Alison Jones hears why the octogenarian film-maker Richard Attenborough simply can't stop working.
"I'd like to be there on the last day of shooting, say 'CUT' and drop dead, that would be my perfect end. Somebody else can cut the movie."
The demise of Britain's most beloved filmmaking peer is not something many of us would wish to contemplate. However, as it is certain as taxes, it would seem entirely appropriate if Lord Richard Attenborough were to die with his directorial boots on.
Retirement is certainly not an option for the 84-year-old who admits that he still shakes with exctement when he goes on the studio floor at the beginning of a day's work.
"I am a committed worker. I just adore the smell of the studios or the camera, I am in seventh heaven," he enthuses. "And I am a bossy bugger, I like having the right to hone and shape performances from wonderful players."
Neither age nor bad reviews it seems can dim his pleasure. Even after recieving scathing reviews for projects like In Love and War and Grey Owl, he simply dusted himself off and started searching for funding for the next.
However, more than 60 years in front of and behind the camera have left him, if not jaded, then at least pragmatic. He knows the type of stories he likes to make - thoughtful character pieces that are often long on melodrama and short on what he describes as "pornographic violence" and special effects - are not an easy sell to the financiers.
It his taken him five years to complete his latest film, Closing the Ring, a romantic drama spanning several decades about a widow (Shirley MacLaine) who is still bound by the memories of a secret wartime marriage.
The ring is the wedding band belonging to her first love, killed when his bomber crashed in Ireland. Decades later, a local attempts to return it to America.
Written by Peter Woodward, son of the actor Edward Woodward, it is inspired by a true story about a young airman who was killed in a crash just outside Belfast only a few months after getting married.
"It is very hard raising money now," Lord Attenborough sighs. "You're dealing with people who are not even interested in the movies. They are part of conglomerates.
"The people who make decisions rarely read the scripts, they have a chart with names of players in, they have numbers which they add together.
"Shirley, for instance, was very hot when we started. It was 'Great, how much (money) do you want?'. Then for various reasons it didn't start when it should have, Shirley had a couple of dogs, like we all have, and you couldn't raise the money with her.
"So you battle on. If you get to my age, which is too old really, I ought to be saying goodbye and packing it in but for some ridiculous reason I can't. I have to keep going. I just can't contemplate the idea of retirement."
When it comes to the bottom line, most money men have hearts of stone, certainly they must have when it comes to rejecting Richard Attenborough who appears every bit the sweet-natured, old school thespian one has always imagined him to be.
Legends both living and dead are affectionately referred to by nickname. Thus his brother, the eminent naturalist Sir David Attenborough, is Dave, pioneering British director Michael Powell is Micky, while Christopher Plummer, who stars in Closing the Ring, is chummily referred to as Chris.
Even his liberal use of the word darling doesn't seem an affectation, for as he once explained: "At my age the only problem is with remembering names. When I call everyone 'darling', it has damn all to do with passionately adoring them, but I know I'm safe calling them that. Although, of course, I adore them, too".
What is perhaps most engaging about Lord Attenborough is his acknowledgement of his own limitations.
But his modesty denies his achievements which have included some genuinely chilling performances as an actor in movies like Brighton Rock and 10 Rillington Place, as well as a memorable turn as the doomed mastermind of The Great Escape.
His collection of films as a director, including Oh What A Lovely War, Gandhi, Cry Freedom, Chaplin and Shadowlands, have truly deserved the awards and plaudits that have come their way.
"I am not a great film maker," he maintains. " I am not an auteur. I'm a craftsman. I don't make innovative movies I make craft movies, they have beginnings and middles and ends.
"I don't feel that I am leaving behind a great piece of work though I think Gandhi achieved a huge amount in terms of the impact that it had in terms of certain countries and attitudes and so on.
"I was in London for the unveiling of a statue to Nelson Mandela. He is the most fabulous man, I am very fond of him and he is over-fond of my wife," he adds with a grin. "He said: 'I think I should tell you that Cry Freedom made a greater impact on white South Africans than any speech I have ever made'. I said: 'You are the sweetest man but you are an unbelievable fibber'.
"I care about being involved in a creative industry which does and can make the cry for compassion and the plea for tolerance and I would like to think I have paid sufficient respect to it."
He admits the sometimes his most personally felt projects fall of short of even his own ambitions for them.
Grey Owl, which starred Pierce Brosnan as an Englishman who passed himself off as an Native American Indian, had been a long held dream of his to make ever since he and his brother David queued as schoolboys to hear the real Grey Owl speak in Leicester, where they grew up.
"I thought it was a better film than it was recognised as. I slightly resented 'James Bond in pigtails' as a headline," he says.
"I made a balls up actually. I had difficulty raising the money because Los Angeles wanted me to use a Hollywood actress and darken her up. I wanted the real thing, because I thought if you are making a film about a man who fakes his life and falls in love with somebody absolutely real, you can't as a cinemamaker put a phoney girl in that place,
"I cast a girl, but what I did not fully recognize was that being Native American and French, her intonations were not real to our ear. I did an awful lot of dubbing on it and I think our leading man found it very difficult.
"You make poor films, it is not a precise science, you make misjudgements," he concedes.
However, this does not stop him attempting to reach the audience he believes is out there for "films about the dilemmas, problems and sacrifices that human beings are involved in."
He does not presume that he has anything profound to say about the human condition but feels he is able to connect on an emotional level. " I am not an intellectual, my brothers Dave and Johnny (who worked in the motor trade), they went to university. I left school at 16 and my erudition is third rate, but I can understand human beings and I care desperately in terms of human dignity."
He also has a natural compassion, which he was able to draw upon when he was asked to read at the memorial service for the victims of the Tsunami, after he and his wife Sheila Sim lost their daughter Jane, granddaughter Lucy and Jane's mother-in-law, in the tragedy.
Earlier this year Lord and Lady Attenborough donated their collection of Picasso Ceramics to the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery in Leicester for an exhibition staged in memory of them.
"We decided that they had so been overjoyed with the excitement and the irreverence and the humour at what Picasso did, particularly in his ceramics, that we have given them to the city of Leicester.
"You don't get over your loss and pain. It isn't that it doesn't exist anymore, of course it does, but you find a way of dealing with it. You compartmentalise.
"Shelia wasn't able to come with me when the exhibition opened. When I showed it to her we were laughing, because Jane laughed at that piece of work by Picasso.
"So we got the joy of this great genius's creativity reflected in Jinny's life and we were able, in a way, to revisit our loss of Jane but with joy."
* Closing the Ring opens in cinemas on January 4.