RICHARD Attenborough, who has died aged 90, was the luvvie's luvvie.

He was known affectionately as "Dickie", by which name he was familiar to one and all but which he himself, it seems, could not abide. That he had a talent for friendship goes without saying. Since his death the airwaves have reverberated to the testimonies of those who knew, loved and admired him, as an actor, director and, not least, a mover and shaker who had a reputation for getting difficult things done.

He won an Oscar and was elevated to the peerage though his attendance at the House of Lords was less than regular; in 20 years, his sole contribution in that somnolent chamber was one speech, on the film industry.

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His, then, was a life of conspicuous achievement. But one ambition eluded even him. For the past couple of decades he tried and ultimately failed to persuade Hollywood moguls to underwrite a movie about Thomas Paine and his great book, Rights of Man. Paine, like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko, was one of Attenborough's heroes. He once described him as "the greatest Englishman that ever lived". That's no mean claim.

What drew Attenborough to him was not so much his eloquent advocacy of American independence but his desire to ameliorate the conditions of the poor through progressive tax measures and radically reform, if not abolish, traditional institutions, including the monarchy.

So determined were Paine and his publisher to ensure that the ideas in Rights of Man receive the widest possible circulation that they agreed to sell it a significantly reduced price. Thus, when it first appeared in 1792, it caused sensation and outrage in equal measure. Paine was assailed on all sides and sued for seditious libel by his rival, Edmund Burke.

The aim was to hound him out of Britain and it succeeded. Threatened with possible execution, he escaped to revolutionary France where he was warmly welcomed. Historians acknowledge him as a leading figure in the age of revolutions. In the Norfolk town of Thetford where he was born he is remembered by statue.

Worship of courageous and visionary men like Paine, however, has suffered in this cynical age when everyone is suspected of having feet of clay. No sooner, it seems, does a hero come to the fore than an iconoclast makes revelations that lead us to think less of him or her.

The late Christopher Hitchens made it his mission to torpedo the reputations of those such as Mother Teresa, Pope Benedict, Bill Clinton and Princess Di. Each, in Hitchens's eyes, was deeply flawed. None, in his view, was worthy of being described a hero.

As ever, where invention is concerned, we're bound eventually to unearth a Scot. Thomas Carlyle, born in Ecclefechan three years after Paine wrote Rights of Man, was responsible for what's known as "the great man" theory of history. In his book, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History, Carlyle studied diverse heroes. They included Napoleon, Oliver Cromwell, Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson and the Prophet Muhammad. Two Scots made the grade: Robert Burns and John Knox.

Of particular value to Carlyle were those, like Paine, who dared advocate reform. In that regard, he reserved a special place for Muhammad who, single-handedly, managed to "weld warring tribes and wandering Bedouins into a most powerful and civilised nation in less than two decades".

Carlyle's heroes were not flawless individuals. All were flawed to a greater or lesser extent. What impressed him was how creatively they coped with their failings. Moral perfection was an ideal not worth pursuing because it didn't exist. Heroes were people who overcame the odds to achieve their dream.

It is an appealing thought and one that resonates still. In my youth I had numerous heroes, most of whom were adept at kicking a ball or running like a greyhound or climbing mountains. Otherwise, they were to be found in fiction or in the movies. These were the best kind of heroes because their existence was embalmed on the page or screen. They couldn't grow old disgracefully; still less could they change character. They were as their creator wanted them to be, individuals on to whom a reader could transfer his wildest imaginings.