Many of us are very familiar with some of the epic historical films made by the late actor, producer and director Richard Attenborough, who lived in nearby Richmond. Movies such as Oh! What a Lovely War, A Bridge Too Far, Cry Freedom and Ghandi stand out in particular.
But did you know that Lord ‘Dickie’ Attenborough, who died in August, 2014, had a personal ambition to make another major historical movie – the story of the life of the English revolutionary Thomas Paine? It was a dream he pursued for over three decades, but ‘Project Paine’ sadly remained unfulfilled.
I was reminded about this earlier this year, when a rare first edition copy of Thomas Paine’s famous and best-selling book The Rights of Man (1792), which is now seen as a classic statement of democratic principles, was sold at auction at Bloomsbury auctioneers in London. Expected to fetch £2,000, it actually sold for an astonishing £161,000 – more than 80 times its original estimate. Paine’s book, a powerful defence of the French Revolution against Edmund Burke’s anti-revolutionary book Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), was published in two parts, and the rare first edition sold at auction was published by Joseph Johnson in February, 1791, but was then hastily withdrawn from public sale because of fear of prosecution by the British authorities.
Who was Paine and why did Lord Attenborough take such an interest in Paine’s life? A quick exploration of Paine’s life and career can give us some important clues. Thomas Paine was born in Thetford, in the county of Norfolk, England, in January, 1737, into a low-income family, and for the next 37 years he lived a fairly mediocre and hum-drum life, failing in a variety of professions, including teaching, selling tobacco, and as a tax collector. He was quite a ‘wanderer’ and dreamer. Apprenticed to learn his father’s trade of corset-maker, Paine was increasingly bored and restless, fed up with the grinding poverty and drudgery of his life. His marriage was also a disaster, and he formally separated from his wife in 1774. In fact, some biographers claim they had never actually lived together.
When aged 17, Paine had attempted to run away to sea. He had enlisted on the privateer Terrible, under a captain with the memorable name of Death (I kid you not!). But Paine was captured on board the ship just in time by his father Joseph Paine who, despite being a Quaker, had come to rescue Thomas and force him to leave; in fact, his father physically carried his wayward son back home again! Joseph Paine’s corset-making profession did not bring in much money, and there is evidence that he wanted young Thomas to make something more of himself in life and had high hopes; indeed, Thomas Paine’s parents had experienced considerable hardship financing a place for Thomas at a local grammar school.
Although Paine’s early years were relatively inauspicious, most biographers of Paine argue that there were some key features of his upbringing that left an indelible mark on his character, and would later appear in his political activism and, especially, in his writings. His father’s Quakerism instilled in Thomas Paine a very strong belief that all human beings are born equal. Eighteenth century England, though, was a place full of inequality. Paine wanted to create a more ‘just’ country, and felt society ought to be arranged in such a way as to bring that about.
While working as an excise officer, Paine was chosen by his co-workers to speak on their behalf and make the case for higher wages and improved working conditions. This he did, and in a very eloquent and powerful way, discovering new skills in public speaking and advocacy. In 1772-73, Paine went to London to present an appeal to Members of Parliament and other officials at the heart of government. A watershed moment came sometime in 1774, when he met Benjamin Franklin. Clearly recognising Paine’s talents and potential, Franklin encouraged Paine to try his luck in America. Thus, in October, 1774, Paine, on the recommendation of Franklin, set sail for the New World and arrived in Philadelphia in December, 1774.
Soon after his arrival, he was employed as the editor of a new journal, the Pennsylvania Magazine. Almost immediately, Paine embarked on a long life of revolutionary oratory, writing and campaigning, advocating individual rights, republicanism, equal rights for women, the abolition of slavery, and the end of war between nations. In the process, he became almost an international travelling salesman of ‘revolution’, mounting very strong defences of both the American and French Revolutions. His major works included Common Sense (1776), The Rights of Man (1792), The Age of Reason (1794) and Agrarian Justice (1797). The book The Rights of Man, written when he had returned to England, proved too much for the British government. In May, 1792, a royal proclamation was issued against ‘seditious’ writing and Paine was charged with ‘treason’. He fled to France, never able to return to England again.
At first, he was welcomed in France as a revolutionary hero, and was even given a seat in the new National Convention. However, as he was very independent-minded and outspoken, he was soon denounced by the Jacobin leader Robespierre for his association with the moderate republican group the Girondins. Soon after completing The Age of Reason Paine was arrested and imprisoned. After an intervention on his behalf by the American statesman James Monroe, Paine was released and, eventually, in 1802, returned back to America.
Back in America, he found a very different country to the one he had left. His arguments in The Age of Reason, especially his attacks on the Bible and religion, had alienated many of his former friends. Tragically, he lived the rest of his years in ill-health and relative obscurity. But what great material for a film!
According to the BBC film critic Barry Norman, a close friend of Richard Attenborough, the Oscar-winning film-maker was convinced that Thomas Paine was one of England’s great but ‘lost’ heroes, a man whose very colourful and dramatic life really deserved greater recognition and some full-scale movie treatment. Regularly rebuffed by cautious studios and unable to raise sufficient funds, Attenborough still remained hopeful; some of his friends in the 1980s even tried to mount a campaign on his behalf to raise public funds for the proposed movie, but the government at the time were uninterested, possibly for political reasons.
Kingston University awarded Lord Attenborough an Honorary Doctorate in Arts in 2007, at a graduation ceremony held at the Rose Theatre, and a number of students remarked how friendly and encouraging he was about their own future ambitions.
Attenborough’s ‘Project Paine’ remained very close to his heart right up to his passing in 2014. What a great pity his vision never came to fruition.
Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University