The Slade School and Cinema: Part Two

By Henry K. Miller

michael-balcon-thorold-dickinson-on-set-of-secret-people.jpgMichael Balcon and Thorold Dickinson on the set of Secret People (1951)

'And Lets Their Trash be Honoured as the Quick’

In 1960 Britain’s first university film department was opened at the Slade School of Fine Art at University College London. The second article in a four-part history unravels the institutional to-and-fro behind the unit’s foundation and the eventual appointment of Thorold Dickinson as senior lecturer.

As Slade Professor, William Coldstream’s mid-Fifties stomping ground had changed little since his student days three decades before. Regular haunts of the GPO documentary unit, like Bertorelli’s restaurant on Charlotte Street, remained constant; but Coldstream was no longer a struggling painter nor a dissatisfied filmmaker. His professional life as a player in public arts administration settled into an agreeable round of private views, lunches with eminences and coming men, and committee meetings. The art critic and Slade lecturer David Sylvester teased that his friend had become ‘not merely a pillar, but a veritable colonnade of the Establishment. What with quietly running, besides the Slade, practically the whole art world in this country, he has had little time for the practice of art.’[1]

Notwithstanding his art-world clout, Coldstream still kept a hand in films. When his protégée Lorenza Mazzetti, formerly of Rome’s Centro Sperimentale film school, charged the lab costs of a Slade Film Society effort to the School, he was indulgent enough not only to cover the bill but to invite the Director of the British Film Institute, Denis Forman, to its debut screening in December 1953.[2] Forman in turn invited Mazzetti to apply to the BFI’s Experimental Production Committee, a new and unusual venture launched just two months before.

The EPC [also known as the Experimental Film Production Fund, or Experimental Film Fund] was something of an anomaly within the Institute, even under the radically revised terms of operation being implemented by Forman.[3] Set up by educational interests in 1933 and marginal to film culture in that decade, the BFI of the Fifties had been reoriented toward ‘film appreciation’, engaging not just schoolteachers but a growing art-house audience. Forman, who had worked under John Grierson at the Central Office of Information, main sponsor of the documentary movement during its late Forties twilight, had overhauled the Institute’s flagship Sight and Sound in 1950 by bringing in the editorial board of Oxford’s Sequence magazine and worked towards founding the first National Film Theatre.

These novel efforts intersected with the concern of progressive elements in the business, embodied foremost by the British Film Academy, to encourage a discerning audience; but the kind of practical intervention in production represented by the EPC – seen as industrial ‘research and development’ by its members – was yet further removed from the educationalist and archival core functions of the BFI; and in some ways it functioned as a sub-committee less of the Institute than of the Academy. Chairman Michael Balcon and members Thorold Dickinson, Basil Wright, and Frank Launder were all BFA insiders, and the committee met not at the BFI’s headquarters in Shaftesbury Avenue but at Balcon’s Ealing studios. The Fund’s historian has found that ‘its existence was not even acknowledged in official BFI documents (including annual reports) until 1956.’[4]

lorenza-mazzetti-in-italy-michael-andrews.jpgLorenza Mazzetti in Italy by Michael Andrews, ex-Slade painter and star of Together, 1954

Secret People came as a welcome blood-transfusion, a stranger bride in a family tending towards inbreeding’. – Michael Balcon in Making a Film: The Story of ‘Secret People’

‘The only one that I went mad about, that I initiated, was Secret People, and that was sort of my undoing.’ – Thorold Dickinson, Film Dope, January 1977

The need to rejuvenate the industry through the EPC and other initiatives was particularly pressing for Thorold Dickinson. Following the commercial failure of Secret People in 1951 he had been taken off a Rank war movie about the defence of Malta for his desire to shoot it ‘neo-realist’ style. Like Denis Forman and William Coldstream, Dickinson was a cultivator of talent. He had first encountered the Sequence group in the late Forties, and supervised the writing of Karel Reisz’s The Technique of Film Editing – meant to distil the wisdom of the book’s distinguished supervising committee, Dickinson and his future EPC colleague Basil Wright among them – for the BFA in 1949. With similar aims in mind he had enlisted Lindsay Anderson to write a ‘making of’ book about Secret People. Reading the result one senses the experience put Anderson off studio filmmaking for life; and the practical mode of Reisz and Anderson’s early commissions would not become the norm at Sight and Sound.

Mazzetti’s pitch, titled Glass Marbles, was formally approved by the EPC at its second meeting on 9 March 1954, the first full production to get the green light. Coldstream’s diaries record numerous appointments with his favoured student in the run-up to the meeting, and one with his old GPO collaborator Basil Wright, who assumed practical supervision of what would eventually be titled Together, a few weeks after the film’s approval. Dickinson’s involvement seems to have been concentrated in the film’s difficult post-production period long after the shoot, but both he and Coldstream were able to attend the NFT’s first Free Cinema programme, which comprised Together, Reisz and Tony Richardson’s EPC-funded Momma Don't Allow, and Anderson’s O Dreamland, on 5 February 1956 as patrons of what was widely hailed as a breakthrough in British cinema.

