UK Award-winning Arts Documentary Film-maker

Mike Dibb: UK Award-winning Arts Documentary Film-maker

Graduating from Trinity College, Dublin, by way of the Gala, Ballyfermot by Mike Dibb June 2006

(This piece about how my passion for films and film-making was first kindled was written for a forthcoming collection of esssays by graduates of Trinity College, Dublin. A shorter version of the article first appeared in a 1992 edition of the UK film magazine ‘Sight and Sound’)

I arrived at TCD in October 1958 more by accident than design. I’d already been accepted to read Chemistry at King’s College, Cambridge, having studied science at school. But I’d also realised that deep down I wasn’t cut out to be a scientist and was much more interested in painting and literature. I asked the Cambridge authorities whether I could switch my degree course from Chemistry to English. In my naivete I thought that all you needed to study English was the ability to read, an interest in books and a curiosity about the relationship of literature to life. It also seemed to me that, after the CP Snow-inspired debates of the 1950’s on the regrettable divisions between the ‘two cultures’, a scientifically educated student would be welcomed by the English department. Such an idea was unthinkable to the Leavisite moral guardians of literature, who firmly rejected me as a scientific trespasser. And so I found myself looking around for somewhere else to go.

An old schoolfriend, Nick Carey, who was already halfway through his first year at Trinity (ironically he was studying Chemistry) suggested that, although it was a bit late in the day, I should apply to join him. He told me that Dublin was a great place to be, the cost of living was much cheaper than England, the courses lasted four years and, best of all, the qualification threshold was just five ‘O’ Levels (including Latin), on the basis of which you could apply to read anything you liked. And so it was that in the summer of 1958, five months after the official closing date for entries, I sent off my application form. A short welcoming note from my prospective tutor, Professor EC Riley came back by return post. The only hitch, he wrote, was that, Ireland being Eire, English was viewed as just another continental Western Romance Language and could be studied only in tandem with another language for a full honours degree. In the end I chose Spanish (it took beginners). It was a good choice. Professor Riley, known internationally as an authority on Cervantes, was in charge of the Spanish department at that time. I’m sure he was never happy with my stumbling grasp of the language and certainly neither of us could have then imagined that much later in our lives-- by which time he was no longer ‘Professor Riley’ but plain ‘Ted’ – we would collaborate on a TV documentary about the cultural after-life of Don Quixote. Of course, while at TCD I could not imagine myself as a documentary film-maker: the term meant almost nothing to me. The word 'film' meant going to The Cinema and in Dublin this became the passion of my life; as well as being a wonderful way of exploring every corner of the city and taking me beyond the restricting, if beautiful, spaces of the University.

My interest in movies was first kindled by my father. A GP on the east coast of Yorkshire, he was the most organised man I’ve ever known. Despite a gruelling town and country round each day of many miles and visits, he was always back home for lunch or tea exactly when he said he would be, to the minute. He was a passionate musician and kept his large collection of classical records meticulously numbered and catalogued in a book which I still use. He was also a keen cinema-goer. He went at least once, and often twice a week and kept a little book about that too. Every Sunday he would enter the titles of the new films and would place one, two or three stars against each based on the opinions of The Observer’s film critic C.A Lejeune. There was a column for his own starred estimate and space for a very brief comment. I would love to refer to it now but, being my father, he threw it away without sentimentality when he no longer thought it useful. One thing I do remember is his response to The African Queen. He was a great fan of Katherine Hepburn but after Lejeune’s 3-star recommendation he merely entered his own blob of disappointment, adding the two words, “Oh Dear!” (Personally I've always thought John Huston an over-rated director and perhaps the seed of that judgement was sown in my father's book).

As is often the way, I have resisted much of my father's neatness, punctuality and sense of order; but in discovering my own love for the cinema I found myself following his example. The year was 1960, and I was halfway through my degree course in Dublin. By chance I met that very rare thing in those days, a post-graduate FILM student – Charles Barr – over on a visit from The Slade College of Art in London. Later Charles was to publish exemplary studies of Laurel and Hardy and of Ealing Studios, but at the time he was writing a thesis on cinemascope. He was the first person I had ever met who had actually seen a film ten times. I couldn't believe it. And the film in question was not a “serious” European art house movie but The James Brothers, a western directed by Nicholas Ray. This was a revelation, both for me and my close friend and fellow student, Peter Bell. Soon Peter and I were taking in two more extraordinary Westerns – Ride Lonesome and Commanche Station, both directed by Budd Boetticher, someone I'd never heard of then, but whom much later in 1993 I had the pleasure of meeting and filming with at his ranch near San Diego. Pete and I realised, to our amazement, that we were not in a cinematic backwater but in a city that was a cornucopia of undiscovered American masterpieces. Indeed, Dublin was the perfect place for us to be. Telefis Eirrean hadn’t yet started and Ireland had the highest per-capita cinema-going public of any country in Western Europe. Dublin and its suburbs were awash with 30 or more small cinemas, each with a double bill which changed three times a week, Monday to Wednesday, Thursday to Friday, and with a complete change of programme on Sunday when you usually had to book in advance.

