Guest blog by Dr. Ieuan Franklin, Lecturer in Media and Cultural History, Bournemouth University
For as long as I have researched and written about the work of Denis Mitchell, I have pondered the story/paradox of an influential and acclaimed documentary filmmaker - particularly between the 1950s and the 1970s - who has somehow slipped into obscurity and critical neglect during the intervening period.
The filmmaker Michael Darlow wrote in the programme notes for a posthumous retrospective of Mitchell’s work at the BFI Southbank in 1990 that “it is a measure of the continuing low esteem in which television is held as an art form” that there are so few sustained assessments of Mitchell’s remarkable body of work:
Had he made his films for the cinema it is a fair bet that the true successor of John Grierson and Humphrey Jennings would, in a career spanning more than thirty years and one hundred programmes, have had numerous books and analytical articles devoted to him. (1)
This neglect can be partly attributed to the near-total inaccessibility of post-war television documentary - in terms of re-broadcasting or physical media – for many years. But through initiatives like Archives for Education and Visions of Change, the BFI’s recent box-set of BBC television documentaries of the 1950s and 1960s (which includes Between Two Rivers; Night in the City; Pop Goes the Easel; The Colony; and Morning in the Streets) I am optimistic that this is beginning to change, as there is now great potential for Mitchell’s work to be discovered by new audiences.
The archival restoration of these documentaries and their showcasing and creative re-use encourages the reappraisal of documentary history, particularly the prospect of restoring television documentary to its rightful place. In the post-war period television gave a boost to the British documentary, which was forced to seek commercial and municipal sources of funding when state-funding opportunities withered away. The absorption of much documentary practice by television, however, meant that documentary became, to quote Michael Chanan writing in 2007, ‘part of the evanescent flow of programmes, as ephemeral as journalism and rapidly disappearing into the big black hole of the archives, from which very few are beginning, very selectively, to emerge.” (2) Amongst the innovative and influential British filmmakers lost to posterity in this way he singles out Denis Mitchell and Philip Donnellan, whose work features prominently in this resource.
Morning in the Streets (which won the Prix Italia in 1959) can be regarded as one of the films that has emerged from the archive - the BBC has, for at least a decade, showcased the film online, and it was broadcast on BBC4 in 2008 as part of the Liverpool on the Box season to coincide with the city being awarded European Capital of Culture. Scenes from Morning have also been extensively utilized as archive footage; for example, substantial sequences featured in Terence Davies’ elegiac documentary about Liverpool Of Time and the City (2008). The imagery of children playing street games in Morning was also used in the 3-part series Hop Skip and Jump: the Story of Children’s Play, produced by Steve Humphries and first shown on BBC4 in 2009.
Morning in the Streets is a rare social document of working-class life in Northern England during the late 1950s (the city we see is never actually identified; the film was actually shot in Salford, Manchester and Stockport, as well as Liverpool). It is especially valuable in its portrayal of the activities and concerns of several generations, from children’s street games to the grief and thrift of an elderly generation whose lives are marked by both World Wars. This cross-generational and intimate focus was something lacking from the Free Cinema documentaries of the period. (3)
The heavy use of Morning as archive footage in Terence Davies’ film essay Of Time and the City, to take one example, is effective but it also problematic. Much of Morning’s evocative imagery (for example, the ‘establishing shot’ of the cityscape; the majestic slow tracking shot along a terrace street; the rag and bone man; the woman emerging from the washroom with her laundry bunched up on her head) and a few sounds (the children’s songs) retain some of their poignancy but at the cost of being subsumed within Davies’ highly personal and subjective ‘memoryscape’ (4) of a Liverpool upbringing. In some ways the usage is creative – Les Roberts has recently drawn attention to Davies’ use of musical counterpoint (juxtaposing Mitchell’s footage of children playing and singing with Gheorge Popescu-Branesti’s hymn Watch and Play) to convey an acute sense of longing, with Mitchell’s contemporaneous actuality now serving as an evocation of time passed. (5) This bittersweet nostalgia, however, allows none of the humour of Morning, or of its exposure of social conditions - which prompted the television critic Peter Black to write at the time that “poverty and a soul-bleaching ugliness of surroundings are still besieging human spirits” – to filter through to the viewer. (6) A contemporary reviewer remarked that “this is the other side of Coronation Street with a vengeance,” (7) and there is great potential for creative re-use of Morning to highlight the ways in which it parallels and diverges from the representation of Northern working-class community in the early years of the popular soap opera.
In its usage as archival footage only the visual iconography of Morning has been retained, not the complex soundtrack that accompanied it, which means that only the documenting function of the filmmaker is honoured, and not his or her artistic expression. This tendency can be more widely attributed to the privileging of the indexical aspect of film and photography – film as ‘evidence’ or traces of history. The crucial element that made Morning so original and distinctive is thereby missing when repurposed in this manner: the film’s ability to evoke emotion in the viewer by providing points of access to individual subjectivities, in the form of tape-recorded thoughts, stories and feelings reproduced on the soundtrack. As Roy Peters has observed of documentary photography, “the documentary ‘real’ might be considered in terms of emotional authenticity as much as or as opposed to verisimilitude”. (8)
The fact that Mitchell has slipped into obscurity, and the fact that his work only appears on television screen as ‘silent’ archive footage signals that creative uses of sound are still under-developed in television. Sound typically exists in a subordinate relation to image both at the level of practice (television production) and criticism (television studies), despite television’s historical and continuing close relationship with its older cousin, radio.
