Playwright, novelist, screenwriter: A man hungry for ideas who cannot help but write. Esther Armstrong profiles Julian Mitchell’s career

Julian Mitchell is a gay writer. But he does not wish to be defined as such, “I do not regard myself as a gay writer. I write and I hope I can write anything.” And indeed he can. Born in May 1935, Mitchell is a playwright, a screenwriter and a novelist. Since taking up the pen at the age of 14 he has covered an array of topics but is perhaps best known for his contribution to the ITV drama institution Inspector Morse. However, despite his protestations, it would seem he does have a habit of looking to his own life for inspiration.

Mitchell describes the final night of Another Country as his proudest moment in a career spanning more than 50 years, and an occasion which made him cry. Based in 1930s England, the play deals with homosexuality in public schools and on its last showing in the 1980s, packed a West End theatre to the rafters. Mitchell himself boarded at Winchester College as a boy and admits he can identify with the experiences of the main characters, “We all assumed when we were young that this was just a phase out of which we would grow, and 90 per cent of people did. But it was a shock when you didn’t.”

This attitude towards homosexual activity is something Mitchell revisited in his film Consenting Adults (2007) – written for BBC4 in commemoration of the Wolfenden Report (1957). The film depicts the controversy surrounding the final suggestion by a government committee to decriminalise homosexuality. Adding to the complexity and drama is the relationship between John Wolfenden, who chairs the committee, and his son Jeremy, who happens to be gay. Again Mitchell’s art imitates life, “My father hated homosexuality and thought it was a crime. My mother never talked about it.

 “I was at least 25 before I fully adapted,” he continues, “It was very difficult in those days. I do not know how easy it is now. I never did tell my parents. But they knew.” Despite writing Consenting Adults, Mitchell is unsure of how important it is to educate young people today on the Wolfenden Report and its importance for the progress of gay rights. In his view society is much more relaxed now, “It seemed when I was younger things were never going to change. Then the law was changed and five years later nobody could remember it had ever existed. In this country I think people have become incredibly liberal in my lifetime.”

 Mitchell does not think he is unusual in drawing inspiration from his own experiences and says a little defensively, “Every writer writes about his family. You learn about human relationships very young and very early on.” Now, aged 74, he lives with his partner in Monmouthshire and says he does not like to define himself as either English or Welsh. Following a period of relative quiet, he is currently working on a series of six novels set in Monmouthshire which shows again his propensity to draw from what goes on around him. Inspiration, he says, comes along far less often than you would think, “I just drift around, I read, I listen, I look and I hope something will happen.”

 But Mitchell is not necessarily a modest man, “What is the point in writing if nobody is going to read it… I have written two [of the Monmouthshire series] so far and they are sitting in a box waiting for a publisher.” On saying that he has no plans to retire any time soon, “I would die if I didn’t write,” he imparts with no unnecessary drama.

 An avid reader of history, Mitchell wrote a biographical film of Oscar Wilde (Wilde) in 1997, something which he enjoyed tremendously. “When you are writing historically you are making them up… I did history as a student and I still read a lot. The imaginative effort to getting into the past is a great pleasure for me.”

 At times taciturn and at other times eager to share, Mitchell is an extremely interesting man who finds great delight in the world around him. Clearly capable of wowing a crowd he is both entertaining and fascinating in equal measure. But typically of men his age he does not seem inclined to sentimentality and this makes it all the more heart-warming when he temporarily lets his guard slip, “I met my partner at a dinner party. I arrived and there was an empty space opposite. He arrived late, he’s always late. I looked across the table and my life was changed.”