Paul Dickson: Acclaimed drama-documentary maker who also worked in '60s TV


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.


On the day he was born...

The silent film 'Pollyanna' was released. Mary Pickford's first film for United Artists, it was the defining role in Pickford's 'little girl' movies – she was 27, playing a girl of 12

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Tottenham legend Jimmy Greaves has defended fans use of the word 'Yid'
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West, performing in New York last week, has been the subject of controversy as rock's traditional headline slot at Glastonbury is lost once again
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living