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Mitchell, Denis (1911-1990)

Director, Producer, Writer

Main image of Mitchell, Denis (1911-1990)

Denis Mitchell (1911-90) was well into his forties before entering the noted phase of his career. Within a short period, however, he had become one of a small number of late 1950s television documentary makers applauded as significant artists of their time. His is virtually the only name of that group still readily cited.

Between 1957 and 1988, he enjoyed a small screen career that was in some ways extremely varied. He was both a director and a producer (in the latter capacity, his directors on the interesting series This England (ITV, tx. 1965-67; 1977-80) included Mike Newell, Michael Grigsby and Dick Fontaine). Though he is strongly associated with Granada Television and its key position in the documentary culture of the 1960s and '70s, his first creative successes were at the BBC. He also made programmes for ATV, Rediffusion, and finally Channel 4, and pioneered independent production with his company Denis Mitchell Films.

His projects ranged from prestigious feature length films like Morning In the Streets (BBC, tx. 25/3/1959), to touching vignettes such as the ten-minute films broadcast as Impressions (BBC, 1981). His settings could be urban or pastoral, as in Soho Story (BBC, tx. 22/4/1959) and The Pennines: A Writers Notebook (This England, ITV, 1979), but he also filmed in many international locations (Chicago: Portrait of a City (BBC, tx. 21/12/1961) in the US; The Wind of Change (BBC, 1960) and Spring In Ethiopia (ITV, tx. 28/3/1967) in Africa). Technically, he was famous for his creative use of 16mm film, often combined with unsynchronised sound, yet he was also responsible, as early as 1964, for several of the first British documentaries to be shot entirely on 2" video (beginning with The Entertainers (ITV, 25/3/1964), produced by Mitchell but with direction credited to John McGrath).

The structure of his films was similarly varied: he drew liberally on the repertoire of stock non-fiction 'storylines'. Some of his most acclaimed films were snapshots of community life. Night in the City (Eye to Eye, BBC, tx. 14/6/1957) observed Manchester from dawn to dusk; while A Wedding on Saturday (ITV, tx. 1/4/1964), made with long-time collaborator Norman Swallow, stands out among the hundreds of films made about coal mining communities for the depth it brings to its study of a Yorkshire mining village's celebration of the wedding in its midst. By contrast, the films in the Seven Men (ITV, 1971) and Private Lives (ITV, 1974) series were portraits of individuals; Quentin Crisp first came to public attention in 1971 as one of Mitchell's subjects. Mitchell also put together studies of working institutions (The House on the Beach, ITV, tx. 13/10/1965), thoughtful travelogues (A European Journey, ITV, 1972-73) and behind-the-scenes documentaries (The Dream Machine, ITV, 11/11/1964). His coverage of these subjects variously incorporated observational, interactive and lyrical components, and in his earlier films, snatches of staged drama.

Yet the sensibility that he brought to this diverse range of subjects and formats was doggedly consistent. Common to his films is the transformation of everyday imagery and sounds into what feel like timeless statements by means of strong photographic compositions and telling editing. Sometimes hailed as a 'cinematic' talent - certainly a maker of 'films' rather than mere 'programmes' - and with little sympathy for the journalistic approach of much television documentary, he was nonetheless entirely a man of broadcasting. His creative use of sound, especially, owed more to his earlier career in BBC radio than to any forebears in cinema. The overall results were rarely unmemorable, though they were often flawed in places. Among the most intriguing aspects of his films is that for all their sympathetic observation of people and places, their prevailing mood is often very dark.

Mitchell was himself the subject of a documentary, revealingly entitled Television's Master Film Maker (tx. 17/10/1970), screened within ITV's arts series Aquarius. As the next two decades wore on, however, the filmmaker who had attracted such acclaim grew somewhat out of fashion, a little unfairly. Not all of his later films came off, but the better ones continued to be very good indeed. Never And Always (ITV, tx. 15/6/1977) was amongst his most personal (and bleakest) films, an impressionistic record of a year passing in Norfolk, where he lived: it presciently anticipates the concerns for the British countryside that have lately become a political issue, but expresses them reflectively rather than hysterically. Later, the two series of Shades of Green (Channel 4, 1982/1985) were likeable documentaries about life in the Republic of Ireland, and the films in the Changing Times series (Channel 4, tx. 1986) wrought interesting observations about social change from the apparently unpromising subject of local museum collections.

Following his death, his contribution was celebrated by memorial screenings of his work, appropriately both at the National Film Theatre and on BBC television.

Patrick Russell

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Morning in the Streets (1959)Morning in the Streets (1959)

Groundbreaking TV doc capturing a typical morning in a Northern city

Thumbnail image of Wedding on Saturday, A (1964)Wedding on Saturday, A (1964)

Evocative TV documentary about a Yorkshire mining community

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Thumbnail image of Donnellan, Philip (1924-1999)Donnellan, Philip (1924-1999)

Director, Producer, Writer