While the Free Cinema phenomenon reverberated through the media, much to the BFI’s advantage, its new Director James Quinn and second-in-command Stanley Reed paid a visit to DW Logan, Principal of the University of London, to tell him that ‘the Institute has become increasingly conscious of the absence of interest in and study of what might be termed the historical and artistic background of films on an academic basis.’ Logan related to Ifor Evans, Provost of University College, that he had told them that London had no drama department; but that they had suggested that a visual arts institution might be a more appropriate home for the venture. Evans in turn forwarded the Principal’s letter to his colleague at the Slade.

Stanley Reed, an ex-schoolteacher, had been brought in by Denis Forman to head BFI Film Appreciation in 1950. This field of the Institute’s activities, which encompassed the its lecture service, summer schools, and occasional publications, remained his main interest after he became Secretary in 1956; and yet setting up a lectureship in film for serious research – and indeed, higher education in general – was not a priority of his department, nor of its clients in the education sector such as the Society of Film Teachers (SFT) and British Universities Film Council (BUFC), both of which, where they were interested in university-level film studies at all, focussed on opportunities for training teachers in the use of film in schools. Like the EPC, the Slade project would proceed on a tangent from the BFI’s main business.

The BFI had been involved in the University of London’s extra-mural courses on film, but with the possible exception of the film module at Bristol’s pioneering drama department it is unlikely that any of the tentative steps made towards university screen studies were on Coldstream’s horizon in February 1956. Nonetheless he jumped at the prospect of film at the Slade, telling Evans that he would confer with his ex-GPO contacts – John Grierson and Basil Wright – on the subject.[5] By mid-March the Provost was able to tell the Principal that he and the Professor wanted to go ahead. After June 1956 Reed and Logan dropped out of discussions, and the matter – at the heart of which was financing, forthcoming neither from the University nor the BFI – would rest with Coldstream and Quinn, with some input from Evans, for the next three years. Aims were set low. ‘Apart from a lecture room, projector and basic library facilities’ wrote Quinn, ‘nothing elaborate would be required.’

stanley-reed-james-quinn-lff-1959.jpgStanley Reed and James Quinn at the London Film Festival, October 1959

After his fruitless labours in the early Fifties, Dickinson recalled, ‘my bent for fiction was broken, and at the invitation of the United Nations Secretariat I took charge of their film production in 1956, convinced that Grierson’s creative interpretation of reality was a bigger and more exciting challenge than the pursuit of pipe dreams.’[6] Taking rooms in New York’s famous Chelsea Hotel that autumn, Dickinson – who had received a formative exposure to world cinema in the polyglot metropolis of 1929 – quickly reacquainted himself with the city’s buzzing film scene, in particular at Amos Vogel’s film society Cinema 16. Lindsay Anderson’s sour response to Dickinson and Vogel’s efforts towards launching Free Cinema there must only have confirmed the wisdom of the move, however unsatisfying Dickinson’s UN film work tended to be.[7]

Perhaps written with a sense of freedom from BFA–BFI–EPC committee politics, Dickinson’s essay This Documentary Business, published in the October 1957 issue of Jonas Mekas’ proto-underground Film Culture, was the clearest statement yet of his long-muted disagreement with the British documentary mainstream. At the time of writing Dickinson was embarked on the sole personal project he was able to undertake at the UN, Overture (1958), a work of illustrative montage honed over two years, self-consciously in the early Soviet tradition of assemblage from pre-existing footage. With film and essay both he tried to wrest the tradition of Eisenstein away from the Grierson tradition. Instead of opposing ‘documentary’ to ‘fiction’, Dickinson argued that cinema formed a continuum with at one end the more conventional ‘ability to particularize’, and at the other, Eisenstein’s discovery, ‘the great but untapped potential to generalize – to explore theories and to dramatize ideas.’

Following the initial flurry of correspondence between the BFI and UCL early in 1956, negotiations became more knotty and more sporadic. A memo worked up by BFI Film Appreciation which did not envisage obtaining funding for more than two years and which put the project’s usefulness in terms of producing accredited film teachers was received coolly at the Slade. Coldstream and Evans held to a five-year minimum, agreed to early in 1957 by Quinn, who asked Coldstream to put together his own memorandum in consultation with documentary stalwarts Basil Wright and Arthur Elton, which he would then take around potential benefactors. With Wright in particular a regular lunching partner of Coldstream’s, it is interesting to note that Quinn saw Thorold Dickinson with equal regularity, from at least early 1956. While Dickinson was involved with the EPC – and with an school-age educational venture, the Merseyside Council for Film Appreciation – that year, he continued to see Quinn in London on his brief trips there from New York throughout 1957 and 1958, after the end of these projects.

