Thorold Barron Dickinson (19031984), by Russell Westwood, 1930s
Dickinson, Thorold Barron (19031984), film director and teacher, was born on 16 November 1903 in Bristol, the son of the Ven. Charles Henry Dickinson (18711930), archdeacon of Bristol, and his wife, Beatrice Vindhya. He was educated at Clifton College, Bristol, and at Keble College, Oxford (19237), where he studied history, but he devoted more time to college theatricals and a burgeoning interest in films than to his academic studies. Through his friendship with Malcolm Pearson he got a job as general assistant in 1926 with Pearson's father, George, then one of Britain's most respected film-makers, who taught him the rudiments of film-making. In 1929 Dickinson went to New York to study the new techniques of sound film and on his return to Britain began work as a film editor, first at British and Dominions Studios, Elstree, then at the Stoll Studios, Cricklewood, and from 1932 to 1936 at . Many of the films Dickinson worked on as editor were dull and stagey but they enabled him to master the technical side of film-making and sometimes to experiment in order to enliven the films visually.
The technical training of the cutting rooms was complemented by the creative and aesthetic influence of the Film Society. This had been founded in 1925 to promote a serious interest in the art of film and it showed uncut imported prints of German, Russian, French, and experimental films. Throughout the 1930s Dickinson was in charge of technical presentation of the programmes and from 1932 to 1939 he was a member of the governing council of the society. He was strongly influenced by French cinema, particularly the films of Marcel Carné. He later recounted with pride that Patrick Hamilton had described his film Gaslight as a French film made in English (Richards, 3).
Many of the people Dickinson worked with at the Film Society became involved in setting up and running the cinema technicians' union the Association of Cinematograph Technicians, and having himself experienced intolerable working conditions, Dickinson became a union activist, strongly committed to improving conditions for his fellow technicians. He was vice-president of the union from 1936 to 1953. One of the most significant influences on his life was his wife, (Irene) Joanna MacFadyen. An architect by training, she shared Dickinson's intellectual interests, his sense of humour, his forthrightness, and his hatred of snobbery and injustice. She was fiercely protective, some said excessively so, of Dickinson and his career. They married in 1929 and remained lifelong companions and collaborators until her death in 1979. She was credited as co-writer and co-editor on his last feature film, Hill 24 doesn't Answer (1954).
Dickinson's ultimate aim had always been to direct and he got the chance in 1936, when he was engaged by a small independent company (Fanfare) to direct a crime thriller, The High Command (1936), set in a British colony in west Africa. He persuaded the producers to sanction location-shooting in the Gold Coast Colony. The trip resulted in footage which enhanced the authenticity of the film and Graham Greene, then a film critic, commented admiringly on the film: British West Africa comes alive as it never did in Mr. Korda's lavish and unimaginative Sanders of the River (Night and Day).
In 1938 Dickinson joined a unit assembled by Ivor Montagu to go to Spain to make three documentary films for use in fund-raising for the Spanish republican cause. Dickinson was chiefly responsible for Spanish ABC, a forceful and well-argued affirmation of the educational programme of the republican government. The film was put together in difficult circumstances in Barcelona during repeated air raids by the Franco forces. Back in Britain Dickinson directed another crime thriller, the lively Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939), which was uniformly liked by the critics. But his reputation was decisively made with his film of the psychological thriller Gaslight (1940), starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard, in which he applied his love of French style and Russian montage to a very English story which contained a critique of nineteenth-century patriarchal tyranny. It received rave reviews from the critics and an invitation from producer David O. Selznick to go to Hollywood. But Dickinson refused to leave Britain while the war was on. Gaslight became a cause célèbre when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought the rights to the film with the intention of remaking it in Hollywood and a plan to destroy all prints of the Dickinson version. There was a press furore in Britain. Dickinson and his editor, Sidney Cole, secretly struck a print from the original negative and subsequently deposited it at the British Film Institute. But the film remained unseen for years.
For much of the war Dickinson's film-making activities were part of Britain's propaganda offensive, and he worked closely with the Ministry of Information. He directed two short documentaries for the ministry, Westward Ho1940 and Yesterday is over your Shoulder, and a morale-building biopic of the life of Disraeli, The Prime Minister (1940), which he later disowned as a piece of hackwork. But his principal cinematic achievement of the war years was a superb dramatized documentary feature, The Next of Kin (1941), made for the War Office and illustrating the truth of the wartime slogan Careless talk costs lives. Released to cinemas, it was both a box office and a critical success.
While he was editing The Next of Kin, Dickinson was asked to organize a production unit for the Army Kinematograph Service and was commissioned as a second lieutenant, from which he rose rapidly to the rank of major. He assembled an expert team of film-makers and they produced seventeen military training films in their first year. But in December 1942 Dickinson was released from the Army Kinematograph Service to make a feature film commissioned by the Colonial Office to dramatize the government's new policy of colonial partnership. Dickinson worked with the novelist Joyce Cary on the script for Men of Two Worlds (1946), in which an African concert pianist and a British district officer in Tanganyika co-operate in the battle against sleeping sickness. The project involved lengthy location shooting under very difficult conditions in Tanganyika, but the Technicolor film stock that was used had decayed so badly by the time it reached Hollywood for processing that 90 per cent of the footage was unusable and most of the film was eventually shot at Denham Studios. The film took three years to make, cost £600,000, and was greeted by critics on its release in 1946 as a well-meaning bore. Dickinson ruefully declared: The whole thing was a misery (Richards, 118).
