World’s foremost film critic on his days at Dulwich College – and how they helped him reach the top

David Thompson is one of the biggest-hitting film critics on the planet – a sort of Tyson Fury of Hollywood’s taste, capable of killing a movie with one swipe.

But he has not been back to his old school, Dulwich College, for 35 years.

And when he did go back on Monday, he recalled the times he used to skip classes.
“On the way here I realised we were driving alongside Streatham Common,” he said.
“Every day I got the 49 bus from Tooting Bec to Crystal Palace – I’m told the 49 has been retired or rerouted now.

“Sometimes, when I got to the Rookery, I would say to myself ‘I don’t think I’m going in today’ and I would get off. I would stroll around for a couple of hours – it would be fairly desolate because it was early. Then I would turn and go home.

“I probably accumulated enough sick notes for the school to be alarmed – if they’ve been taking any notice.

“I was intimidated by the size and grandeur of the place – the authority, the wealth and the power. I did not belong. There was an assurance and confidence that many of the boys had, as if those things belong to him.”

One of his friends now is prizewinning writer Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient – another former pupil.

“We overlapped but never spoke to each other – I am 2 years older and he was in different house,” said Thomson. “It was the 1980s before we met and spoke.

“We both hated Dulwich and I said ‘One day I will go back and say why.”

Thompson revealed he was a scholar – he was educated at the school for free.

When he arrived one of the teachers said: “I look out on what I’m told are the cream of South London. It’s just that this year the cream has turned a little sour.”

Thomson said at Dulwich College’s GE Moore lecture on Monday: “My mum told me I should not be concerned because Dulwich College began as a school for the poor.

“But I didn’t understand then and now why this is a school for boys only. The world isn’t made of boys only. The people who reside in men’s clubs usually end up unhappy and spread their and unhappiness around.

“It’s not that I want students to have sex – it is that I want men to talk to women because women talk in different ways and I don’t believe it’s possible to educate men by splitting them up from women.

“If Dulwich did not take pupils of colour or a different religion I think that would be illegal. So why are women not at the school?

Some people say men are much more themselves when educated without girls. That is what I’m terrified of. I think we’ve had more than enough of men being themselves and knowing they are right. Men are just as right as women – no more no less. I wouldn’t dream of sending a boy to the school until it takes women.

“It is very nice to be part of a school celebrating 400 years. But think of the next 40 years. I think it’s likely the school won’t exist for reasons that are beyond its power.
“Male power is persistently overrated.

“My parents did not talk to each other. When I argued with my dad, he would leave the room. Happy marriages won’t save the world but they are a start – and men talking to women is a big start.

“Women in the #MeToo movement have every right to be fuming. Women in the film industry more than most. There has to be revenge. But we must be cautious. Harvey Weinstein is a terrible man – everyone who worked with him knew.

“It wasn’t just that he harassed and raped women – he also hit men and also screwed filmmakers. But the English Patient was ready to go when the distributor who promised to back it pulled out.

Harvey Weinstein and Miramax stepped in and took over – and did that for probably 30 films that you value. Pigs have been rutting since films began, behaving worse probably then people in the last few years.

“But now Clare Davis and Jane Campion all the best filmmakers in the world – not just Quentin Tarantino.”

David Thompson’s championing of Citizen Kane is probably one of the main reasons it is regularly listed in the top 10 movies of all time.

But he confessed he didn’t understand it the first time he saw it aged 14 in 1955.

“There were only about 2 books about films in those days,” he said. “But I read that Citizen Kane was a remarkable film. But in those days they didn’t bring movies back.

Orson Welles, though, was in Britain doing Moby Dick on the stage and a version of Othello. He said RKO had shelved it. Then I saw a showing advertised in the Streatham News.

“It was going to be on at the Classic Cinema in Tooting. I walked there – it was a long way. And I expected it to be packed. But I was the only person there.

“It was actually better because the first time you see it, you want to be alone -because it is all the more overpowering. I didn’t know film could do that.

“I could not have told you the story afterwards because it seems so confused. But I felt I had had my richest ever experience and from that moment I knew I had to do something to do with film.”

