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Interview: Melvyn Bragg - Man out of time

ON THE 16th floor of ITV's headquarters towering over – where else – London's South Bank, Melvyn Bragg is telling me what it will feel like to leave the building he has been coming to every day for more than three decades.

"I'll miss it an awful lot," he murmurs as we settle down in his modest office to drink tea from polystyrene cups and talk about one of the most distinguished careers in British arts broadcasting. "I'll miss coming to work with nice people who I admire. I mean, look."

He gestures at the small, young team who work on the UK's longest running arts series – that is, until next year when The South Bank Show takes its final bow. "They're all mad keen on arts programmes out there. When I leave I'll have been coming to this building for 33 years."

Next summer Bragg will retire not only from our TV screens on a Sunday night but also from his job as ITV's controller of arts. Won't it be a huge wrench, coming in his 70th year?

"They've killed the show, so I thought, I'll go as well," he says with a shrug. Today, dapper as ever in a suit, red tie and brogues, Bragg seems resigned to his fate. Even his hair looks less puffed up than usual.

Now and again, though, his polite reserve and cheerful smiles give way to anger and I get the impression Bragg is biting his tongue. Although ITV put out a statement in May claiming he stepped down, he is adamant that budgets were cut to such an extent that the show could not continue. "I thought we'd taken all the steps necessary to survive," he says. "We took dramatic steps too, and did it very well. I've got my own private feelings on what I think happened, but it was a surprise. It was genuinely agreed that we were way ahead of everyone else in this business of cutting it down but keeping up the quality."

Does he think, like so many who bemoaned The South Bank Show's abrupt axing after 31 years, that it means the arts are valued less? Probably. And have the likes of Britain's Got Talent – a single episode of which reportedly gets double the budget spent on an entire season of The South Bank Show – taken over quality arts programming? "Looks like it," he says curtly. "I think there's room for both, myself. I think killing one to give more money to the other is extremely shortsighted and underestimates the intelligence of the British people to a great degree. It's saying: 'You dumbos, all you want is', well..." He trails off.

Before all this, Bragg seemed as in with the bricks as it was possible to be in such a fickle industry. Even ITV chairman Michael Grade said: "He's untouchable. His position here is more secure than mine."

"It did (shock me] a bit, especially from Michael," says Bragg before steeling himself. "I think it's a mistake. But there you go. These things happen. You move on."

We're ostensibly here to discuss the other series with which Bragg has long been associated, Radio 4's In Our Time. Since 1998, Bragg has been bringing a trio of teaching academics together each week to discuss a subject relating to science, philosophy, religion, history or culture. His latest book is a collection of some of In Our Time's best programmes, from debates on Socrates and Shakespeare to the origins of the calendar. How does he find the time to research so many random ideas? "Eclectic, please!" he laughs in mock horror. "Honestly, random? Perish the thought…

"It's not easy, but I like reading," he continues, which is evident from the stacks of books around us. "I enjoy what was called swotting in my day. I get the notes late Friday afternoon for the following Thursday morning. I find all the spare time I can for reading, get up very early on a Thursday morning, have a final two hours of nervousness, and away we go."

In Our Time came about as a result of Bragg being sacked from Radio 4's Start The Week. He had just been appointed a Labour peer – he remains a close friend of the Blairs – and there was concern it would conflict with Start The Week's political remit. Instead he was offered the Thursday death-slot. "I thought, well, I'm just going to do what I've always wanted to do," he says. "It will probably last about six months but I'll have a go."

Apart from In Our Time, what will he do with himself after The South Bank Show ends? "Collapse in an undistinguished heap," he laughs. "I don't know. I'm thinking about whether I might or might not do television. I've got an open mind. It's not a bad time to end a television career. I'll be 70. I'm certainly going to continue to write. I've been writing since I was 19. But it will be a funny business." One or two offers have come in but he won't say more.

Writing might prove tricky too, despite Bragg having penned upwards of 30 books. Since his last novel, Remember Me, he hasn't been able to write any fiction at all. "It took a lot out of me, churned something up," he says. "It was very draining." The book is the fourth in his series of fictionalised autobiographies that began with his working-class Cumbrian childhood, and is the story of Bragg's first marriage to a French artist, Lisa Roche. She took her own life in 1971, shortly after her therapist had ended hers.

