Denis Mitchell

Denis Mitchell
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Interview Date(s): 
8 Dec 1989
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(11 August 1911 – 1990) a British documentary filmmaker, renowned for his innovative radio and television documentaries.His radio and television career can broadly be characterised by the constant interest Mitchell displayed in "giving voice to the voiceless" and in the rhythms and prosody of everyday vernacular speech.Early life in Britain and South Africa.The son of a Congregationalist minister, born in Cheshire, and his family moved from one church community to another throughout his childhood. After some time spent at RADA pursuing an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to become an actor, at the age of 18 he moved to South Africa, the country his parents had emigrated to several years previously. At the outbreak of war he joined the South African Army, first in the artillery, and later in Cairo, where he attained the rank of captain, and organising entertainment for the troops from visiting celebrities such as Bob Hope and Noël Coward.

On demobilisation, he gained a job with the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) as a writer-producer. 

In 1949, the SABC invited the radio producer D.G. Bridson to spend a year in South Africa. He befriended Mitchell and suggested to him that he should come back to Britain to work in Laurence Gilliam's Features Department, alongside such poetic talent as Louis MacNeice and Dylan Thomas.

After a brief period in the Features Department in London, Mitchell joined the BBC North Region in Manchester in 1950, becoming a Features Producer in succession to Norman Swallow, who would later become Mitchell's close friend and collaborator. After producing several radio series' based on British and American folk, blues and jazz music (including Ballads and Blues) with musicians including Alan LomaxEwan MacColl and Big Bill Broonzy, Mitchell initiated the occasional series, People Talking, which ran between 1953 and 1958. These programmes were based on the lives and words of ordinary people, forsaking narration and commentary.  Mitchell took the portable tape recorder, which had just come 'on stream' in the BBC, out to the streets, pubs, clubs, hostels and boarding-houses of the North, recording many hours of unscripted and spontaneous speech, which he then edited into radio features.

In 1955, Mitchell was sent on a training attachment to the BBC's Lime Grove Studios, where he worked on his first television documentary, a 15-minute contribution to an edition of the pioneering current affairs Special Enquiry, about teenagers. The 'Teenagers' film was enthusiastically received (not least by filmmaker Karel Reisz) for its technical experimentation and impressionist portraiture of everyday life This led to Mitchell's first television feature for the BBC in 1957, In Prison. This was the first film to be shot inside a prison in Britain – Manchester's Strangeways In Prison was the first of several adaptations for television of radio features from the People Talking series. Others included Night in the City (1957), On Tour (1958), Morning in the Streets (1959) and Soho Story (1959). For Morning in the Streets, made by the BBC's Northern Film Unit, Mitchell and his 'camera team' (Roy Harris and Gerry Pullen) used the lightweight 16mm camera, which afforded greater mobility, allowing the film to get closer to the 'texture' of everyday life. This film won the Prix Italia.After travelling abroad to make the award-winning and controversial Chicago (1961, researched by Studs Terkel) and his South-African trilogy (1960), Denis Mitchell tutored recent Oxford graduate Dennis Potter in documentary filmmaking, resulting in the 1960 documentary Between Two Rivers, which Potter wrote and appeared in.Mitchell then left the BBC to form the first independent production company, Denis Mitchell Films, with friend and colleague Norman Swallow. Mitchell made films for ATV and Rediffusion, and then in 1964 he and Swallow joined Granada Television. For Granada they made the first documentaries to be shot on videotape, In 1964 they made The Entertainers, temporarily banned by the ITA for a brief shot of a topless dancer, and A Wedding on A Saturday, a memorable evocation of a Northern mining community, which won the Prix Italia that year. As part of their contract at Granada, Mitchell and Swallow executive-produced the series This England. The series, which documented various aspects of regional English culture, ran from 1965 to 1967, and provided essential training for new directors, After This England Mitchell's reputation for innovation began to wane (he was by that time in his late fifties), yet he continued to make documentary films on a wide variety of themes for all the major television companies. In 1977, he made his final major work, Never and Always, a study of rural life in Norfolk,