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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

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Benson, Shan (1917–1998)

by Marius Benson

Shan Benson Writer, film-maker. Born: Perth, April 9, 1917. Died: Grafton, NSW, May 31, aged 81.

A story Shan Benson enjoyed telling was of being in a Sydney bar watching his friend, poet and journalist Ken Slessor, in animated discussion with a fellow drinker. The time was the early 1950s and the topic was the stress pattern in a line of verse.

The verse was comic but the discussion was serious, and Slessor illustrated his case by drawing stress patterns in dots and dashes with pools of condensation on the bar.

The image draws together some of the central enthusiasms of Shan's life — good company, a beer and words, always words. Through a working life that stretched from the Depression to the 1980s he saw and helped with the development of some of our most important cultural institutions. In the golden days of radio, he wrote dramas for broadcast in Australia and abroad. He was there at the birth of what was to become the Commonwealth Film Unit, now Film Australia. He directed This is the ABC, a portrait of the national broadcaster that was part of the first transmission carried by the new television service in 1956.

Shan's passion for words was evident at St Patrick's College in Melbourne, where he was an outstanding scholarship student.

Economic necessity forced a too early end to his schooling and an uncertain career path saw him, at 21, busy in the corridors of the photographic and cinematographic branch of the Department of Commerce and Agriculture.

Author Ronald Maslyn Williams was then a director in the barely visible precursor of our national film unit. Williams's duties were wide and he recalls that, when he first spoke to Shan, he was charged with writing a caption for a landscape photograph to be placed in train carriages. He caught the attention of the young man passing in the corridor and quoted the verse he was considering.

Shan listened through half a dozen lines, then said: "De La Mare always was a wordy bastard." He suggested instead a single line of Hopkins, which was adopted.

Williams was delighted: "Now at least we've got someone who bloody well reads."

Brevity and clarity were elements of style Shan always admired. "Think once before using an adjective and twice before using an adverb," was one of a handful of tenets that underlay his lean and precise prose.

A prospective film career was stalled by the outbreak of World War II. Shan served in Papua New Guinea where, by his account, he was distinguished by being the only soldier to carry and wear pyjamas throughout hostilities. He also carried words, the Bible — reflecting his Catholic faith — and compact service editions of favourite authors such as American humorists Robert Benchley and James Thurber.

After the war, a brief flirtation with religious farm settlements gave way to his love of words and city life. He wrote radio dramas and returned to film with the Commonwealth Film Unit. That work took him back to PNG at times, making films for the Department of Foreign Affairs to explain Australia's role with the pre-independence territory and explain western ways to its people.

In 1948 Shan married Sheila Clancy. They raised their family in the inner Sydney suburb of Elizabeth Bay, on the fringe of Kings Cross, which then retained the bohemian air that was swept away in the drug-edged days that came with soldiers on rest and recreation leave from Vietnam.

Those were the days of shopping at the corner store run by "Watty", seeking medical advice from a chain-smoking doctor named "Bing" Whitelaw and, on Saturday mornings, a beer and a chat at the Rex in Macleay Street, leaving the children unsupervised but safe in a nearby playground.

Through the 1950s and 60s, film dominated his working life, but in the early 1970s he returned to radio, taking up the position of federal play editor with the ABC's radio drama and features unit.

Shan's radio writing brought a series of Awgie awards from the Australian Writers Guild and he served as guild president for several years in the mid-1970s.

Shan Benson's life, like his writing, combined style and warmth. He was generous in passing on his skills and learning. He is remembered by many for his work; by others for his cravats; and by all for his charm and, in the word most often attached to him, as a gentleman. He is survived by two sons, Clancy and Marius; a daughter, Shan; and two grandchildren.

*ABC journalist Marius Benson is Shan Benson's son.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Marius Benson, 'Benson, Shan (1917–1998)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/benson-shan-32531/text40371, accessed 5 July 2022.

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