Next, we had to find a more efficient way of accessing the gems in this ever-changing public library of British and American films. Peter took out a subscription to Cahiers du Cinema, then in its heyday of Truffautesque and Godardian hyperbole for all things US. But it was another French publication that became our bible. VINGT ANS DE CINEMA AMERICAIN had just been published in Paris. It was edited by Jean-Pierre Coursodon, and among its contributors was the French director Bertrand Tavernier. Along with a year-by-year summary of the evolution of Hollywood from 1940 to 1960, it offered opinionated biographies of all the major and minor directors, stars and supporting actors. What it didn't, however, contain was a list of the films referred to. This became our next task. In the spirit of my orderly father, Peter and I went painstakingly through the whole book, extracting all the film titles, often translating them from the French, and recompiling them into an alphabetical dictionary, of which we each still have a copy. We invented our own star system of directorial evaluation and, needless to say, bought the whole “auteur” theory lock, stock and barrel.

Every day the Dublin evening papers devoted several columns to complete listings and times for all the films being shown across the city. After a quick glance at our dictionary, we would rush off to catch The Stranger (Orson Welles 1946), given only supporting picture status at The Rialto, Dundrum; next day it was off to The Gala, Ballyfermot, to catch Burt Lancaster swinging his way through The Crimson Pirate (“bondissant et savoureux”, Robert Siodmak 1952), followed by an Anthony Mann western or Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (“le meilleur film de science fiction que nous ayons jamais vu”) or another particular favourite, Budd Boetticher's gangster movie The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, a new release in 1960. Indeed, if I had to think of a single group of films that encapsulated the naive but real excitement of that period of my life, it would have to be those of Budd Boetticher. Andre Bazin, the editor of Cahiers du Cinema, called Boetticher’s film Seven Men From Now “le plus simple et le plus beau western d’après guerre”. It was just one of a string of small scale B-feature westerns, each starring the almost expressionless yet vivid presence of Randolph Scott and almost always written by Burt Kennedy. They belonged to a period in Hollywood, alas long gone, when a small group of people could find a creative space inside the system. Working at the low-budget end of a popular genre, Boetticher and his team were able to take familiar features of this genre and give them genuinely fresh and inventive inflections. And I liked the fact that they were B features and therefore ignored by the mainstream critics of national newspapers, whose opinions I didn’t much rate anyway. They were films, I felt, with qualities I was discovering for myself with, of course, a little initial help from the French... and Charles Barr. It was also a world apart from everything I was officially meant to be studying. And to me more important. Although I loved reading particular authors and books, I did the minimum amount of work needed to get through the English and Spanish exams at the end of each summer. At the time, I considered the hours I spent in the library every day as my passport to another year of film-going. Only later, when I began to make films myself, did I realise how much of what I read had in fact seeped into my life. As I later travelled around making cultural documentaries for television on a range of subjects, particularly in Spain and Latin America, I found the official and unofficial sides of my life at Trinity coming back together again. But when I look back, it was the movies that mattered most. True, I never matched Charles Barr’s (alleged) 21 films in one long weekend in Belfast – he was always the more frenetic film-goer. The most I could manage was two films a day, every day for three months, while studying for my final exams. If only I’d been allowed to answer questions on Hollywood 1940-1960 rather than on English and Spanish literature I know I’d have got a First!

But we didn’t just see American movies in Dublin. It was a great time for European movie makers and much of their work (somewhat late and somewhat censored) arrived in the city. Down by the Liffey, the Astor and Corinthian cinemas showed the latest films of Bergman, Fellini, Bunuel, Resnais, Truffaut and Godard… and it was the work of these film makers that Pete Bell and I tried to pastiche in our somewhat ambitious (mercifully unfinished) first directorial attempt at making a short fiction film, funded by an £80 grant from the Irish Film Society. The film was shot by a mature fellow student, Michael de Larrabeiti, who before coming to Trinity had been an assistant film cameraman and who went on to become a very successful children’s author. We rented a 16mm Bolex camera, discovered a pile of old tracking rails in a Dublin warehouse, found a surreal location in the Dublin mountains – where a fireplace and chimney breast were all that remained of an abandoned house – dragooned a bunch of friends as actors, dressed them in dinner jackets and…and…well, my career as a film maker was off to a shaky start. Though the film was never completed, at least I was able to bullshit about it during my interview for my first job as a trainee assistant film editor at the BBC. It probably landed me the job.

It also turned out to be the first and last fiction film I ever made. In the 1960’s I became a documentary director in the Music and Arts department of the BBC and have remained in that field ever since. Which is where I come back to my TCD Spanish Professor EC ‘Ted’ Riley. In 1995 I made a 60-minute film for BBC 2’s Bookmark series about the astonishing diversity of popular iconography generated by that great Spanish double-act of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. I asked Ted, an expert on this subject, to be my advisor. As his Spanish student I’d proved a disappointment, but we got on well while filming, and he really seemed to enjoy the editing process. When the film was finished, I sent him a VHS cassette with a short note: “Dear Ted, Thanks for all your help. Here is the only essay of mine you ever liked!”

Mike Dibb, June 2006