Early life and education
Born into a middle-class family in Bridgnorth, Shropshire, her parents were Thomas Powell, a bank manager, and Mary Jane Lloyd. Powell attended Talbot Heath School, Bournemouth before reading modern languages at Somerville College, Oxford.
While at Oxford she met an archaeologist, Humfry Payne (19 February 1902 – 9 May 1936), whom she was to marry in 1926.
In 1929 her husband, 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 due to 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.
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conflicts of interest (she wrote for a newspaper that was backing one of the ITV franchises, but its bid was eventually withdrawn).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 beginning in 1976 she also began writing about films on television, and continued to do so 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.
She had a gift for the pithy comment, and her memorable phrases about films and the people of the film world are still frequently quoted by other journalists. In addition to her journalism she appeared on radio, as a contestant on the BBC radio panel game My Word!, for nearly thirty years and wrote books about film and travel, particularly about Greece.
Writing by Dilys Powell
- 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, ISBN 0-340-17770-5
- 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
- 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