Thorold Dickinson

Last updated

Thorold Dickinson
Film director Thorold Dickinson.gif
Thorold Barron Dickinson

(1903-11-16)16 November 1903
Bristol, England, United Kingdom
Died14 April 1984(1984-04-14) (aged 80)
Oxford, England, United Kingdom
Occupation(s)Film director, screenwriter, film editor, film producer, educator
Years active1930–1958

Thorold Barron Dickinson CBE (16 November 1903 – 14 April 1984) was a British film director, screenwriter, film editor, film producer, and Britain's first university professor of film. [1] Dickinson's work received much praise, [2] with fellow director Martin Scorsese describing him as "a uniquely intelligent, passionate artist... They're not in endless supply." [3]


Early life

Of Norwegian descent, [4] his father was the Archdeacon of Bristol from 1921 to 1927, Dickinson was educated at Clifton College [5] and Keble College, Oxford where he read theology, history and French. [4] He was sent down from Oxford in his last year because his interest in theatre and film caused him to neglect his studies; he was inspired by lectures given by Edward Gordon Craig. [4] During his time at Oxford he interrupted his studies to observe the film industry in France where he worked with George Pearson, the father of an Oxford friend. [6] For Pearson he wrote the scenario of The Little People (1926). [7] Following this he observed the American industry's transition to sound in New York in 1929. In the 1920s and 1930s he was active in the London Film Society, being responsible for the technical presentation of films. At the LFS, he helped introduce the work of the Soviet directors Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov to British audiences, and in 1937 staged a notable programme protesting the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, Record of War. [8]


Dickinson worked as a film editor on such features as Love's Option (1928), Auld Lang Syne (1929), Loyalties (1933) and Sing As We Go! (1934). His first directorial experience was on Java Head (1934), when he took over after J. Walter Ruben became ill and was unable to continue. [7] He became Vice-President of the Association of Cine-Technicians in 1936, observing the Soviet film industry for the craft union the following year, [9] remaining in the post until 1953.

Dickinson's first feature film, starring Lionel Atwill and Lucie Mannheim, was The High Command (1937), for which he formed the short-lived Fanfare Pictures with Gordon Wellesley. He visited Spain during the Civil War and made two documentary shorts, one of which Spanish ABC (1938) "is a sober advocacy of the educational policy of Republican Spain". [9] At short notice, Dickinson took over direction of Gaslight (1940). Based on the Patrick Hamilton play, it was later suppressed for some years when MGM bought the rights for its own version, but led to an invitation to work in Hollywood from David O. Selznick which was rejected by Dickinson. [10]

A film biography of Disraeli, The Prime Minister (1941), starring John Gielgud, was disowned by its director, [8] but The Next of Kin (1942), expanded from what was originally intended as a training film, is described by Philip Horne as "one of the most interesting, and thrillingly ruthless, propaganda films of the War". [11] Men of Two Worlds (1946), from a script by novelist Joyce Cary starring Robert Adams, attempted to "tell an African story from the point of view of an African". [12] It was though a difficult production; the crew lost equipment and film stock.

For The Queen of Spades (1949) Dickinson assumed responsibility at five days notice after he was recommended by actor Anton Walbrook, the star of Gaslight, when the production was close to collapse. Following an aborted attempt to adapt Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge in time for the Festival of Britain, he returned to Secret People (1952), a long cherished project which Ealing Studios took up, but this was unsuccessful at the box-office and became Dickinson's last British-made feature film.

Secret People was notable for providing Audrey Hepburn with her first supporting film role. Performing all her own ballet moves during the dance sequences, Dickinson went on to film the screen test of Audrey which led to international stardom. In the screen test, she describes how she used to dance for audiences to raise funds for the resistance in The Netherlands during the Second World War. The screen test was sent to director William Wyler and led to her casting as Princess Ann in Roman Holiday . [13]

In Israel, Dickinson directed a short film for the Israeli Army, The Red Ground (1953), [14] and an English-language feature, Hill 24 Doesn't Answer (1955), for which he reworked the screenplay in collaboration with his wife Joanna. Dickinson's other work outside the UK included a tenure with the United Nations Department of Public Information as Chief of Film Services from 1956 to 1960. [15] In 1959 he was a member of the jury at the 1st Moscow International Film Festival. [16]

After his work with the United Nations, Dickinson devoted the final part of his life to teaching about film. [17] In 1960 he established the film studies department at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London, [18] where one of his first students was Raymond Durgnat, the prominent film critic. Others included Marco Bellocchio and Maysoon Pachachi. [19] In 1967 he was head of the jury at the 17th Berlin International Film Festival. [20] In the same year, he was named a professor in the department, becoming the first professor of film studies in the UK. He served in the post until 1971. He was appointed CBE in the 1973 Birthday Honours.

