Paul Dickson: Acclaimed drama-documentary maker who also worked in '60s TV
Saturday 22 October 2011
I was a hopeful young film-maker when I joined World Wide pictures and met Paul Dickson. He was dynamic, exuberant and enthusiastic, with a remarkable record as a documentary film director.
I was embarking on an amateur film about the Second World War, so I was more interested in his experiences during the battle for Italy. He was a splendid raconteur and vividly conveyed the schizophrenic quality of modern warfare. I was grateful I had missed his generation – he was born in 1920, so was just the right age for military service in 1939 (when I was one).
He was born in Cardiff, his English father a tobacco importer, his mother, from a Russian-Jewish family whoconverted to Christianity, an accomplished pianist. He went to Llandaff Cathedral School in Cardiff. As a boarder at Ellesmere College he became a member of the amateur dramatic society and of the Officer Training Corps. He volunteered for the army in 1939, not as an officer but as an ordinary soldier, for he "wanted to experience more." He spent seven years in the Royal Artillery; in northern Italy he worked with SOE, using the "Rebecca/Eureka" radar system to pinpoint landing operations for agents.
After the war he worked as assistant director for Paul Rotha on his cinemagazine Britain Can Make It. He wrote and directed the public information film Personal Hygiene for Richard Massingham – it must have been a comedy like the other Massingham films – and then joined World Wide Pictures. With Ted Willis he wrote and directed The Undefeated, about a glider pilot who overcomes the loss of his legs and his voice, with the pilot played by a disabled ex-serviceman. It won the British Film Academy Award for the best Documentary from Any Source in 1951. It was nominated for an Oscar and earned an accolade from Fred Zinnemann, who had just made his famous film The Men, with Marlon Brando as a paraplegic.
Dickson's most acclaimed production was David, a drama-documentary of the life of a school caretaker, commissioned to represent Wales at the Festival of Britain. The historian David Berry called it "one of the best three or four films ever to come out of Wales.' The same year, he directed his first commercially sponsored film for Unilever, A Story of Achievement.
All this displayed such talent, such commitment, that film people were surprised when he began directingsecond features for the Danziger Brothers. Second features were a routetechnicians often used to graduate into proper features, but the Danziger Brothers! It was as though the great Humphrey Jennings had turned to producing glamour films.
He became dialogue director for Anatole Litvak, and I remember envying Litvak; imagine having such a man to send his actors before the lens, requiring merely a finishing-touch of direction. And what fascinating actors he worked with – Vivien Leigh in The Deep Blue Sea, Ingrid Bergman in Anastasia (her comeback film won her an Oscar after her seven-year Hollywood embargo) and The Journey with Deborah Kerr, Yul Brynner and Jason Robards.
Having helped Joseph Losey when the blacklisted director settled in England, Dickson alternated with him on one of the first television series filmed in the UK, Mayfair Mystery House. He also made some of the earliest commercials and was even a drama coach for the Rank Charm School.
Yet he did serious documentary work as well; Stone into Steel, which he wrote and directed, received the Venice Golden Mercury Award, while his drama documentary, Student in Berlin, was made for Willi Brandt's Berlin Senate, His commercials won him an invitation to work in America before he returned to direct episodes of The Avengers, Department S and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased).
As Leo Enticknap writes in Shadows of Progress, "it is clear that Dickson did not perceive an ideological divide between an episode of The Avengers, a toothpaste commercial and a sponsored documentary about the production of steel bars: all were stories of human interaction and dynamics, to be portrayed through similar styles, techniques and emphases."
In 1961, Paul discovered me sweating over my war film, cursing at thedifficulties I had in directing actors.He gave me a lesson I would neverforget. "You should try to appeal tothe actors' senses," he said, "yourdirection must get inside them. Takea scene of a woman sitting by a fire.The fire is simply a studio light. There is no atmosphere for the actress torespond to, so you have to provide it with words. Tell her she can smell the burning wood, the faint scent of pine-trees, she can hear the crackling of the logs, she can feel the warmth, the texture of the wool against her skin; gradually she will respond and give you exactly what you want."
Paul not only persuaded World Wide to give me a documentary to direct, he recorded a commentary for one of my documentaries – free. These wereremarkable gestures in an industry not noted for its generosity. I was delighted when, in 1980, Paul was appointed Head of Direction at the National Film and Television School at Beaconsfield. He found it enormously rewardingto pass on to the next generation what he had learned during 35 years of film production.
Alan Paul Dickson, film director and teacher: born Cardiff 18 January 1920; married 1965 Cindy (divorced c. 1967), 1985 Carole Masson; died Wexham Park, Buckinghamshire 6 October 2011.
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