Austin Mitchell, who died today in the coronary care unit at Leeds Infirmary, aged 86, was not only one of the region’s longest-serving MPs but also its first home-grown local TV star.
During the first decade of Yorkshire Television’s existence, he helped invent the distinctive mix of serious reportage and utter trivia which made Calendar a regional institution. Revelling in the freedom to make a fool of himself when necessary, he created a style recognisable in television even today.
Yet he was also an academic; an Oxford don who spoke his mind no matter whether it was in sync with his front bench.
Sir Keir Starmer was among those paying tribute to Mitchell, who represented Grimsby for 38 years after giving up his TV career.
“There are few MPs whose dedication to their constituents would translate into changing their surname to ‘Haddock’ to promote local industry,” Sir Keir said, in reference to one of Mitchell’s signature stunts in 2002.
It had been Mitchell’s support for the fishing industry that had won him the seat in the 1977 by-election caused by the death of the former Cabinet Minister, Tony Crosland.
Mitchell believed that membership of the EU would undermine Grimsby’s traditional economy, and continued to campaign against it. He attributed his disagreement on the issue with Neil Kinnock to being ousted as Labour’s trade spokesman in 1989.
Melanie Onn, who succeeded him as Grimsby MP when he stepped down in 2015, said he was “a larger-than-life character” who “secured lost pensions compensation for the last generation of Grimsby’s fishermen and was a vociferous opponent of council housing stock transfers to arms length management organisations”.
Born in Bradford, Mitchell had been destined for an academic life when in 1959, after reading history at Oxford, he went to lecture at Otago University in New Zealand. But once there, he fell into the newly-launched national TV network and fronted a mixture of serious and frivolous programmes, a craft he would later perfect on Calendar.
He landed that job shortly after YTV launched in 1968, but it was in 1974 that he made perhaps his most memorable appearance, moderating a studio debate between the former Leeds United managers Don Revie and Brian Clough, immediately following Clough’s sacking. The interview was later reconstructed in the movie The Damned United, with the actor Mark Bazeley playing Mitchell.
The Great Grimsby Labour Party said Mitchell’s passion for the town “knew no bounds”, adding: “His good humour, kind nature and booming laugh will never be forgotten.”