James Mitchell's eyes - framed by black rimmed glasses - have seen a lot in their 68 years. They've seen the terrible hardship of the 1930s' depression, the wonderful benefits of a good education (first at grammar school and then at Oxford), and the bizarre excesses of Hollywood - a place which he describes as "a city of fear".
He's probably best known as the creator and scriptwriter of Callan, the late-Sixties TV series, and the hugely popular When the Boat Comes in, which was first broadcast in 1976. He accounts for the incredible success of the latter programme, about a family's life in Tyneside in the 1920s, with one word: "nostalgia".
"People always look back over their shoulders on what they thought was a golden age," he says. "There were things that happened in When the Boat Comes in that were quite appalling: people being evicted, young women dying of tuberculosis, exploitation, lock-outs, strikes and everybody would watch them all, then at the end of the day say, 'Oh, those were the days'." Yet the script was about the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, a theme present in a lot of his work. His father was a fitter who became a union man and eventually the mayor of South Shields, James's home town, in 1940.
Born in 1926, the year of the General Strike, James Mitchell was encouraged by his family to concentrate on his education — which he did to great effect by first going to grammar school and then to Oxford to study English. "I loved it," he says enthusiastically, reminiscing about his university days.
Then he had a series of jobs, including barman, travel agent, actor and eventually teacher, before becoming an established writer. "All the struggle," he says, referring to his various occupations, "was part of the important business of staying alive and having enough money to drink and chase women."
He wrote his first book, Here's a Villain, in 1957 at the age of 30. "I was what you call a late developer," he says. That was closely followed by a second novel, A Way Buck which he adapted for TVs prestigious Armchair Theatre and won the Crimewriters Association Critics Award with. He says that writing a script is like "writing a novel by other means".
After his success with Armchair Theatre he was a freelance scriptwriter for a while, working on classic TV shows like The Avengers and Troubleshooter, before creating his own series in 1968 called Callan. The programme was so successful that an American producer invited him over to Hollywood.
"It was positively dreadful," he says of his time as a scriptwriter, but then reconsiders his harsh pronouncement. "No that's unkind. It's true but it's unkind...It's ghastly. It's ghastly with money, which is why I went." His main reason for hating it is because of the paranoia that it generates in people, "it is a city of fear as much as anything else," he says. "Are they going to fire me? Am I not going to be making $150,000 a month?"
He eventually tired of Hollywood and then came back to England to write When the Boat Comes in and since then he's been concentrating on mostly novels. He has a direct and uncompromising attitude to his craft and he prefers not to analyse where he gets his inspiration from. "The novel, as far as I'm concerned, comes from the unconscious. The inspiration may very well be sleep. It comes out of your mind unasked or it doesn't come out at all."
(adapted from Books magazine november december 1994)
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