"It's going to take another couple of years (to write fiction]," Bragg says. "It's the best thing I've done by a long way and the most difficult. It's a very painful book, to read as well as to write. But that's what its grip is."

Bragg and Lisa had one child, were separated, and he had begun a new relationship (with his current wife of 35 years). On the night Lisa ended her life she phoned and asked Bragg to come over. He said he would see her the following day. After her death he suffered a massive breakdown, following another in his teens, and then, as he puts it to me, "put swabs on the wound, lint and bandages, and covered it up".

Remember Me came out last year but Bragg only did one interview and it's taken him until now to speak about the book's impact. He looks tired yet determined as he continues. "I got very down about it last year," he says of stopping writing. "I was missing it and getting quite depressed. It was like losing a friend. I'm back to writing, and with a bit of luck I'll get back to fiction. We'll see."

In no way was writing the book a cathartic experience. "It churned stuff up in a way that I hadn't expected. It totally contradicted the notion that writing is therapy and that by finishing something you achieve closure. I don't want closure, I don't know what that means or why you would want it. I've got to be able to talk about this book in public. It was tiring but it made it into a book rather than some prowling beast I was frightened to tackle. It's done, it's out there."

A few years after Lisa's death, Bragg started The South Bank Show, writing a passionate manifesto for his arts series that would mix highbrow and popular culture and featured Paul McCartney and Germaine Greer in the first episode. It must have come along at a crucial time for him. "Yes, I suppose," he says. "I hadn't thought of that. Work is a great blotter up. It stops you thinking, which is useful. No, it stops you feeling."

Work has always been Bragg's great leveller and his crutch, and I suspect it will continue to be long after The South Bank Show. "The luck I've had, well frankly the luck I've made for myself, is I've managed to never do anything that I haven't wanted to. It's odd, given my working-class background. I didn't set out to be as single-minded as that." Bragg smiles and looks pleased with himself. "So far I've got away with it."

The South Bank Show starts again tonight at 10.15pm on ITV1. In Our Time, a companion to the Radio 4 series, is published on 17 September by Hodder & Stoughton

In Our Time – memorable moments

THE CALENDAR

Melvyn Bragg: How accurate is the present calendar?

Robert Poole: Good enough... The fundamental standard remains the solar year and really if we want a different calendar we're going to have to go and colonise another planet.

DARWIN

Bragg: Before Darwin came here to Cambridge he was enrolled in a medical school in Edinburgh. He didn't last very long there. What did he get out of it and why did he get out of it?

Steve Jones: He was extraordinarily badly taught. I mean, Edinburgh is an experiment in geology, the Galapagos of North Britain, how can you not believe in volcanism – in volcanoes – and look at Arthur's Seat?

BLACK HOLES

Bragg: We're all destined, the future of the universe is that we all end up in a black hole.

Sir Martin Rees: Things aren't quite as apocalyptic as that. Black holes are indeed growing but we are at an extremely safe distance from the one in the centre of our galaxy.

SHAKESPEARE'S LANGUAGE

Germaine Greer: Shakespeare didn't think he was for all time, I don't think. He knew that he was only for so long as men breathed and eyes saw and black ink shone on a page. Much more modest than Ben Jonson.

TEA

Bragg: So when in 1660 Sam Pepys recorded having had tea – "a China drink of which I have never drunk before" – he probably got a little taste from somebody who had smuggled it in?

Huw Bowen: Yes, it's probable that the early tea that came into Britain came either via Amsterdam, where the Dutch would have imported it, or had been brought surreptitiously into Britain by a sailor on board an East Indiaman.

THE ORIGINS OF MATHEMATICS

Bragg: Do you think the sixth century BC in the West could be considered the beginning of the driving force of mathematics?

Margaret Wertheim: I think that is true. Pythagoras is the first person that we know of who came up with the idea that mathematics could be the language of the physical world.

 
 
 

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