Candid Cameo: Leslie Mitchell 

6 May 2024 tbs.pm/80994

 

Masthead of The Sketch

From The Sketch for 14 March 1951

WHAT a shock it is, what a shattering disappointment to his adoring listeners when a favoured B.B.C. announcer, skulking invisibly behind his cosy microphone, is dragged protesting into the rude light of day. Often he is a pallid, weedy, unprepossessing character, yet (so deep-rooted is the impulse to deify that which is admired) his fans persist in the delusion that he looks like — well, let us say, Leslie Mitchell. This is fortunate for Leslie, because he does look like Leslie Mitchell, though not always.

See him in person — a broad, loose-limbed, towering person it is, too; and, as Stephano might have said, “Thou art very Leslie Mitchell indeed.” There he is, a tall, bronzed, demigod of a man; larger than life in a way. But from the television studio, where the camera and lighting arrangements do not always interpret the human visage as kindly as the naked eye, he may sometimes pass as Boris Karloff’s stand-in.

It must be a queer sensation being Leslie Mitchell and to realise, while the cameras are trained on you, that, like a goldfish in its bowl, you are staring at people you cannot see through an illuminated, convex glass, and that the image is duplicated in a hundred thousand homes. You realise what it all means when people give you an odd kind of look in buses, shops, restaurants; when they sometimes grasp your arm spontaneously in a hotel lobby and burble in an embarrassed sort of way, “I—I’m sorry, I thought I knew you. I do really, but you don’t know me.” This happens when your face, like Leslie’s, is a piece of public property. But perhaps the most significant thing of all is a letter that reached him a few days ago. “Dear Leslie,” it ran, “This may seem a liberty, but how can I call you anything else when I saw you trying to cover up that pretty nasty cold, when I remember your bad leg and the time your eye was giving you trouble and you wore a patch over it….?”

I could not supply a more fully documented medical history of my nearest relatives. Could you?

Some viewers may even have seen him without his trousers! They were accidentally torn from him, you remember, while ascending a new type of fire-escape in the grounds of Alexandra Palace.

Such is the strange magic of the television, at once a miraculous boon and an infuriating tyranny. It has enabled you to observe, if not the seven ages of man, seven years of Leslie Mitchell (three before the war, and four since), whose face was the first ever to be seen in this medium.

Leslie Mitchell

Leslie Mitchell

Our radio-television age has produced a spate of horribly inelegant names for many perfectly law-abiding citizens who, in a previous era, might have been described as writers, actors or orators, and who, through the shifting focus of opportunity, are now called commentators, M.C.s, interviewers and compares. Ugh! Leslie Mitchell, who is all these things, abominates the nomenclature, but is powerless to change it.

He is versatile, of course. I have an uneasy conviction that versatility is often synonymous with failure. But Leslie doesn’t fail at things inconspicuously and retire quietly from the scene muttering “Perhaps the public knows best.” No — he comes unstuck with such dash and éclat that his mild philanderings with the bitch-goddess success in half-a-dozen different guises have added force and stature to his personality.

In the heyday of the Mitchell menage, Leslie’s mother was a celebrated hostess; people like Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells and Sir Nigel Playfair were frequently at the house. Leslie, who spent much of his childhood in the home of W. J. Locke, wanted desperately to write, an aspiration that has never deserted him. But after the Great War the family fortunes collapsed and, instead of going to the University, Leslie went to work—in a stockbroker’s office. If you work in the City and live in Hammersmith, and if, moreover, you earn only a pound a week, the public transport services are a luxury beyond your means. But our old friend, the ill-wind, while blowing fiery gusts at Leslie’s tortured feet, cast gentle zephyrs about his face which Sir Nigel Playfair espied one night on the Hammersmith Broadway. Recognising the lad from a casual encounter at his mother’s house, Sir Nigel offered him an understudy part at the Lyric Theatre. He took the part on a promise of £4 a week [about £200 in today’s money, allowing for inflation – Ed], which he never received because Stephen Thomas, Sir Nigel’s stage director, threw him out on the grounds that he was totally inexperienced.

Leslie proved in time to be one of the best understudies the theatre-going public never saw. To use the current euphemism, he “covered” for Leslie Banks, Laurence Olivier, Colin Clive, and others. Later he graduated to playing parts, including that of Stanhope in Journey’s End, both in London and South Africa.

Between plays he took up stage designing and lighting and, with Lady Playfair, interior decoration; he even sold advertising space for a magazine and books for Cape’s and Chatto.

He became a B.B.C. announcer, later migrating to the Variety Department as a producer. Then, one morning in 1936, he looked at his paper and read that he was to be the first television announcer. Yes, it was news to him, too. The B.B.C. had neglected to tell him.

 

A woman in furs and a man in a morning suit

Phyl and Leslie Mitchell on their wedding day, 2 June 1938

 

Three years later he left the B.B.C. and, while continuing to free-lance for them, joined British Movietone News as their regular commentator. In 1938 he married Phyllis, the daughter of Firth Shephard. After the war he joined Sir Alexander Korda as his Director of Publicity, went to America, and resigned in 1947. He ascribes his failure as a film publicity man to “lack of worldly experience.”

That blissful, ingenuous conceit of Leslie’s is sometimes a source of irritation to television-owners, who suggest that he looks thoroughly bored with his “Picture Page” victims, is often downright rude to them in his oblique, nonchalant way, and gives the impression that he cares for nothing but the end of the programme. I do not entirely hold this view, but it deserves inclusion in such a personal evaluation as this.

Leslie Mitchell, the good-for-nothing, who does a little bit of everything rather well, whose tele-camera “presence” is quite a little masterpiece of polished control of the situation, cannot dance, add and subtract or manage business affairs. He is hopeless at remembering funny stories or people’s names, and once restrained himself by a miracle from publicly introducing Lord Rothermere as Lord Beaverbrook. Perhaps his most disarming trick is the half-intended joke, uttered without a smile and followed by a bewildered “Did-I-say-that?” kind of look. It is this characteristic which makes Leslie so essentially a television personality. In the sense that “Itma” was “perfect” radio, Leslie Mitchell is “perfect” television because, having perfected the cult of what the Americans, in their expressive way, call the “dead-pan,” he can give an exquisite irony to anything he says. The same things said on “blind” radio would lose their point, so that to see him makes you half-wonder if he is a little naive and injudicious; if he really means to say as much and is desperately trying to conceal an indiscretion with that bland, impassive look. But no, it’s all part of the job—subtle, calculated, expertly timed and delivered.

This art, if art it is, is demonstrated every week when Leslie puts on his Saturday evening danse macabre for the benefit and entertainment of some 300,000 people.

 

 

Who . . . Me?

 

OH wad some Power the giftie gie us….

Unlike Robert Burns, I am suddenly possessed of an insight only offered to those who suffer the penetration of these literary X-rays.

After years of genuine interest in other people and the way they live – I’m astounded to read that I give the impression of being “thoroughly bored with them” and “often downright rude to them.” This moronic misunderstanding can only derive from what Mr. Heppner so lyrically describes as my “dead-pan.” I am not mollified by his furtive rider: “I do not entirely hold to this view.”

Anybody in the public eye must expect to be shot at, but in the name of criticism let’s have an unwavering aim.

I like to remember the words of that earlier Spectator: “’Tis not in mortals to command success, but we’ll do more, Sempronius; we’ll deserve it!”

Here’s hoping.

Leslie Mitchell

 

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