John Mitchinson, Director of QI Television Show

Posted by | history, London, male, TV | September 08, 2011

John Mitchinson is the most interesting person of Roger Burton. He took us to a defunct London railway to demonstrate the battle between Man and Nature.

I brought you somewhere I think is more than quite interesting. It’s a disused railway line in the north of London. It’s called the Northern Hight’s Railway and it runs all the way from Finsbury Park to Alexandre Palace and then beyond to Edgware. I say it runs, actually it doesn’t run anymore,  it has been completely disused for nearly 60 years.

When I discovered this place it completely blew me away. I started walking it obsessively. All the way up to Highgate Wood and down again. What we’re standing on here is the old Stroud Green Station. It was last used in 1954 but in the 1860s when it was built London was the most important city in the world. It was centre of the industrial revolution. It was also this burgeoning metropolis with houses being built in all directions and railways being built to connect all those houses together.

Standing here you have this sense of the passage of time. This was once a bustling busy London station: People with Bowler Hats and briefcases going to work, going from Edgware in the North down into the city.

And then in 1950s it closed and now it’s this incredible artery of green that runs from Finsbury Park to Highgate Woods. And it’s that point at which the city becomes nature, or where nature starts to reinvade the city.

John Mitchinson

“Waiting for a train in the 1860s in the 21st century”

Now I’m standing here in my late 40s wondering what’s the process by which a piece of real estate like this transforms from a platform with all kinds of buildings and everything a human being needs, into this amazing magical glade. Which trees come first? Is it the Ashes and the Sycamores that grow most quickly? And then there’s that Philadelphus over there. Maybe that’s an escapee from someone’s back garden. It’s the notion of the way, quickly, nature takes control again. What was a human, confident place, is taken back over by what Dylan Thomas describes as the green fuse that drives the flower.  And I love that idea. You know, we as human beings are remarkable. What we have built is remarkable. But we are continually having this relationship with nature where we can tame it but we can never control it.

Who is the most interesting person you know?

The most interesting person I know is a man called Chris Wild and he’s a time traveller.
 That sounds frivolous but it really isn’t. He’s really an extraordinary human being and he’s building a time machine. The retroscope as he calls it, is the most pure and extraordinary use of the web hitherto. He’s starting from the really interesting premise that the notion that there is a past, present and future is a really limited idea. It’s the idea that human beings have only ever lived in the present; nobody’s ever lived in the past and nobody’s ever lived in the future we’re all always living in the present. So he uses primarily photographs to show this. And we’ve all had that experience of looking at photographs that completely collapse the centuries.

A particular example, a sequence of photographs he put on his site shows a group of Victorians smiling. What’s interesting is that because the exposure time was so long with those early silver nitrate plate cameras, people tended to present themselves formally, in a sober pose because they had to keep very still. Now, if you think about, a lot of the way we mediate with the photographic past is that the photograph somehow determines our sense of the time. So we think about the Victorians as being very still and distant and formal. Anyway, he found this extraordinary collection of photographs of Victorians smiling, because a technological advance that happened with cameras. And it is a total revelation. You are suddenly looking at people who are just like you.

“Christina O’Gorman, photographed by her father at Lulworth Cove, Dorset, England. Christina’s choice of swimming costume was a fortuitous one since red was a colour which the Autochrome process captured particularly well.” Chris Wild,  http://mashable.com/2015/04/23/autochrome-photos-ogorman/

IMAGE: RPS/SCIENCE AND SOCIETY PICTURE LIBRARY/GETTY IMAGES.

The other key to this is colour. He found all kinds of amazingly beautiful colour images. I was looking at some from Russia from 1909-1911. And we forget that we have this vision of the past as being black and white because we see the photographs in black and white. But when the colour is there, and these are proper colour photography and there was a lot of colour photography in the late 19th century that most of us haven’t seen. Suddenly the time dissolves. The grass and again, the nature, looks exactly the same. The people’s faces look familiar. So he’s building an extraordinary site that enables people to reconstruct a sense of how places have evolved through time. And this is something you can’t do on television and you can’t do it on film, but you can do it on the web. And this is why he’s interesting and very germane to all the things I’ve talked about.  This place is about time travel. I’m waiting for a train in the 1860s sitting on this station platform in the 21st century.

It is a fantastically resonant idea.


John Mitchinson is the head of research for the British television panel game QI, and is also the managing director of Quite Interesting Limited. He is co-writer of the QI series of books with the show’s creator John Lloyd. The two men are normally referred to as “The Two Johns” and are seen as the main controllers of QI, as they do most of the research of the show. From Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=John_Mitchinson_(researcher)&oldid=659936367

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