The Thorold Dickinson Archive is held at the University of the Arts London's Archives and Special Collections Centre. [21]

Partial filmography

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Carol Reed</span> English film director (1906–1976)

Sir Carol Reed was an English film director and producer, best known for Odd Man Out (1947), The Fallen Idol (1948), The Third Man (1949), and Oliver! (1968), for which he was awarded the Academy Award for Best Director.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Michael Powell</span> English film director

Michael Latham Powell was an English filmmaker, celebrated for his partnership with Emeric Pressburger. Through their production company The Archers, they together wrote, produced and directed a series of classic British films, notably The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). His controversial 1960 film Peeping Tom, today considered a classic, and a contender as the first "slasher", was so vilified on first release that his career was seriously damaged.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Anton Walbrook</span> Austrian actor

Adolf Anton Wilhelm Wohlbrück was an Austrian actor who settled in the United Kingdom under the name Anton Walbrook. A popular performer in Austria and pre-war Germany, he left in 1936 out of concerns for his own safety and established a career in British cinema. Walbrook is perhaps best known for his roles in the original British film of Gaslight, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and The Red Shoes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Alan Clarke</span> English director (1935–1990)

Alan John Clarke was an English television and film director, producer and writer.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Yvonne Mitchell</span> English actress (1915–1979)

Yvonne Mitchell was an English actress and author. After beginning her acting career in theatre, Mitchell progressed to films in the late 1940s. Her roles include Julia in the 1954 BBC adaptation of George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. She retired from acting in 1977.

<i>The Arsenal Stadium Mystery</i> 1939 film by Thorold Dickinson

The Arsenal Stadium Mystery is a 1939 British mystery film and one of the first feature films wherein football is a central element in the plot. The film was directed by Thorold Dickinson, and shot at Denham Film Studios and on location at the original Arsenal Stadium in Highbury. It was written by Dickinson, Donald Bull, and Alan Hyman, adapted from a 1939 novel by Leonard Gribble.

<i>Gaslight</i> (1944 film) Film by George Cukor

Gaslight is a 1944 American psychological thriller film directed by George Cukor, and starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten and Angela Lansbury in her film debut. Adapted by John Van Druten, Walter Reisch, and John L. Balderston from Patrick Hamilton's play Gas Light (1938), it follows a young woman whose husband slowly manipulates her into believing that she is descending into insanity.

<i>Gaslight</i> (1940 film) 1940 British film by Thorold Dickinson

Gaslight is a 1940 British psychological thriller film directed by Thorold Dickinson which stars Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard, and features Frank Pettingell. The film adheres more closely to the original play upon which it is based – Patrick Hamilton's Gas Light (1938) – than does the 1944 MGM remake. The play had been performed on Broadway as Angel Street, so when the MGM remake was released in the United States, it was given the same title as the American production.

Robert Hamer was a British film director and screenwriter best known for the 1949 black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets and the now acknowledged 1947 classic It Always Rains on Sunday.

Charles Herbert Frend was an English film director and editor, best known for his films produced at Ealing Studios. He began directing in the early 1940s and is known for such films as Scott of the Antarctic (1948) and The Cruel Sea (1953).

<i>The Queen of Spades</i> (1949 film) 1949 British film

The Queen of Spades is a 1949 British fantasy-horror film based on the 1834 short story of the same name by Alexander Pushkin. It stars Anton Walbrook, Edith Evans and Yvonne Mitchell. Evans and Mitchell were better known at the time as stage actors; this film was their cinematic debut.

Monitor was a British arts television programme that was launched on 2 February 1958 on BBC and ran until 1965.

<i>The Caretaker</i> (film) 1963 film

The Caretaker is a 1963 British drama film directed by Clive Donner and based on the Harold Pinter play of the same name. It was entered into the 13th Berlin International Film Festival where it won the Silver Bear Extraordinary Jury Prize.

