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Dickinson, Thorold (1903-1984)

Director, Producer, Writer, Editor

Main image of Dickinson, Thorold (1903-1984)

Thorold Dickinson remains a paradoxical figure among Britain's major film directors. Taken overall, his nine features display a degree of visual refinement and intellectual ambition unusual in a director attached to the mainstream British film industry. Yet the projects into which he put most effort and personal commitment, like Secret People (1952) and Men of Two Worlds (1946), proved less artistically successful than his hastier, more commercial assignments, notably Gaslight (1940) and The Queen of Spades (1949). During the undulations of his career, he assumed various key official positions - co-ordinator of the Army Kinematograph Service's film unit, Chief of Film Services at UNESCO, Professor of Film at the Slade School of Fine Art - but whether beyond or behind the film camera Dickinson stayed the eternal outsider, never comfortable in an Establishment niche.

Thorold Barron Dickinson was born in Bristol on 16 November, 1903, the son of the city's Archdeacon, with claimed ancestral links to Lady Godiva and the dwarf Thorold, featured in the Bayeux tapestry. He read history at Keble College, Oxford, but was expelled in his final year for neglecting study in favour of theatre and film. Like other 1920s undergraduates, he had caught the passion for film as art, and found fruitful work in the industry as an odd-jobbing assistant to George Pearson, one of the few established British silent directors with a visionary approach to the medium. He co-wrote the fanciful scenario for Pearson's The Little People (1926) and launched his early career as an editor on two other Pearson features, the more conventional Love's Option (1928) and Auld Lang Syne (1929). At Cricklewood and Ealing during the 1930s, he built a reputation as a skilful and imaginative cutter with clear knowledge of European and Soviet practices; his montages and second unit effects gave a particular lift to Basil Dean's Loyalties (1933) and Sing As We Go! (1934). Dickinson's international grasp widened through his long association with The Film Society, where he supervised technical operations from 1930 until its last programme in April 1939; he also served on the Society's Council.

In 1934 Dickinson completed ATP's Java Head after its American director, J. Walter Ruben, fell ill. His official directing debut occurred two years later, when he plunged into independent production, forming Fanfare Pictures with the screenwriter Gordon Wellesley. The High Command (1937) remained constricted by its novelettish story of murder, blackmail, and family secrets, but the verve of Dickinson's direction still shone through. Fanfare's first blast proved its last: with work scarce in British studios, Dickinson went to Spain early in 1938, collaborating on Spanish A.B.C. and Behind the Enemy Lines (both 1938), two Civil War reports for Ivor Montagu's Progressive Film Institute.

After a second unit stint on The Mikado (d. Victor Schertzinger, 1939), he was given his own directing assignment for G and S Films. The result was The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939): circuit fodder, but given genuine freshness and distinction by Dickinson's tongue-in-cheek approach, Leslie Banks's sprightly antics as the Scotland Yard inspector, and the authentic presence of Arsenal Football Club. With Gaslight, his next job, undertaken for British National at three weeks' notice, he cemented his status as one of Britain's liveliest directors. Out of Patrick Hamilton's stage play Dickinson created a harrowing and claustrophobic film of domestic fear and trembling, with a darkly insidious Anton Walbrook, and Diana Wynyard, fragile and tortured as the wife whose sanity is under siege. The success of Gaslight on stage and film encouraged MGM to buy the remake rights, with a clause insisting that all existing prints of Dickinson's version be destroyed. New prints were secretly made, but unlike George Cukor's Hollywood film of 1944, Dickinson's Gaslight was forced to lead a shadowy existence for decades.

