Obituary: Austin Mitchell, former MP and TV presenter

Austin Mitchell, who has died at 86, was the long-time Labour MP for Great Grimsby, a former presenter of Yorkshire Television’s Calendar, and a lifelong chronicler of the cultural life of Yorkshire.

Austin Mitchell

During the 1970s he was one of the best-known faces in the county – arguably second only to that of Geoffrey Boycott – as he fronted a raft of regional programmes on TV, some serious, others plain silly.

He could turn his hand to political interviews as readily as to encounters with local eccentrics, and was seldom afraid to risk making a fool of himself in the name of entertainment. Without doubt he was the region’s first local news personality.

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His stock was never higher than in 1974 when he was chosen to moderate a live debate in YTV’s studio two between Brian Clough and his predecessor Don Revie, on the night Clough was fired as Leeds United manager after just seven week.

Mitchell was not a football fan and was qualified for the job, he said, “because I was the only presenter around who was sober and hadn’t gone home to a mansion in Ilkley or wherever”.

It was a skill he had honed in New Zealand, where he had gone in 1959 after Oxford, ostensibly to lecture in history at the University of Otago. TV was only just starting there, and he fell into it after conducting some talks on local radio. Live broadcasting, he observed, was “the greatest excitement you can have, short of sex”.

New Zealand had only one channel at the time and for most of the 1960s, Mitchell was a fixture on it. “They had to watch me,” he said.

Returning to Britain to his former life as an Oxford don proved anticlimactic, and he needed little encouragement to return home to Yorkshire to join the newly-launched ITV station in Leeds. Forming a formidable double-act with the late Richard Whiteley, he helped make Calendar one of the most-watched regional news programmes in the country, and also branched off into political journalism.

His decision in 1977 to stand for parliament might have surprised some viewers, but Mitchell had long been a student of politics, writing a doctoral thesis at Oxford entitled The Whigs In Opposition, 1815–1830.

Grimsby was to be the setting for a by-election, following the death of the former Labour Foreign Secretary Tony Crosland. Running on an anti-Common Market ticket and believing the EU would be detrimental to the town’s fishing economy, Mitchell took the seat by a slender majority of just 520 votes. He survived the collapse of the Callaghan administration two years later and remained in office until 2015, seldom leaving the back benches nor aspiring to.

Austin Vernon Mitchell was born in Bradford in 1934, the elder son of Richard Vernon Mitchell and Ethel Mary Butterworth. He went to Woodbottom Council School in Baildon, then Bingley Grammar, Manchester University and Nuffield College, Oxford. For a while, it seemed that he would pursue an academic life, and it was with that in mind that he went to New Zealand. He later wrote a satirical account of his time there in a book called The Half-Gallon Quarter-Acre Pavlova Paradise.

Later on, he would repeat the exercise in a library of writings on the humour and eccentricities of Yorkshire. There was also a volume of autobiography on his TV days, Calendar Boy, and just last year, a book about his fellow Bradfordian JB Priestley’s broadcasts to the nation during the Second World War.

Mitchell’s political career was not always in sync with the official Labour line – especially when he indulged his love of TV by co-hosting a discussion show on Rupert Murdoch’s Sky TV with the Tory grandee, Lord Tebbit. His anti-Europe stance sat uncomfortably with Neil Kinnock, under whom Mitchell was briefly opposition spokesman on trade and industry.

His commitment to Grimsby and in particular its fishing industry knew no bounds. At one stage he briefly changed his name to Austin Haddock to help promote the town. But in 2010 his majority was slashed to just 714, following the Commons expenses scandal which saw him forced to repay £10,549 in mortgage repayments – an error he ascribed to “carelessness”.

More recently, he was accused of sexism over a tweet about the former Conservative MP Louise Mensch, who had quit to spend more time with his family. His sense of irony was not appreciated, he said.

Mitchell is survived by his second wife, the journalist and former World In Action producer Linda McDougall, and by four children and eight grandchildren.