During these years the project seems to have been driven by Quinn and by Coldstream at meetings at their respective clubs (Guards and Athenaeum), a world away from SFT and even BFI Film Appreciation. While much of this time was likely spent on financing and accommodation, there was also the nature of the post itself to consider. From 1957 the BFA had begun to campaign for national film training of some kind, inspired by the success of the Polish and Italian schools, and Quinn was moving the BFI towards involvement in the scheme, eventually selling the Slade lectureship to the industry on the basis of ‘the practical value and benefit which could be expected from the postgraduate research work.’ Meanwhile the Slade in the late Fifties, with Ernst Gombrich, then at work on Art and Illusion, lecturing on art history, was pioneering in its attempts to bring art theory and art history to bear on the raw art practice that was the sole concern of most schools at the time, and Coldstream’s vision of the film lectureship was conceived in the same spirit despite the lack – at this time – of filmmaking facilities. But finally the lecturer’s duties were left remarkably open-ended, if under-funded.

sir-ifor-evans-william-coldstream.jpgPortrait of Sir Ifor Evans by William Coldstream, 1959

‘Bill said to me once, that, whenever he walked round the table after a committee […] in order to look at the doodles that were left there, he always found his own doodles much less interesting than anyone else’s.’ – David Sylvester, The Burlington Magazine, November 1987

After half a year of lobbying the trade Quinn was able in March 1959 to set up a meeting with Rank overlord John Davis and Sir Philip Warter, chairman of Associated British Pictures Corporation in Ifor Evans’ rooms at UCL. It was in the weeks before this meeting that a new name came up in Quinn’s discussions with Coldstream. As well as the GPO veterans with whom Coldstream was still frequently in contact, Quinn proposed ‘someone of the calibre of Thorold Dickinson’. Whether or not the appointment was discussed on the day, the meeting was a success, and having obtained pledges from Rank and ABPC, Quinn swiftly secured £1,500 from the British Film Producers Association.

Rank and ABPC had to make good on their offers, and UCL in turn had to give the lectureship a formal nod, and it was October before the appointment question could be raised in earnest. Coldstream was given the chair of a committee of seven UCL professors. Dickinson’s application arrived with him at the start of November; the next day, he received a letter from another candidate, Paul Rotha, who pleaded ‘be nice enough to remember the chap who got you into the GPO Film Unit so many years back!’ One might have expected Coldstream to have favoured a documentarist, if not Rotha; but his reply was tepid. Whether through Quinn’s influence or otherwise it is likely that Dickinson was already the first choice. In July 1959, months before the selection committee was in place, Dickinson had met Coldstream and Quinn at the Guards club – so far as can be ascertained the first time the three had met. The appointment was made formally after a lunch at the Athenaeum with Quinn, Coldstream, and two members of the UCL committee, on 23 December 1959.

Between the first visit of the BFI’s senior officers to the University of London in February 1956 and Dickinson’s appointment four years later, the cinema in Britain had lost about half its audience. The documentarists who had sought the Slade post had reason to sound a note of defeatism – ‘The actual making of films’, Rotha had told Coldstream, ‘by independent people such as myself is as good as dead in this country’. Yet Dickinson, on his return to London in the autumn of 1960, had been revitalised by New York, and the film culture of the young people he now encountered – energised by new currents from Paris as well as the US – would leave the concerns of the Sequence-Free Cinema group, once his protégés, resembling not so much an authentic new wave as the long Sunday afternoon of the Griersonian Thirties.

Soon after arriving at the Slade, Dickinson lamented his distance from the academic scene across the Atlantic to a colleague in New York. Running practically a one-man operation with no budget for conferences overseas, Dickinson asked ‘If you were to explain to all our colleagues there the lonely pioneering situation I am in at present, perhaps they would provide extra copies of their papers and notes of the discussions.’ But he was able to reflect that ‘The stimulus here is the keenness and sharp intelligence of the small group of students who have begun pioneering with me.’


[1] 'Grey Eminince' in About Modern Art
[2] Christophe Dupin, 'Soup Dreams', Sight and Sound, March 2001
[3] See Christophe Dupin's 'The British Film Institute as a sponsor and producer of non-commercial film' (PhD thesis, 2005)
[4] ibid., p. 50
[5] Coldstream's diary records a 'Mr Reid lunch' a week before Quinn and Reed went to Logan: some prior knowledge of their proposal is not impossible given their collective involvement in Together
[6] A.I.D. News, November 1972
[7] Dickinson, complained Anderson to Vogel, 'doesn't take our ideas seriously enough to realise that we believe in them'. See Wide Angle 19.2, 1997

Henry K. Miller is a writer on cinema

Archival research was carried out at the BFI, Camberwell College of Arts, and Tate Britain