<i>Java Head</i> (1934 film) 1934 British film

Java Head is a 1934 British historical drama film directed by J. Walter Ruben and an uncredited Thorold Dickinson. It stars Anna May Wong, Elizabeth Allan and Ralph Richardson.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Stuart Legg</span>

Stuart Legg was a pioneering documentary filmmaker. At the 14th Academy Awards in 1941, Legg's National Film Board of Canada film Churchill's Island became the first-ever documentary to win an Oscar.

The 17th annual Berlin International Film Festival was held from 23 June – 4 July 1967. The Golden Bear was awarded to the Belgian film Le départ directed by Jerzy Skolimowski.

Sidney Henry Cole was a British film and television producer. Earlier in his career he worked as a film editor.

<i>Men of Two Worlds</i> 1946 British film

Men of Two Worlds is a 1946 British Technicolor drama film directed by Thorold Dickinson and starring Robert Adams, Eric Portman and Phyllis Calvert. The screenplay concerns an African music student who returns home to battle a witch doctor for control over his tribe.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Brown Derby (actor)</span> Scottish actor

Brown Derby was a Scottish film and television actor. He made his film debut as Edith Evans's footman in Thorold Dickinson's classic The Queen of Spades (1949). He played Sergeant Roberts, too, in Suspended Alibi. Derby had a regular role as Scott-Erskine in the BBC's The Omega Factor, and also starred in Dr. Finlay's Casebook, Z-Cars, The Saint, Sutherland's Law, Play for Today, Take The High Road and many other British television shows.

Margaret Thomson was an Australian-born documentary filmmaker who divided her forty-year career between New Zealand and England. She was the first female film director active in New Zealand.


  1. "UCL News, 18 December 2009". 18 December 2009. Retrieved 18 January 2014.
  2. David Thomson (7 November 2003). "David Thomson on the NFT's Thorold Dickinson season | Film". The Guardian. Retrieved 18 January 2014.
  3. "BFI Screenonline: Queen of Spades, The (1949)". Retrieved 18 January 2014.
  4. 1 2 3 David Thomson "Creator and critic", New Statesman, 23 October 2009
  5. "Clifton College Register" Muirhead, J.A.O. ref no 7487: Bristol; J.W Arrowsmith for Old Cliftonian Society; April, 1948
  6. Philip Horne "Something happened", The Guardian, 4 October 2008
  7. 1 2 Geoff Brown Dickinson, Thorold (1903–1984), BFI screenonline page
  8. 1 2 David Thomson "Almost famous", The Guardian, 7 November 2003
  9. 1 2 Peter Swaab "Turning up the wick on the Gaslight man", The Times, 18 September 2008
  10. Philip Horne "He was a premier-league director", Daily Telegraph, 5 August 2005
  11. "Researcher in Focus: Philip Horne" Archived 7 October 2007 at the Wayback Machine , BFI National Library webpage
  12. ""Men of Two Worlds (1946)", BFI screenonline page". 5 November 1938. Retrieved 18 January 2014.
  13. "Remembering Thorold Dickinson". Art & Hue. 2019. Retrieved 15 May 2019.
  14. "Flying to Israel for 'The Red Ground'" Archived 9 October 2008 at the Wayback Machine , UCL News (University College, London website) September 2008.
  15. Hal Erickson (2012). "Thorold Dickinson". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times . Archived from the original on 4 November 2012.
  16. "1st Moscow International Film Festival (1959)". MIFF. Archived from the original on 16 January 2013. Retrieved 27 October 2012.
  17. Dickinson, Thorold (1964–1965). "The Maturing Cinema". The Journal of the Society of Cinematologists. The Journal of the Society of Cinematologists, Vol. 4/5. 4: 9–19. doi:10.2307/1224798. JSTOR   1224798.
  18. Bawden, L.A. (April 1971). "Pragmatic Prolegomena to Film Studies". Journal of Aesthetic Education. Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 5, No. 2. 5 (2): 103–114. doi:10.2307/3331678. JSTOR   3331678.
  19. "A History of the Slade Film Project". Retrieved 24 October 2021.
  20. "Berlinale 1967: Juries". Retrieved 27 February 2010.
  21. Archives and Special Collections Centre Linked 2015-04-20

Further reading