Thursday 2 November 2017

Colin Bennett - Reflections in the Dark - Film Writings 1952-1980 - Part One

Editor’s Note: On 16 October Peter Hourigan and I interviewed Colin Bennett on behalf of the National Film & Sound Archive’s Oral History Program. The interview took place at the NFSA office in Melbourne. It occurred after the publication on this blog of some memories recalling the contribution Colin made to Australian film culture. Among those who provided their thoughts were Peter Hourigan, Adrian Martin & Rod Bishop, Scott Murray, Michael Campi & Bruce Hodsdon, and Richard Brennan & Brian Kavanagh. Colin responded here.

Peter Hourigan, Colin Bennett, NFSA Office Melbourne, October 2017
(Photo: Bronwyn Murphy, NFSA, by permission)
Colin was the film critic for the Melbourne Age from 1955 to 1980. He was also a radio and TV broadcaster and was deeply involved in the establishment of the Australian Film Institute and the ongoing work of the Melbourne Film Festival during the years when the festival was under the direction of Erwin Rado. His was a seriously fine contribution to Australia’s cultural life.

On the day of the NFSA recording Colin passed to Peter and I, and to Bronwyn Murphy of the NFSA, an unpublished memoir he had written in 1995 about his life in film. It is titled Reflections in the Dark - Film Writings 1952-1980 (1995) and below is the first of three extracts that will be published on the Film Alert 101 blog in coming days.

Special thanks to Sharon Caris for all her assistance for both facilitating the NFSA interview and for her help in getting this material together.

Colin Bennett, October 2017
(Photo: Bronwyn Murphy, NFSA, by permission)
I had begun a cadetship as an Age reporter, checking the price of cabbages in the early morning markets, phoning estate agents for auction results and, five nights a week, reporting the dog coursing.
After a couple of years of this, I sailed for England and tramped Fleet Street unsuccessfully, making ends meet in the snow and sludge of Wimpole Street as a London postman.
Oral history can be dangerously misleading, and some people find it difficult to believe descriptions of the Dickensian working conditions that existed in the early 1950s at the office of the non-unionised weekly paper where I finally landed a job as a reporter and film, theatre, ballet and opera critic.
First I had to work full-time for a month for no pay to prove my worth to the proprietors. Then came the offer: six pounds a week, which was about two pounds less than a bus driver. Our office was a London basement dungeon under the road in South Kensington, reached by a flight of wooden steps beneath a trapdoor. There we would work six days a week, an average of 70 hours, in cubicles alongside an open drain and a closed sewer pipe. We took all the photographs, proof-read and laid out the pages and, on a few occasions, even worked the linotype machines. Sometimes I would return to this dungeon from a film preview and start to type, unaware that a heavy storm had broken above ground. Slowly water began seeping into my shoes. The basement was awash. We four journalists snatched up our only precious possessions, our typewriters, and waded for the ladder and the trapdoor.
The local borough councillors told us we had only to lift a finger and they would have the place condemned. But the proprietors were well aware of it. If we had lifted that finger, everyone would have been sacked overnight and the four brothers who ran the newspaper chain would have stepped into the breach with all their relatives.
Instead we held secret chapel meetings of the National Union of Journalists in that waterlogged dungeon. We compiled a secret time-book (here was the proof that we worked 70 hours a week) and plotted to employ the first West Indian journalist in Britain:  Jan Carew, actor, storyteller and, later, novelist of note.
After four years the British army caught up with me for national service. The military told me to leave the country or be drafted and, in all probability, marched off to the anti-terrorist campaign in Malaya. My wife and I packed our bags.

Back at the Age, I resumed my humble job as a reporter, one or two rungs up the ladder from where I had left off.  One Sunday evening, all that changed.  I encountered a worried News Editor, Harold Austin, in the draughty corridor of the newspaper’s old Collins Street building. What was wrong? The film critic, a somewhat unreliable fellow, had gone walkabout again. No one knew where he was.
The Editor, Sir Harold Campbell, had a rule. For a first misdemeanour you were given a lecture, for a second you were demoted, and if you offended yet again it meant dismissal. The poor film critic had used up all his chances.
At the time films were the mass medium, so the reviews were a vital and immensely popular part of the paper. No reviews had appeared for 10 days, and as no commercial films were screened on a Sunday, reviewing them for the next day’s paper seemed impossible.
I took a deep breath and spoke the words that changed my life: “Actually, Mr. Austin, six new films have opened in town, and you have reviews of all six of them sitting in your office safe”.
He gave me the kind of astonished look that Watson used to give Holmes: “What on earth are you talking about?”
The explanation was elementary. On returning from London, I had tried to impress him by showing off my five scrapbooks of cuttings. In those days, films opened in Australia at least six months after London, so the scrapbooks contained reviews of everything that was showing in Melbourne. Harold Austin had promised to glance at my writings and had put them away in his safe and forgotten about them.
We looked them up. He instructed me to re-write them to suit Age style. . . .and the die was cast. The reviews appeared next morning, and the following Saturday my first “At The Cinema” article was published in the literary pages. Sir Harold, I was told, was well pleased. The second Saturday was a different matter.
I dictated that second piece from a sick bed with a temperature of nearly 104. Sir Harold was not happy with it. But the paper felt responsible, because I had contracted hepatitis as a reporter covering a Pacific scout jamboree a week or two before. So my job was kept open until I recovered. For three months I convalesced while my pregnant wife nursed me, meanwhile producing our first child. As compensation for the disease, I was given a by-line by the Age, and this was gratifying because at the time there were only three other journalists in the editorial section who shared the honour.

Even today the peculiar notion lingers among Australian newspaper people that if you do one job well you must be equally good at others. After some years I was offered feature writing, which was certainly preferable to reporting auction sales and Parliament. However, I was also offered work as a leader writer, which, at the time, was the way to an overseas posting and eventual executive status. I had little talent for it and even less ambition. I had never even mastered shorthand. The idea of being told what to write on political subjects, or at least adapt one’s own views to conform to editorial policy, was anathema to a critic. I turned down the offer and thus condemned myself to rise no higher in the profession. But that was all right by me. By luck I had already achieved my ultimate ambition in journalism at the age of 22. . . .


  1. I am currently wrapping up a book on Melbourne filmgoing in 1970 and have collated the 178 reviews by Colin Bennett (that I could find for that year). In equal parts insightful, enlightening and infuriated his takes were always must-reads.

    Thanks for this, as he has long been a man of mystery.

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  3. Remembered as a sensible and courteous colleague among the board members ("Governors") of Australian Film Institute.
    Surely the quality of Bennett's reviewing must have opened a way for Adrian Martin to lift the bar later.


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