A plan to film Somerset Maugham's novel Then and Now fell foul of the censors. But Dickinson was called on to take over the direction of The Queen of Spades (1949), which starred Anton Walbrook and Edith Evans. The result was an assured Romantic masterpiece in which extravagant style, exuberantly fluid camerawork, expressionist lighting, and a mastery of the mechanics of suspense combined to create one of the great achievements of British film-making. A prestige project for Festival of Britain year, The Mayor of Casterbridge, was cancelled by Associated British Pictures on grounds of cost, and Dickinson returned to Ealing to fulfil his dream of making a British art house film. Secret People (1952) was a drama that explored the ethics of terrorism. But the film fell between the two stools of thriller and ethical drama, the reviews were damning, and communists demonstrated during performances, believing the film to be an attack on them.
On the basis of his wartime experience, Dickinson was invited to Israel to make a short propaganda film about the army, The Red Ground (1953), and then to make the first ever Israeli feature film, Hill 24 doesn't Answer (1954), a powerful and emotional account of three volunteers in the 1948 ArabIsraeli war. It received respectful notices in Britain but was little shown. However, Hill 24 was seen and liked at the United Nations and in 1956, despairing of the commercial film industry, Dickinson accepted an appointment as chief of film services in the radio and visual services division of the UN department of public information. During his four years in New York he put together a multinational team of film-makers who produced a stream of short documentaries on aspects of UN work. But his main achievement during these years was a feature-length documentary, which he produced and co-edited, Power among Men (19589), which described the successful co-operation between men and women of different nationalities on development projects. It won prizes at the Venice and Moscow film festivals and the Selznick golden laurel award in 1959.
In 1960, frustrated by the inability to do more with the UN documentary programme, Dickinson returned to Britain to take up a newly established senior lectureship in film at the Slade School of Fine Art in University College, London. The aim of the department, which Dickinson set up, was to turn out film students who would go into production, teaching, and criticism. In 1967 he became the first professor of film in Britain; a postgraduate diploma course was set up and Dickinson pioneered film studies teaching in the United Kingdom.
Dickinson had always been deeply committed to the cause of film education. Involved in the British Film Institute from the first, from 1950 to 1956 he served on the national film archive committee. He was involved in the creation of the British Film Academy, set up in 1946 to confer intellectual respectability on the cinema, and was its chairman in 19523. He was a long-standing supporter of the film society movement, and saw film societies as a crucial means of educating people cinematically. He was a member of the council of the Film Society from 1932 to 1939 and president of the International Federation of Film Societies from 1958 to 1966. In his later years he was a regular member of prestigious film festival juries, and chaired those at Venice, Berlin, and Guadalajara. He wrote many articles setting out his ideas about film as an art form, and in 1971 published a grand synthesis of these, A Discovery of Cinema, in which he rejected the dream-factory, conveyor-belt Hollywood system in favour of the continental tradition of art cinema, making films of ideas for discriminating audiences.
Dickinson retired from teaching in 1971 and was made professor emeritus and awarded a PhD of London University. His dedication to the promotion of a film culture was recognized in the honours and awards showered on him in his retirement. He was appointed CBE in 1973 and was visiting professor of film at the University of Surrey, Guildford, from 1975 to 1977: he received that university's honorary doctorate in 1976. He received honorary life membership of the Association of Cinematograph and Television Technicians, the British Universities' Film and Video Council, and the International Association of Audio-Visual Media in Historical Research and Education. He was made a fellow of the British Film Institute and his eightieth birthday was commemorated by a season of his films at the National Film Theatre.
Dickinson lived in retirement in Lambourn, Berkshire, but his last years were darkened by failing eyesight, increasing ill health, and (in 1979) the death of his wife, Joanna, to whom he was devoted. He was wholly out of sympathy with the new critical orthodoxies and felt anger and frustration at what he saw as the undermining of the new discipline of film studies by militant young theorists. He died at Oxford on 14 April 1984.
Although his body of work as a director was slim, Dickinson was undoubtedly a cinematic auteur, whose primary concern was with the working of his characters' minds and their psychological development. He was drawn in particular to secret people, divided beings whose inner selves emerged at moments of crisis. This reflected his own divided allegiance, the desire for both art and education, both to entertain and to enlighten. His visual style, influenced by German expressionism, Eisensteinian montage, Marcel Carné's poetic realism, and latterly Italian neo-realism, was also distinctive: long takes, mobile camera, sparing use of close-ups, musical form. Intellectually, he was a product of the left-wing inter-war intelligentsia; but basically he was an old-fashioned liberal with a characteristic paternalism that made him in many ways a natural teacher. He retained a romantic faith in education and in the creation of an intelligent, cultured, and articulate film audience. It was this didactic side which made him a natural and effective propagandist for causes in which he believed such as Spanish republicanism, the allied cause in the Second World War, Israel, and the United Nations. His commitment to all these causes stemmed from a basic belief in justice, truth, and humanity. As a romantic and an idealist, he threw himself successively into commercial cinema, sponsored cinema, and full-time education in pursuit of his dream of a British art house cinema. He ended up disillusioned with all of them. Perhaps the most fulfilled period of his creative life was during the war when, under the benign patronage of the Ministry of Information, he was able to commit himself to work that would simultaneously entertain, educate, and enlighten, while raising the qualitative level of British cinema.
J. Richards, Thorold Dickinson and the British cinema (1997) · T. Dickinson, A discovery of cinema (1971) · R. Durgnat, A mirror for England: British movies from austerity to affluence (1970) · L. Anderson, Making a film: the story of Secret People (1952) · G. Greene, The pleasure dome (1972) · M. Foster, Joyce Cary (1968) · J. Huntley, British technicolor films (1949) · WWW · Night and Day (29 July 1937) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1984)
BFI NFTVA, Thorold Dickinson interview, 1979
R. Westwood, photograph, 193039, NPG [see illus.] · photographs, 193145, Hult. Arch.
Wealth at death
£423,399: probate, 8 June 1984, CGPLA Eng. & Wales