As a solo artist, a member of the Theatre Machine co-operative and teacher at RADA and elsewhere, Ben Benison was a leading light in the small coterie of performers who raised the profile of mime in the 1960s and 1970s.
Born in Wigan, Greater Manchester, he worked as a pit boy and then a mining surveyor while taking lessons in every performance discipline he could access – from tap to ballet and singing. His first professional engagements included solo dance spots at the Windmill Theatre in the early 1960s.
An encounter with improvisation pioneer Keith Johnstone led to his appearance in Clowning at the Royal Court in 1965, where he also worked with Roddy Maude-Roxby. Shortly after, the trio, with others, launched Theatre Machine to devise shows built around mime, masks and puppetry.
As a regular in the children’s programme Vision On – co-hosted by artist Tony Hart and Pat Keysell, founder of the British Theatre of the Deaf – Benison was already a familiar television presence.
His only other substantial small-screen work was The Up and Down, In and Out, Roundabout Man, a 13-episode series of solo-mimed comedies in 1973.
Later in the decade he toured his autobiographical one-man show, Wigan Pierrot, and began directing and writing pantomimes in the 1980s, attracting headline names such as The Goodies’ Bill Oddie, singer Suzi Quatro and actor Norman Beaton to the Shaw Theatre. In 1992, he directed the Medieval Players in Hamlet for Holland Park.
He was part of the ensemble gathered by Ken Campbell for Graeme Garden’s The Magical Olympical Games at the National Theatre in 1988 and was seen in the surreal, physical and imaged-based Alice’s Diner at the Bush Theatre in 1990.
His collaboration with Johnstone led to an invitation to teach at RADA, which became a long-standing appointment. He also taught and directed at Webber Douglas, the Guildhall School and in New York at the Stella Adler Studio.
As a movement and comedy coach, he worked with the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, English National Opera and on the 1979 sci-fi horror film Alien.
Jeremy Stockwell, who appeared in Alice’s Diner and succeeded Benison at RADA, remembered him as “a maverick; supportive, kind, nurturing one minute, the next like being on stage next to a hand grenade with the pin pulled out”.
In later years, he turned to writing. Jack Lear, his transformation of King Lear into a Humber trawlerman first seen at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough in 2008 – the Times described it as “a spare, stirring sea-shanty” – was revived earlier this year with Barrie Rutter in the title role and directing at Hull Truck.
Ben Benison was born on September 6, 1933 and died on December 4, aged 86.