Dilys Powell was born in Bridgnorth, England, and was educated at Talbot Heath School, Bournemouth, before winning a scholarship to read modern languages as one of the first women at Oxford University.
She graduated with first class honors and spent some time as the personal assistant of Lady Ottoline Morrell. In 1926, she married Humfry Payne, later a prominent archaeologist, whom she had met at Oxford. From 1929 to 1936, while her husband served as director of the British School of Archaeology at Athens, she spent part of each year in Greece, frequently attending excavations where he was working. She became a journalist, writing for The Sunday Times of London for more than 50 years. She was best known as a film critic and coined many memorable phrases about films and actors that are still quoted today.
She also served as the film critic for Punch until it folded in 1992. During World War II, she worked for the Political Warfare Executive, which managed Britain's propaganda in Occupied Europe. In 1943, having been widowed, she married Leonard Russell, literary editor at The Sunday Times. In 1954, she was one of the founding members of the Independent Television Authority (ITA), which introduced commercial television to the UK. After the sudden death of her first husband, she wrote several volumes of autobiography, beginning with The Traveller's Journey is Done (1943), and continuing with An Affair of the Heart (1957) and The Villa Ariadne (1973). A collection of her film reviews was published in 1989 as The Golden Screen: Fifty Years at the Films. She also wrote books about travel, especially in Greece.