Obituary: Mike Dutfield
Tuesday 31 October 1995
It was tragic but perhaps in character that Michael Dutfield's vivid life should have ended in sudden death in a motorcycle accident. From his days at Cambridge, where he won a Blue for boxing, to filming under the Israeli bombardment of Beirut or sniper fire in Northern Ireland, this consummate television journalist and producer never chose the easy option. In the week he died, he was preparing for trips to Tajikistan and Algeria to film at the front line of those dangerous wars.
Born in Chingford in 1947, he went to grammar school in Ludlow and then to Gonville and Caius, Cambridge, to read English. While shifting beer barrels for a holiday job, he met Heather Campbell; they were married in 1970. A job offer to teach English took them to Zambia, but political changes there led to their being expelled. After a short career selling lavatories in Rhodesia, they made their way to South Africa where Mike persuaded the Rand Daily Mail to give him a three-day trial as a reporter. It was the turning-point of his career: four and a half years covering the abuses of apartheid (including being jailed during the 1976 riots in Soweto) fuelled a passionate concern for the underdog which his own success never diluted.
From South Africa he returned with his family to Britain where he got his first job in television at the BBC. His good- humour and sharp intelligence made him one of the most sought-after young producers in the business, even if his abiding suspicion of anyone in authority did not stop with his own bosses. He turned out a succession of accomplished films for programmes like Tonight (1977-79), Newsnight ( 1979-81), Panorama (1981-86) and (when he was persuaded to cross the line by ITV) This Week.
Even though producers are generally responsible for the journalism, the film quality and the logistics of their films, it is the fate of most of them to be less well-known to the outside world than the reporters who appear on screen. Many of the famous faces of television would readily acknowledge the debt they owed to this producer: Mike Dutfield was always the name they asked for on any difficult assignment.
It was more than his willingness to face danger in pursuit of stories. His cool judgement and concern for the lives of his crew meant he was the safest person to be with when the going got tough. As he worked his way to the heart of trouble in Armagh, Albania, Sarajevo, Mississippi, Beirut, the West Bank, Sudan and southern Africa, his shield was a stubborn honesty that won grudging respect from even the hardest villains.
In 1989, after winning the Royal Television Society award for his Northern Ireland series Families at War (BBC2), he became a founder member of the independent production company Barraclough Carey. Increasingly, he began to work on his own. The spare, unblinking quality of his direction gave his films a sniff of real life which could be grippingly painful to watch. In A Marriage of Inconvenience (ITV, 1990) he told the story (both in a book and a film) of Seretse Khama's battle to marry a white woman in the teeth of opposition from the British government. Welcome to Hell (BBC1, 1992) revealed the daily tragedies of apartheid through the prism of Soweto's largest hospital. And, most recently, for The Fall of Saigon (BBC2, 1995), he tracked down the last American to leave South Vietnam - and some Vietnamese they abandoned - to create a film described by one American critic as "the documentary of the decade".
Dutfield's three principal areas of concern were Northern Ireland, the Middle East and South Africa. To each he brought deep knowledge and understanding born of first-hand experience. He was not given to taking the word of politicians and experts, preferring to test their pronouncements against what he observed and heard from people who lived day and night in the heart of these troubled areas. In the series From Beirut to Bosnia (Channel 4, 1993), he explored (with Robert Fisk, of the Independent) the roots of Islamic fundamentalism in ways that made uncomfortable viewing for those who prefer to dismiss it all as terrorism. These and his many other films made up a corpus of work that marked him out as one of the pre-eminent producer/directors of his generation.
Despite the maturity of Dutfield's work, there was a streak of the teenager in him to the end. Neither his thicket of light brown hair nor his faded jeans seemed to change much in 20 years. His wife's passion for fast skiing he endeavoured to keep up with; his own, for fast bikes, she endured - once riding pillion all the way to Morocco. They and their two daughters, Louise and Claire, lived in a large rambling house in west London that seemed open all hours to friends from around the world. Fond of argument - and passionate, obstinate and opinionated when having one - he would defuse any situation with a sudden rush of laughter.
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