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Thursday, 29 August, 2002, 12:16 GMT 13:16 UK
Minstrels founder Mitchell dies
The Black And White Minstrel Show
Mitchell's Black And White Minstrel Show began in 1958
George Mitchell, the man behind the controversial Black And White Minstrel Show, has died aged 85.

Mr Mitchell, who died on Tuesday, was responsible for one of BBC light entertainment's greatest success stories - albeit one which later ran into intense criticism.

The musical show, which harked back to 19th Century minstrelsy, required performers to "black up" with make-up.

The show's origins lay in Mr Mitchell's Swing Group ensemble, which prompted a BBC producer in 1947 to ask him to arrange some Negro spirituals for a radio show.

Fame

The choir, which he organised, became a success in its own right and in 1958 BBC TV producer George Inns devised the Black And White Minstrel Show format.

At the time, it was a runaway success on TV and achieved an audience of 16.5 million in 1964.

As leader and musical arranger of the group, Mr Mitchell once held first, second and fourth places in the album charts and won two gold discs. He was made an OBE in 1975.

His work as conductor and arranger meant his face was only seen when he took a bow at the end of the show, had become known as "the most famous back in show business".

The show, which included singing and dancing, ran on BBC TV for 20 years and achieved huge audiences.

Tired format

It then went on to run until 1978, despite a growing chorus of criticism at the show's insensitivity and offensiveness.

In May 1967, the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination delivered a petition to the BBC - signed by both black and white people - which requested that the programme be taken off air.

For the last series, the male performers no longer blacked up, but in any case the format appeared to have tired by the late 1970s.

George Mitchell was born in Falkirk, Scotland in 1917 but moved to London as a child.

An accountant by profession, he joined the army at the outbreak of war in 1939 where he started his first choir.

He is survived by his second wife, Dorthy Ogden, and two children from his first marriage.

See also:

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