Dilys Powell

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in 1984 Lucinda Douglas-Menzies / National Portrait Gallery

Elizabeth Dilys Powell, CBE (20 July 1901 – 3 June 1995) was an English journalist who wrote for The Sunday Times for over fifty years. Powell was best known as a film critic, noted for her receptiveness to cultural change in the cinema, and she coined many classic phrases about films and actors. She was also one of the founder members of the Independent Television Authority (ITA), which launched commercial TV in the UK.

Early life and education

Born in Bridgnorth, Shropshire, to Thomas Powell, a bank manager, and Mary Jane Lloyd, Dilys Powell attended Talbot Heath School, Bournemouth before winning a scholarship to read modern languages at Somerville College, Oxford.[1] Powell was in a significant minority of women studying at Oxford at that time.[1]

Powell considered studying Classics (or Greats) at Oxford University, but she was advised against it by her brother: '"Don't" he said; "the classics are a terrible grind for a girl, and you will be prematurely wrinkled."'[2] Powell took his advice, but later regretted it, feeling that she had been robbed of 'deep and solid pleasures', having 'small Latin...and, goodness knows, less Greek'.[2]

At Oxford she met an archaeologist, Humfry Payne (19 February 1902 – 9 May 1936), whom she married in 1926. Whilst studying at Oxford she made news headlines in the Daily Mail after being 'taken out for tea' and climbing over the wall to go out with her boyfriend, whom she would later marry. She was rusticated for two terms, and the Principal accused of her 'dragging the name of Somerville in the dust'.[1] She graduated with a first-class honours degree.[1]


After her graduation, Powell spent a period as personal assistant to Lady Ottoline Morrell before joining the literary department of The Sunday Times in 1928.[citation needed]

In 1929 her husband Humfry Payne was appointed director of the British School of Archaeology at Athens. From 1931 to 1936, Powell spent part of each year in Greece, frequently attending excavations where her husband was working. Payne died in Athens in 1936 from a staphylococcus infection. They had no children.

She continued her periodic visits to Greece after 1936, until the Second World War intervened. In 1939 Powell was appointed film critic at The Sunday Times, and in 1941 she found war work with a Greek connection in the Political Warfare Executive, which oversaw Britain's propaganda in occupied Europe. In June 1943 she married Leonard Russell (1906–1974), the literary editor at The Sunday Times.[3]

Powell was one of the founder members of the Independent Television Authority (ITA) from 1954, despite initial concerns about her possible conflicts of interest (she wrote for a newspaper that was backing one of the ITV franchises, but its bid was eventually withdrawn). She resigned her post at the ITA in 1956 in protest at the government's refusal to come up with funding which it had promised to the authority in the Television Act 1954.

Her journalism led a change in the writing of cinema criticism. To quote from the British Film Institute: "... she was open to new directions in cinema and was not constrained by the middle class shibboleths of "good taste", unlike her rival C. A. Lejeune, film critic for The Observer from 1928 to 1960." She remained film critic at The Sunday Times until 1979 – a compilation of her reviews was published in 1989 as The Golden Screen – but from 1976 she also began writing about films on television, which she continued to do until the end of her life. Her last piece, a review of Barry Lyndon, appeared in The Times on the day of her death. She also served as film critic for Punch until its first closure in 1992.[4][5]

Powell was a Philhellene, excavating ancient sites in Greece and Egypt.[2] She was appointed as President of the Classical Association in 1966, giving her presidential address at the University of Reading on 5 April 1967. She was only the second woman President of the Classical Association, following Professor Dorothy Tarrant (President 1958-9). Powell was made an Honorary Fellow of Somerville College, Oxford University, in 1991.[6]

In 1991 the Dilys Powell Award was established in her honour, awarded annually and in that year to Humphrey Bogart. Recipients have included Helena Bonham Carter, Kristen Scott Thomas and Judi Dench.[citation needed]


  • Descent from Parnassus (1934), London: Cresset Press (essays on modern poets)
  • Remember Greece (1941), London: Hodder & Stoughton
  • The Traveller’s Journey is Done (1943), London: Hodder & Stoughton (Humfry Payne at the British School of Archaeology at Athens)
  • Films since 1939 (1947), London: Longmans, Green & Co (for the British Council)
  • Coco (1952), London: Hodder & Stoughton (biography of a dog)
  • An Affair of the Heart (1958), London: Hodder & Stoughton
  • The Mirror of the Present (1967), London: John Murray (presidential address to the Classical Association at the University of Reading)
  • The Villa Ariadne (1973), London: Hodder and Stoughton. New edition by Eland in 2016: ISBN 978-1-78060-035-2
  • The Golden Screen: Fifty Years at the Films (1989), London: Pavilion, ISBN 1-85145-342-3 (ed. George Perry)
  • The Dilys Powell film reader (1991), Manchester: Carcanet, ISBN 0-85635-912-2


  1. ^ a b c d "Dilys Powell, Desert Island Discs - BBC Radio 4". BBC. Retrieved 2017-11-22. 
  2. ^ a b c Powell, Dilys (2003). "The Mirror of the Present". Greece & Rome. 50: 237–249. doi:10.2307/3567848. JSTOR 3567848. 
  3. ^ Haag, M (5 June 1995). Obituary: Dilys Powell. The Independent archive Archived 16 April 2015 at the Wayback Machine.. Retrieved 21 March 2013
  4. ^ Haag, Michael (5 June 1995). "OBITUARY: Dilys Powell". The Independent. U.K. 
  5. ^ "Dilys Powell, Film Critic, 93". The New York Times. 6 June 1995. 
  6. ^ "OBITUARY:Dilys Powell". The Independent. 1995-06-05. Retrieved 2017-11-22. 


  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: OUP (2004).
  • Powell, Dilys, (1958), An Affair of the Heart, London: Hodder & Stoughton.
  • British Film Institute biography (retrieved 2 February 2006)
  • The British Library Catalogue
  • Sendall, Bernard Independent Television in Britain: Volume 1 – Origin and Foundation 1946–62 London: The Macmillan Press Ltd 1982 (reprinted 1984) ISBN 0-333-30941-3
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