The death of Dick Mason at 76 severs yet another link with that fertile time
in the mid-'60s when the passionate convictions of a new generation of
filmmakers -- that Australians should see Australian stories on their
screens -- led to the renaissance of the Australian film industry. Mason's
films, and the many filmmakers whose careers he encouraged and nurtured,
helped to drive the renaissance and are the legacy of his well-spent and
Mason's father, a parson in a South Coast coalmining parish during the
Depression, instilled in him a high degree of social commitment while his
mother, whom he described as coming from the squattocracy, gave him a love
of the arts. He put the one in service of the other and made films
throughout his career that tell stories about characters and events of great
personal and social change.
Mason joined the film industry after serving in the army in World War II. He
had enlisted in 1944 on his 18th birthday and, after jungle training at
Kanangra, was sent to the Cowra POW camp as a guard, and then to Morotai in
the south-west Pacific where he saw active service with the 63rd Infantry
Battalion there and at Ambon. He was affected by malaria and was eventually
A drama course at the Mercury Theatre under the guidance of Peter Finch
began Mason's career. Despite his appearing in minor roles with Finch,
including a performance in front of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Finch
told him: "You'll never be an actor as long as you've got legs, boy; never
be an actor."
The theatre's loss was the film industry's gain because Finch got Mason a
job as wardrobe assistant on Eureka Stockade (1949).
After that experience, he used his service entitlement, designed to buy
returned servicemen blocks of land, to make his first film, An
Introduction to Australian Art. This documentary featured three young
painters, Bill Dobell, Russell Drysdale and Roy Dalgarno. Sleeping on the
curtains at the Mercury Theatre and entering the "world of Bohemia", as
Mason said, brought him into contact with the "society of realist art
people" and broadened his life experience at a time when he was not
politically active and had, for a time, discarded part of his religious
Mason's career gathered momentum after this first film. Initially employed
as an assistant to Lee Robinson at the Department of Information Film Unit
(now Film Australia), he worked with such people as Shan Benson, Ron Maslyn
Williams and Colin Dean in the early '50s, and in 1964 made the first of his
own landmark films, From the Tropics
to the Snow. This humorous take on Australia as a tourist
destination and on filmmaking itself was made amid some controversy within
Film Australia. Mason always claimed that the organisation's producer in
chief, Stanley Hawes, a man whom Mason greatly admired, insisted that his
director's role be shared with Jack Lee, an experienced English director (A
Town Like Alice, 1956), on the grounds that no Australian existed who
could direct drama.
Experiencing a loss of confidence despite the success of Tropics, Dick left
for England. There he made Portrait of a Miner (1965) for the
National Coal Board Film Unit, a film that confirmed his talent and his
commitment to film as a tool for social change. He returned to Film
Australia in 1966, taking up the role of producer and later, head of
production. This was a seminal period in that organisation's life. It became
a rare centre of artistic merit, providing a creative environment that
fostered the development of filmmakers such as Peter Weir, Phillip Noyce,
Matt Carroll, Chris Noonan, Donald Crombie, Oliver Howes, Stephen Wallace,
Arch Nicholson, Dean Semler and Jane Oehr.
Mason's major producer credits at the time included Film Australia's first
feature film, Let the Balloon Go (1976, Oliver Howes), and the
innovative documentary, God Knows Why but it Works (1976, Phillip
Noyce). In 1978 he proposed producing a feature film based on David
Ireland's novel, The Unknown Industrial Prisoner, which dealt with
industrial relations and foreign ownership issues. It was blocked by the
federal minister, Robert Ellicott, despite having been approved by the board
of the Australian Film Commission. This decision led to the Australian Film
Commission's Act being amended to require ministers to table their reasons
for blocking film proposals.
However, Mason, upset and with health problems, resigned and began a new
career as an independent feature film producer. During this time, he was an
activist, lobbying for a proper basis for an Australian film industry, and
he joined the state executive of the Australian Theatrical and Amusement
Employees Union. He was appointed to the Film and Television Board of the
Australia Council and the inaugural council of the Australian Film
Television and Radio School. He returned to the church and joined the
Australian Labor Party. This didn't prevent him from criticising Senator
Doug McClelland, then Minister for the Media, in an amazing policy stoush in
front of the staff at Film Australia. Mason was later to repeat this
exercise, though not so publicly, with Peter Collins over his ministerial
responsibilities to the film industry in NSW, at a meeting facilitated by
his brother John Mason, a former leader of the Liberal Party (and father of
The Reels' Dave Mason).
Dick Mason was successful in the independent feature film industry,
producing feature films including Winter of Our Dreams (1981, John
Duigan) and Far East (1982, Duigan) and enjoying an important
association with the Kennedy-Miller organisation. During this period, he was
active in the anti-nuclear movement both through his church associations and
by supporting films on this issue as a producer.
In 1995, he became the first recipient of the Australian Screen Directors'
Cecil Holmes Award for significant contribution to directing and directors.
He was the perfect choice, not only because he contributed to the careers of
numerous directors, including supporting women in that role, but, unknown to
many, had successfully fought against the exclusion of Cecil Holmes as a
director at Film Australia on the grounds that he was once a communist.
Mason also worked tirelessly for the Pitt Street Uniting Church, assisting
in its affairs and writing and directing plays for it.
His life was enriched and sustained by his marriage to Elaine Adam in 1952
and the arrival of Steve, Belinda and Gaby, their children, who also work in
the film industry.