Barry Band: Dickie Attenborough ‘lorded’ it in the Blackpool Grand’s gallery of stars

Richard Attenborough in Blackpool with Eve Boswell.
Richard Attenborough in Blackpool with Eve Boswell.

Many great names appeared at Blackpool’s Grand Theatre in the 1940s but none of them had a career that came close to that of Richard Attenborough, who was affectionately known as Dickie by generations of show people.

Our series of highlights from the Grand’s 125 years comes to the play that made him a star and the fact that its world premiere was at the Grand.

A rare 1940s Grand theatre poster, owned by Richard Attenborough, which was sold at auction after his death

A rare 1940s Grand theatre poster, owned by Richard Attenborough, which was sold at auction after his death

On Tuesday, February 16, 1943, Graham Greene’s crime thriller, Brighton Rock, began a short prior-to-London tour with the 19-year-old actor as racetrack hoodlum Pinky Brown and Dulcie Gray as Rose, his adoring girl friend.

The play ran nightly until Saturday with matinees on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.

A few months earlier Richard and Dulcie had played junior roles in Lillian Hellman’s classic play The Little Foxes at the Piccadilly Theatre.

When Brighton Rock opened at the Garrick Theatre, in March, 1943, the two young actors had rave reviews and were given equal billing with Hermione Baddeley.

John Hammond (Sir Richard Attenborough) shows Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) the secret of Jurassic Park.

John Hammond (Sir Richard Attenborough) shows Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) the secret of Jurassic Park.

After war service with the RAF film unit, Richard returned to Civvy Street and starred in the film version of Brighton Rock.

The Gazette’s reviewer of the 1943 stage premiere seemed to have been surprised by the play’s violent theme.

He wrote: “The central figure, that of 17-years-old Pinky, strains one’s credibility and though Richard Attenborough plays the part with skill which won admiration, it never invited sympathy.”

He should have read the book!

In 1993, when I was researching my Grand Theatre centenary history, I spoke to Michael Denison, husband of Dulcie Gray. The couple had appeared many times at the Grand.

He told me the importance of Brighton Rock in the careers of his wife and Richard Attenborough.

He said the posters, on tour and for the London opening, had Hermione Baddeley as the sole star (see pictures on this page).

“I was at the London opening, in uniform, and the response to Dulcie’s and Dickie’s performances was so tremendous that the following day their names joined Hermione’s above the title and Dulcie was offered a film contract that, ironically, was to prevent her from making the film of Brighton Rock a few years later,” said Michael.

Brighton Rock is touring again this year, but it’s premiere in wartime Blackpool is probably unknown in today’s world of theatre.

Richard Attenborough (1923-2014), actor, film producer and director, arts administrator, fund-raiser, and life peer, is our major figure of 1943 at the Grand.

The same year two of London’s most popular plays came to the Grand.

Robert Morley appeared in September, after 709 performances at the Savoy Theatre, playing the objectionable film critic in The Man Who Came to Dinner, by Kaufman and Hart.

In November, prior to starting a London run of 1134 performances, Michael Wilding starred in Terence Rattigan’s new comedy While the Sun Shines.