Mitchell had, in fact, began his career in radio, at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and then the BBC North Region in Manchester, and this was a massive influence on his filmmaking. After being trained in factual television production Mitchell actually spent several years both making BBC radio features and adapting them – In Prison; Night in the City (both 1957); On Tour (1958); Morning in the Streets; and Soho Story (both 1959) – into television documentaries. In doing so Mitchell developed his preferred modus operandi for his television work, which can be summarised as follows: (1) forming the thematic focus of the programme and the bulk of its soundtrack by editing together speech recorded on as much as 40 hours of magnetic tape; (2) filming on location, revisiting the people and places chronicled in the original fieldwork; and (3) editing sound and vision together, mounting images with the separately recorded ‘wildtrack’. Thus the sound would be edited (without recourse to the inclusion of interview questions or commentary), to a series of pictures not necessarily in a literal or diegetic relationship with the soundtrack.
Mitchell developed a preference for an editing system that involved alternating between rolls of film, known as ‘A and B rolls’ or ‘chequer boarding’. (9) This entails splitting successive or alternate shots onto two separate reels, in order to achieve effects like wipes, dissolves and fades. In documentary production, this technique has been used to mask physical cuts in a 16mm print, or to retain the soundtrack from one print whilst utilising the picture of the other. Traditionally used to achieve continuity (for example, when disguising edits within a ‘talking head’ interview), Mitchell used it for precisely the opposite reason - as a device to enable disjuncture between sound and image, and to increase the possibilities for montage.
It is easy to underestimate the impact on television documentary of a technique which offered an alternative to the conjunction of word and image (the two saying exactly the same thing) which had been increasingly determined and codified by institutional protocols and cinematic conventions (such as shot/reverse-shot). As David Russell has observed,
The idea that what is seen must always conform to, and not digress from or contradict what is said, is not only a central feature of the televisual form, it is what makes the whole notion of ‘truthful’ television possible. For if there is no dissonance…, if the rhetoric of the image is identical to the rhetoric of the word, then a televisual truth, which resembles a documentary truth, is achieved. No matter that in this process the visual is no more than a doubling of the verbal, a tautology…(10)
Mitchell had a fondness for the continuous filming of people listening whilst people are talking to them out of shot (the exact opposite of the shot/reverse shot formula), in order to “reveal thoughts, actions and feelings which are unsaid”. (11) Mitchell’s achievement was therefore to convey the emotional and imaginary as well as the physical or material worlds inhabited by the people that he filmed and recorded, and this is crucial to an understanding of his impact on television aesthetics.
Richard Hoggart, in an open letter to Karel Reisz about Reisz’ Free Cinema documentary We are the Lambeth Boys (1959), questioned how far that film had moved beyond the presentation of exteriors and asked that such ‘essays’ should develop by becoming “much more subjective…to encompass the inner life” (12). The answer lay in Morning in the Streets, which was transmitted in the same year.
Michael Darlow, ‘Denis Mitchell 1st August 1911 - 1st October 1990. A Celebration of His Life and Work’ (National Film Theatre Programme, London Southbank, 1990), unpaginated.
Michael Chanan, The Politics of Documentary (London: British Film Institute, 2007), 25.
The most celebrated Free Cinema documentaries of the period sought to give voice and representation to the social life of youthful, dynamic and discrete communities of interest (such as jazz devotees, teenagers and market traders), and were predominantly filmed in London and the South. One exception is John Fletcher’s The Saturday Men (1962), about West Bromwich Albion football club, which was scripted by Denis Mitchell.
See Julia Hallam and Les Roberts, ‘Mapping, Memory and the City: Archives, Databases and Film Historiography’, European Journal of Cultural Studies 14, no. 3 (June 1, 2011): 355 –372.
Les Roberts, Film, Mobility and Urban Space: A Cinematic Geography of Liverpool (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012), 193.
Peter Black, ‘Teleview’, Daily Mail (London, March 1959). Thanks to Linda Mitchell for this (undated) clipping.
Michael Gowers, ‘Mitchell’s Poem of Bricks’, Daily Mail (London, 1962).
Roy Peters, ‘Half Truths’, Ten:8, 1979, 13.
Interview with Linda Mitchell, 17th June 2005.
David Russell, ‘A World in Action’, Sight and Sound 59, No. 3 (Summer 1990): 175–176.
Russell, ‘A World in Action’, 175, describing a similar technique by Eric Rohmer.
Quoted in Stuart Laing, Representations of Working-class Life, 1957-1964 (Oxford: Macmillan, 1986), 115.