Thank you, your highness
John Lyttle, a fan, remembers the day he met the late Dilys Powell (above), the doyenne of critics
Thursday 08 June 1995
In fact, the only reason I attended the screening was because I knew Dilys Powell would be there. Even then her public appearances were rare and I'd asked a friend in the BFI press office to let me know when the doyenne of all British critics might next re-surface. My friend wanted to know why - right then Powell was considered a middle-class relic by the Young Turks of British film criticism, so Iexplained, rather embarrassed, that I'd just re-discovered her writing and was kicking myself for not having previously noticed her sterling qualities: her sharpness of mind; her refusal to yield to received opinion; her quietly elegant prose; the way she tempered even the harshest opinion with an understanding of themedium's demands.
My friend muttered something sarcastic about "growing up", and maybe he had a point; to finally appreciate Powell you had to have matured a little. Or a lot.
So there I was. And here she is, impossibly thin, impossibly frail, hobbling into the screening room. The crowd parts the way the Red Sea divides in The Ten Commandments (a film Powell enjoyed for its vulgarity, not its sentiment). You feel the awe. Part of this is to do with her appearance; Powell resembles a cross between Robert Donant in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness - shrivelled, wise and vaguely oriental - and the Queen Mother; there's an unexpected regal graciousness to her little nods to faces she recognises. But I'm most impressed by the obvious: this is Dilys Powell, pioneer and grande dame, 50 years a critic.
I don't know why, but Iapproach her and offer my arm. She takes it with a "Thank you" and whispers that she wants to sit in the front row, she can spot friends there (the friends wave: "Dilys! Over here!"). I have to slow my pace to match hers, which gives me a chance to tell her I'm a fan. I'm thanked for that too, and granted a surprisingly girlish giggle.
"Have you seen Ossessione before?" she questions. "No," I reply, feeling foolish about the fan confession. "It's interesting," she says. "Unfinished, but interesting." I'm struck dumb.
We've reached her row. Dilys's friends take over. She's breathless, but game: "That was nice of you... what's your name?" "John, Miss Powell." Miss Powell somehow sounds... proper. "Thank you John," Dilys Powell says. And she smiles and sits, making a noise that sounds like blessed relief.
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