He wrote three articles for the Alleynian Magazine about Hitchcock Bergman and James Dean. “That shows you have mixed up I was,” he said.

Another crucial experience was the Gallery Club which took sixth-formers to London theatres. Thompson organised the party to see West Side Story and 100 people signed up. “I had a lot of cash in my pocket,” he said. “My teacher Ernie Williams – who was a considerable historian – was dancing in the Isle. I thought that was rapturous. We were encouraged to be a bit different.

“But most of my friends were part of the Gilkes experiment. We could feel the gulf between the fee-payers and those who were having their fees paid by the government.”

Thomson won a place at Oxford but turned it down. Williams said to him: “I think I should speak to your mother because you’re making the greatest mistake of your life.”

But Thomson said on Monday: “I felt I might as well start making the greatest mistakes of my life early on.”

Instead he discovered the London School of film technique in Electric Avenue, Brixton, and was granted a place.

Thompson said: “It turned out to be a racket.

“The only way to get through was to steal the equipment and return it at the end of term. This was superb training for the film business – which is a succession of rackets.

“Mistakes can be the making of you. It was the first time I met people from overseas including and cameraman who worked on the Bridge on the River Kwai.”

Another former pupil of Dulwich was Michael Powell, whose influential films include The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus and I Know Where I’m Going.

Thomson got to know him well later in life – they both taught at Dartmouth college in New Hampshire USA.

“I think my favourite of his is I know Where I’m Going,” said Thomson. “He was a great colourist but I love black and white. I also love Peeping Tom from 1960, the year I left Dulwich. There was such an outrage that it effectively ended his career – he went away and lived in the country and didn’t make many more films.

“A Matter of Life and Death is lovely. It is not immediately apparent but one of the things Powell got most intensely involved in with the study of neurology – what happens in the brain.

It was important for him because he’d always been looking to make that cinematic – what goes on inside the head. It was also an important Anglo-American film with an English pilot and an American radio operator. That felt important to him.”

Thompson also spoke of his lover actors amongst the other former pupils is Chiwetel Ejiofor.

“I’ve been involved with actors all of my life,” said Thomson. “Most you will never have heard of, because if you want to be an actor you’re not going to be known – you’ll probably not earn a living that way. You could wind up waiting tables or cleaning lavatories.

“In the 60s when Laurence Olivier was the most famous actor in the world he did Othello on the stage and it was a groundbreaking production.

“Occasionally he would come off the stage and the cast members would know they have been present at something quite extraordinary. A thunderstorm.

He would come off tottering and say ‘I realise I was reaching something I never reached and I don’t know if I can get it back.’

“That is why creative people are depressives and so many kill themselves. Olivier had to know he wasn’t getting the thunderstorm that night. Creativity has nothing to do with achievement or prowess – the uncanny is vital too good work.

You have to be prepared to make the biggest mistake of your life and take a risk that may be your school, society and your parents say you shouldn’t do.

A great school will give you the confidence to tell your history teacher that you don’t want to go to Oxford. I hope that tradition remains at Dulwich.”

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One thought on “World’s foremost film critic on his days at Dulwich College – and how they helped him reach the top

  • 23 June 2019 at 11:53

    I’ m sorry that I couldn’t make David Thomson’s lecture at Dulwich recently. As a film industry professional, I couldn’t agree more with his comments. At Dulwich, I took over running the school film society from him, and I managed to lose money with screènings of such as “L’il Abner” and “Paths of Glory”, as records, if they exist, will attest ( but we made up by screening “All Quiet on the Western Front”)
    You can check out my subsequent career on CineScale, Google, the IMDB, or the BFI website, a career that would probably not have occurred as such had not Dulwich College been surrounded by cinemas, both mainstream and repertory: their names are legion, and the “Streatham News” and the “South London Press” Friday film listings were my bible.
    David Thomson became the best film writer ever.Dulwich should be proud to have produced not only Britain’s finest director in Michal Powell, but also Britain’s finest film writer in David Thomson, not merely sporting names and various other dignitaries. It’s good to see such recognition at last.
    Tony Sloman.


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