The continuing war brought other opportunities. Miscasting, cramped sets and a turgid script helped to sink The Prime Minister (1941), a biography of Benjamin Disraeli made for Warner Bros. and featuring John Gielgud. But Dickinson quickly mastered the wartime information short with Yesterday Is Over Your Shoulder (1940), a spunky call for white-collar workers to retrain, which broke through the British censor's language barrier when Robertson Hare's character cried 'Bugger the neighbours!' The feature-length The Next of Kin marked a far more important milestone. Made at Ealing in 1941 on request from the War Office, the film combines the narrative drive of a realistic thriller with the special needs of an Army instruction manual on the perils of careless talk (the project's starting point). Service chiefs attempted to delay the film's general release in 1942; a tribute in part to Dickinson's chillingly understated manner, thrown off only in the powerfully edited final raid, when information from spies helps the Germans inflict heavy losses on a British unit's expedition in France.

Significantly, Dickinson never joined the Ealing 'family'. For a year he worked setting up and co-ordinating the Army Kinematograph Service film unit, based at Wembley Studios, but at the end of 1942 he returned to the commercial sector, working for Two Cities on a venture to advertise the foreign goals and partnership projects of the Colonial Office. Dickinson poured much of his hopes for education and social improvement into the Technicolor feature film Men of Two Worlds, but its overly worthy air, artificial studio settings, and awkward central character (a European-trained composer returning to face African tribal superstitions) considerably weakened the film's potential.

By 1947 Dickinson was a freelance again, going where the work took him. At three days' notice he took over The Queen of Spades from its inexperienced director Rodney Ackland, whisking the Pushkin story into a stylistic tour-de-force, convincingly foreign in mood and setting. Mobile camerawork and disorienting compositions brought eerie life to William Kellner and Oliver Messel's baroque sets, powerfully suggesting the web of fate enveloping Anton Walbrook's St Petersburg officer, determined to steal an aged Countess's recipe for winning at cards. Edith Evans made a striking screen debut as the decrepit Countess.

After plans fell through for a prestigious Hardy adaptation, The Mayor of Casterbridge, timed for the 1951 Festival of Britain celebrations, Dickinson managed to place his long-cherished Secret People project at Ealing. Aware of the need for a guide to help aspiring filmmakers, he arranged for Lindsay Anderson to document its production in the book Making a Film (1952). Valentina Cortese and Audrey Hepburn play two exiled sisters in Britain in the late 1930s, sucked into political violence against the tyrants controlling their unnamed country. Through foreign casting, atmosphere, and avoidance of frills, Dickinson attempted to make Secret People an art film to match the productions of France and Italy; but the strain showed, and neither critics nor audiences proved receptive. Reviews were bleak, and Dickinson never made another British feature.

For a while he moved into the international sphere. He made a propaganda short for the Israeli army, The Red Ground, followed by an Israeli feature in English, Hill 24 Doesn't Answer (1955); it is best in urgent, realistic fight scenes, where the bland dialogue and characterisations matter least. He then worked for UNESCO (1956-60) as Chief of Film Services, supervising many projects including the episode film Power among Men (1958). Thereafter he gave up active filmmaking for teaching, establishing a pioneering film studies department in 1960 at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, where his first students were Don Levy and Raymond Durgnat; the School appointed him Britain's first Professor of Film in 1967. He retired from the post in 1971, just as structuralism, semiotics and other French imports began their invasion of film studies, a development he felt no sympathy for. But he remained a much respected figure, both as a teacher and as a director whose scattered films and curtailed career give eloquent evidence of the unequal battle in British cinema between idealism and commercial necessity, imagination and servitude. Thorold Dickinson died in Oxford on 14 April 1984.

Anderson, Lindsay, Making a Film: The Story of 'Secret People' (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1952)
Dickinson, Thorold, A Discovery of Cinema (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971)
Badder, David, and Bob Baker, 'Thorold Dickinson', Film Dope n. 11, Jan 1977, pp. 1-21, 38-39
Richards, Jeffrey, Thorold Dickinson and the British Cinema (Lanham/London: The Scarecrow Press, 1997) (first published as Thorold Dickinson: The Man and his Films, London: Croom Helm, 1986)
Scorsese, Martin, and Philip Horne, '"Moving at the Speed of Emotion": Martin Scorsese on Thorold Dickinson', Sight and Sound, Nov. 2003, pp. 24-26

Geoff Brown, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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