The Overheard and Underprivileged

The Overheard and Underprivileged: Uses of Montage Sound

in the Post-War BBC Television Documentaries of Denis Mitchell and Philip Donnellan

Ieuan Franklin and Paul Long

This joint paper will focus on the use of wild-track or non-synch sound in the BBC documentaries of Denis Mitchell (1911 – 1990) and Philip Donnellan (1924 – 1999) to create urban soundscapes and to amplify the voices and stories of those who have otherwise remained ‘hidden from history’. These two filmmakers are often mentioned in the same breath, as they both moved on from producing evocative radio features in their respective BBC regions in the 1950s (Mitchell worked in Manchester for the North Region, Donnellan in Birmingham for BBC Midlands) to create similarly ‘hand-crafted’ documentaries for BBC television in the second half of that decade, and because both men were concerned to portray working-class culture at a grassroots level, and to give voice to underprivileged minorities, such as homeless drifters, itinerant workers and recent immigrants. Exploiting the possibilities of montage tape editing, and a contrapuntal relationship between sound and image, Denis Mitchell in particular pioneered the use of tape-recorded actuality in television documentaries such as Morning in the Streets (1959). This became known in industry and critical circles as the ‘think-tape’ technique, as it evoked the thoughts and interior lives of the people who featured visually within the films.


Donnellan made use of a similar technique in some of his own work in the 1960s, creating complex soundtracks in collaboration with the radio producer Charles Parker (for example, The Colony 1964), at a time when Mitchell had left the BBC for Granada and was experimenting with the new medium of video. Contrasts can be made between Mitchell’s poetic films, which are often reminiscent of the classic documentary work of Humphrey Jennings, and Donnellan’s more politically oriented work, which often relied on jarring contrasts in sound, vision and ideological perspective. This paper will seek to place the work of Mitchell and Donnellan in a broader historical context, as belonging within a distinctively British continuum that includes Mass Observation, BBC radio features and Free Cinema (as opposed to direct cinema or cinema verité), and will address the question of whether the style of personal or poetic documentary pioneered by these men has a future in British television.


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