Leslie Mitchell (1905-1985)

The First BBC Television Commentator

Leslie Mitchell was the first commentator for the new BBC Television Service when it began transmissions on 2 November 1936. His suave good looks, dapper thirties suits and perfect English public school accent endeared him to a nation. He was, it has been said, the perfect man for his time. He was also a commentator for British Movietone News from 1936 onwards. He featured in the titles from the start, and his first credit was for 'Television: Leslie Mitchell guides you around Alexandra Palace' in British Movietone News of September 1936. When the inaugural television transmissions were made from Alexandra Palace on 2 November 1936, it was the image and voice of Leslie Mitchell that the lucky few who had purchased television receivers saw and heard.

Norman Fisher of Movietone recalled that both Mitchell and Eric Dunstan 'voiced solemn occasions' for the November 1936, 'Armistice Day 1936: Spoken by Leslie Mitchell'. By March 1937, the Marconi/EMI television system had proved itself to be superior to that of the Baird system, and just a few short months later would pass its most severe test during the outside broadcast of the 'Coronation of King George VI' on 12 May. Though the actual number of viewers may have numbered less than two thousand, the commentary and pictures, which were broadcast live of course, were considered a great social and technological advance. The public were fascinated with the new invention. Television had arrived, and with it came the presence and voice of Leslie Mitchell.

In December 1937, the World Film News described him as an 'ex-actor, whose main job is BBC television announcer.' In the years leading up to the outbreak of World War Two, the image and voice of Leslie Mitchell and his co-announcers, Elizabeth Cowell and Jasmine Bligh, became more and more popular and well known. By 1 September 1939, when Britain was on the brink of declaring war and television was taken off the air 'for the duration', the number of television receivers in the London reception area had risen to 23,000.

In September 1939, Mitchell was one of the British Movietone News editorial staff evacuated to Denham, although they returned to Soho Square after producing only sixteen issues. Mitchell worked for Movietone throughout the war, and was also commentator on the War Pictorial News, which began production in 1940. Gerald Sanger, the editor of British Movietone News, recalled that during the war they reduced the number of stories in the reel, and 'we also turned British Movietone News into a one-voice reel, Leslie Mitchell delivering the entire commentary, with Lionel Gamlin coming in to replace him one reel [sic] in four.' Gamlin's regular work as Mitchell's replacement seems to have begun in June 1944, and the system of relieving him for one week in every four began in September 1944.

After the war Mitchell continued to work for Movietone as a commentator, and also appeared as interviewer in a number of items such as 'British Film Festival' in British Movietone News from March 1946. In January 1947, he took a break from commentating, handing over to Lionel Gamlin, but he returned in November 1948.

In 1954, Mitchell also provided the commentary for Movietone's 'The Flight of the White Heron,' the film of the Queen's Commonwealth Tour taken by Paul Wyand and Reg Sutton. In September 1955, Leslie Mitchell subsequently became the first face and voice seen and heard when commercial television began. Leslie Mitchell had taken another break from commentating for Movietone News in June of that year, enabling David Jacobs to do some work for Movietone, but he returned in July 1958.

Leslie Mitchell continued commentating until 1973. Then, in November 1976, the BBC produced a programme entitles 'The Birth of Television'. Naturally, Leslie Mitchell was asked to commentate, which he duly did. The BBC used a set built in Studio A of Alexandra Palace where Mitchell had spent so many years, and forty years after he had first appeared in front of a television camera, he was reunited once again with Elizabeth Cowell and Jasmine Bligh.

When Leslie Mitchell died in November 1985, The Times published the following obituary:

Mr Leslie Mitchell, who died November 23 in London, was a broadcaster and commentator on radio and television, whose voice was the first to be heard at the opening of BBC television in 1936, and who took part in the launching in 1955 of the commercial television network, Associated Rediffusion. His voice is also remember as the commentator for British Movietone News, especially in his wartime commentaries.

Leslie Mitchell was born on October 4, 1905, in Edinburgh, and educated at King's School, Canterbury. He was destined for the Navy but ill-health, from which he suffered for much of his life, prevented this, and he completed his education at Chillon College in Switzerland.

He turned to the stage and his first appearance was in 1928 on tour with Edgar Wallace's flying squad. On the eve of its transference to the West End Mitchell suffered multiple injuries in a road accident which kept him out of work for more than a year.

However, Mitchell toured South Africa as Captain Stanhope in the play, before returning to understudy Leslie Banks in Lady Of The Lamp and Nigel Playfair in The Rivals.

After trying his hand in films he worked on radio as a commentator for dance bands in 1932, and two years later joined the BBC staff as an announcer, combining it with work as a producer in the variety department. He joined the staff of BBC Television at Alexandra Palace as senior announcer in 1936, and when the service was first introduced his was the first voice to be heard. Later the same evening he appeared as commentator for a television cabaret performance.

He had been working as an announcer for British Movietone News and before the outbreak of the Second World War he left the BBC for full-time work on the newsreels. His health prevented him from joining the armed forces, but his voice was heard throughout the war on newsreels. It was a strong, clear voice, pitched high, which rang with confidence even at times when the war situation hardly justified optimism.

He retained his links with the BBC finding time to preside over the 'Brains Trust' series, and running his own series of radio shows.

In 1946 he went to the United States to study American methods of publicity, feeling that in time television would become commercialised.

Back in Britain he was appointed by Sir Alexander Korda as director of publicity, leaving in 1948 to resume his manifold freelance activities in writing, commentating and production.

His experience in the United States proved valuable when it was finally decided in 1955 to start commercial television. He joined Associated Rediffusion and was prominent in the ceremony of launching another television service. He was in charge of talks, and as such pursued his role of interviewer in which he already had experience both on radio and on the screen. He became chairman of discussion programmes.

In 1958, he once again became a freelance. Though dogged by ill-health he continued to appear on television and was in demand for programmes about the medium's early days.

In 1961, he and Richard Dimbleby narrated a celebration of 25 years of BBC Television, and he narrated a 40th anniversary documentary in 1976. Still in nostalgic vein, he had his own series on Tyne-Tees Television, called 'Those Wonderful Years'.

He was twice married: first in 1938 to Phyllis, daughter of Firth Shephard, and secondly in 1966, after the death of his first wife, to Inge Jorgenson from Denmark.

Cecil Madden writes, 'Leslie's striking good looks and his newspaper of 'Television Adonis', did not please him, but his workload did. In addition to twice daily appearances as chief announcer at Alexandra Palace, he was chief commentator for Movietone News, starting with the familiar words - 'The is Movietone News - Leslie Mitchell reporting'. On top of all this, with the endless motoring involved, he applied to me, in charge of production at the time, to become a producer as well. He carried out arduous ensemble productions in the open air which failed to sap his prodigious energy. Twice weekly he took on the interviewing for the television magazine 'Picture Page', involving some 20 interviews a week for 264 editions of the most varied kind, from Sir Henry Wood to the Grand Vizier of Morocco. During the war he also announced the first Allied Expeditionary Forces programme with Captain Glenn Miller's Band. Leslie's voice will live on as the newsreel activities are in constant demand for most documentaries of the past and in every area of research. A great colleague, he was always immaculately groomed and set a style of bearing and compering that will not be equalled. His accident as a young man led to endless operations which slowed his pace of life towards the end, and a tribute should be paid to his Danish wife, Inge, over a long and difficult period".

The Times, London, 25 November 1985

Leslie Mitchell & Elizabeth Cowell during make-up and lighting tests, 14 August 1936

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