Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Robinson, Brian Clark (1934–1991)

by Peter Love

This article was published online in 2020

Brian Clark Robinson (1934–1991), film-maker and lecturer, was born on 27 September 1934 at Mildura, Victoria, second of three sons of Harold Joseph Charles Robinson, bank manager and horticulturalist, and his wife Iris Lila Caisley, née Clark, both Victorian born. On completion of his secondary schooling, Brian moved to Melbourne where he obtained a diploma in art and graphic design at Caulfield Technical School in 1953. The next year, under bond to the Education Department, he enrolled at the Technical Teachers’ College. Meanwhile, to gain industrial experience, he worked for the advertising agency Briggs, Canny, James, & Paramor Pty Ltd, where the staff members included the cartoonist Bruce Petty and Robinson’s lifelong friend and collaborator Phillip Adams. From 1959 he taught at Mildura State School.

In 1961 Robinson was recruited to Swinburne Technical College as a lecturer in the school of art. He began teaching commercial design and illustration, but soon shifted his focus to the moving image. From 1966 he was in charge of the diploma of art (film and television) and in 1976 he was appointed inaugural head of the school of film and television. Later he served as dean (1987–89) of the faculty of art, a role he did not enjoy. He was happier working with students, especially the talented ones, on conceptualising and scripting their films. Professing no technical skills, he left talented colleagues to work with the students on their projects.

Robinson believed that the best way to learn film making was from practical experience. To that end, he and Adams had begun work in 1965 on a low-budget feature film called Jack and Jill: A Postscript (1969). Using a cheap clockwork Bolex 16 mm camera and with a budget of $6,000, Robinson and Adams shared the tasks of scriptwriting, production, direction, cinematography, and editing. The film told the tragic love story of a bikie and a kindergarten teacher through the use of nursery rhymes which provided an ironic counterpoint to the visual narrative. In December 1969 it received a silver award from the Australian Film Institute, the first local feature film so honoured. It is regarded as a landmark in the revival of the Australian film industry. In 1970 it had a limited commercial release, after the film-makers paid $4,000 to produce a 35 mm version. Robinson made other experimental films such as A Fine Body of Water (1968) and Some Regrets (1971), which expressed a romantic sensibility and explored everyday life in an avant-garde way.

As an adviser to Prime Minister (Sir) John Gorton in 1969, Adams had urged that Robinson’s Swinburne film school become the basis of a proposed Australian Film and Television School, but in 1970 the school’s interim council recommended that it be located in Sydney. That year Robinson wrote a report for the council after visiting film schools in Europe, Japan, and the United States of America, and he was subsequently a member (1973–75) of its inaugural council. Adams later described Robinson as ‘tall, bald, and white bearded’ with an ‘oceanic generosity of spirit’ (1991, 14). He served the industry with active membership of committees and boards for the Melbourne Film Festival (1984), Film Victoria (1981–89), and the National Film and Sound Archive (1984–85).

A confirmed bachelor who was discreetly homosexual, Robinson had a wide range of friends, who found him an engaging and amusing host, and an excellent cook. His extensive network of associates in the revitalised film industry was a testimony to his professional contribution as well as his congenial disposition. Retiring in 1989, he considered moving to England to write novels, but he suffered a cardiac arrest in December 1991 whilst Christmas shopping in a city department store. He died three days later, at Parkville on 9 December, and was cremated. The next year the Swinburne film school moved to a new home at the Victorian College of the Arts, where a scriptwriting award was created in his name.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Adams, Phillip. Interview by the author, 29 January 2013
  • Adams, Phillip. ‘The Larger than Life of Brian.’ Australian, 21–22 December 1991, Weekend Review 14
  • Buesst, Nigel. ‘The Life of Brian Robinson.’ Filmnews (Sydney), 1 December 1991, 8
  • Paterson, Barbara. Renegades: Australia’s First Film School from Swinburne to VCA. Ivanhoe East, Vic.: Helicon Press, 1996

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Citation details

Peter Love, 'Robinson, Brian Clark (1934–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/robinson-brian-clark-29638/text36603, published online 2020, accessed online 6 July 2020.

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