I’m not one to name-drop, but living near a safari camp means that famous humans often arrive on your doorstep. A few years ago, I had the good fortune to rub shoulders with Lord Attenborough of Richmond-upon-Thames, elder brother of the revered nature guru. We had met once before after he saw me perform in the circus, and when I turned up at the camp he greeted me like a long lost friend.
“Bananas, luvvie, how are you my dear boy? I heard a rumour that you’d retired to the jungle but I never believed it. I thought you must have signed on with the Brazzaville rep. How’s life outside the ring?”
As a friend and patron of the British film industry, I felt duty-bound to engage the ennobled thespian in the style of conversation to which he was accustomed. So I clasped both his hands and responded warmly to his salutation.
“Dickie, old darling, how wonderful to see you! I’m strictly a jungle ape these days, but I do try and keep up with events in show business. Got any projects in the pipeline?”
“Funny you should ask, because I’ve just received a script from Disney,” replied the peerless peer. “They’ve offered me the lead in a sequel to Mary Poppins called Uncle Poppins. I go around the English countryside on a magical tricycle, curing sick fauns and saving lambs from the slaughterhouse. They think it’ll be a smash.”
“Glad to see you’re not getting typecast,” I remarked. “It sounds like a worthy addition to the acting portfolio, Dickie, but what about directing? How about another epic like Gandhi?”
“Bananas, luvvie, if you knew what I went through in making that movie you wouldn’t mention it. The weather was sweltering, the food gave me the runs and Ben Kingsley was always nagging me about nude scenes.”
“Nude scenes in Gandhi?” I replied in some bafflement. “You mean bathing in the Ganges and so forth?”
“No, he’d read somewhere that the Mahatma used to sleep naked with young women to test his powers of self-restraint. So he’d set his heart on getting starkers with Mirabehn, played by Geraldine James. I said: ‘Ben, luvvie, we simply can’t have that sort of thing in a family film. It’s not essential to the plot and the Indians might kick us out of the country if they got to hear of it. Forget about the nudity in this one and I’ll recommend you to Jean-Jacques Annaud, who’s a master of the tasteful bum-shot.’ Funny thing was that in spite of his disappointment his performance afterwards was superb. An actor is always more relaxed when he knows he won’t be taking his briefs off.”
This revealing anecdote inspired me to suck my teeth in admiration. “I always knew you deserved the credit for the Oscar he got,” I said. “You know, I bet you could make a classic little film right here with your camcorder. Have you met Bonzo, the resident chimpanzee? He’d just love to star in a Dickie Attenborough production.”
Dickie pretended to pooh-pooh my suggestion by chortling and standing on one leg, but I could tell by the twinkle in his eye that I’d awakened the artistic impulse in him. After sharing a late-morning pot of tea, we parted company – he drove away with his tour party to observe the wildlife, while I returned to the jungle.
A couple of days later, I returned to see how Dickie was getting on. On arriving, I was delighted to observe that the great man had taken my advice to heart. Wearing his director’s beret, he was pointing his camcorder at Bonzo, who was fiendishly attired in a striped blazer and straw boater. While a nearby portable stereo played Memories Are Made of This, the gifted chimp performed a beautifully choreographed dance routine, using a bamboo stick as his cane. As the music came to an end, Bonzo removed his hat and took a bow.
“Wonderful!” gasped Dickie. “Bonzo, luvvie, that was marvellous beyond words! I’m going to show this tape to everyone when I get back to England!”
But Bonzo had no interest in winning the admiration of unknown humans living thousands of miles away. The vain little chimp wanted the tape for himself, so he could watch his own performance repeatedly in a fever of unbridled narcissism. He scampered over to get his hands on the camcorder, but the ageing thespian was having none of it.
“Out of the question, dear boy!” spluttered Dickie, hugging the device to his body. “Not even Larry Olivier got to see the rushes before the director!”
At this moment, I thought it best to intervene to prevent an unpleasant altercation. Taking the chimp by the arm, I gently escorted him off the set while trying to explain that a copy of the tape would be mailed to him later. Bonzo had little option but to accept my assurances, but before departing he showed his resentment by giving Dickie a sullen glare and snapping the bamboo stick in two.
When I returned, I saw Dickie reviewing Bonzo’s act on the camcorder’s monitor. “A most remarkable talent,” he mused, “and temperamental too! My brother David often says that chimps are our closest relatives, but I never quite believed it until now. I wonder what he’ll make of this footage.”
“Are you sure you ought to show it to him, Dickie?” I asked. “The most he’s ever achieved with chimps is getting them to break a few nuts. You wouldn’t want to provoke any sibling jealously, would you?”
“Bananas, my dear chap, that’s a very good point you make,” said Dickie grinning mischievously. “Now that you mention it, I’ll certainly have to show it to him!”
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