UCL News


He was a premier-league director

17 August 2005

As an Arsenal supporter, a film enthusiast, and a lecturer at UCL, I was triply foredoomed to love 'The Arsenal Stadium Mystery'.

This much-beloved, delightfully comic murder mystery thriller from 1939, recently released on DVD, stars not only the very amusing Leslie Banks as the eccentric Inspector Slade, but also George Allison's legendary championship-winning Arsenal team of the era -- including the great Ted Drake, who scored more goals in a single season than anyone before or since.

Drake scores here - in a fictitious charity match with an amateur team, the Trojans - making it "one-nil to the Arsenal", and allowing Allison to utter the immortal (pre-Wengerian) line, "And that's just how we like it!"

The film's own game is always an attacking one, even if it does look a touch cheap and cheerful beside the glossier Hitchcock thrillers of the time that it recalls in its witty effervescence. Moreover, you don't have to be a sports fan to enjoy it - any film fan will relish its sense of fun and zip.

Martin Scorsese has commented that, even as "someone who can't stand sports - soccer, anything with a ball - I find the soccer scenes exhilarating".

It's chiefly thanks to the director, the splendid Thorold Dickinson, now unjustly neglected, whom Scorsese calls "one of the most ambitious and talented filmmakers of his time", that the film stands up so limberly after all these years in its baggy shorts. …

But who was Thorold Dickinson (1903-1984)? When I arrived at UCL in 1985 it was a matter of legend that a distinguished British film director, Thorold Dickinson, this country's first professor of film studies, had taught film at the college's Slade School of Art in the 1960s and 1970s, holding fabulous weekly screenings covering the whole history of Western cinema. It was an inspiring close to a heroic, unlucky career devoted to filmmaking and film culture. …

Dickinson's films (which include 1952's grim Ealing thriller 'Secret People', and 1955's stunning account of the beginnings of the Jewish state, 'Hill 24 Doesn't Answer') are overdue for DVD release. Sometimes cool, sometimes feverish, they're mostly fast-moving, serious and yet witty, transcending their usually slender budgets with imaginative flair and artistic economy.

Dickinson's refusal of easy sentiment went with extraordinary emotional intensity, a tempered idealism and sympathy for the victimised, an unblinking eye for the effects of human weakness or heartlessness, and a terrific instinct for framing, camera movement, and the rhythmic power of film. 'The Arsenal Stadium Mystery' is the most purely entertaining of the films of this "uniquely intelligent and passionate artist", as Scorsese calls him.

Philip Horne (English Language & Literature), The Daily Telegraph