shall miss it very much.

I became Chancellor in 1998 and one of my most important duties was to confer degrees at the annual graduation ceremonies. I love graduation and I have a stack of letters from graduates and their families, saying that it was an occasion they would never forget.

I couldn't really conform to the total solemnity of the event. It seemed to me that if you have been working hard for three years, it should be an event of celebration, to be shared with all the family. Sometimes there is unexpected fun. On one memorable occasion, a boy came up, behaved absolutely correctly - then opened his gown as he walked off the stage and was totally naked! The place broke up!

And, of course, I have had the great joy of conferring honorary degrees on so many extraordinary people: scientists, philosophers, poets, actors, politicians and peacemakers. I also took great pleasure in seeing honorary degrees conferred on my son Michael and some dear friends, including Noel Coward, Ian Holm and Bryan Forbes.

It was wonderful to be able to bestow an honorary degree at my final graduation ceremony on Ben Kingsley, who was such a success in the title role of my film, Gandhi. I was very proud of Gandhi. It was not the greatest film ever made but it was a film with a statement - and the fact that it was acknowledged by my peers, and shown so widely, was very important.

Arts and arts education have a major contribution to make to our existence, to the manner in which we conduct our lives. But in the movies, and especially in television, we seem to have lost the passionate spirit - and it's sad. Film is a wonderful form of communication and of education, but in truth I don't think we have fulfilled the potential of the medium to deal with the priorities of human dignity and decency - of civilisation.

My time as Chancellor may be over, but my association with the University of Sussex continues. The vice-chancellor, Michael Farthing, has asked me if I will re-interest myself in the Gardner Centre and take an active part in its re-conception.
It's something I will adore to do.

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