Presenter and novelist Baron Melvyn Bragg has always been at the forefront of the arts scene in Britain, and is passionate about making the arts accessible to everyone.
Life for Melvyn Bragg has always been a juggling act. Best known as the driving force behind the flagship arts series, The South Bank Show, the prolific broadcaster, writer and former Controller of Arts at ITV has 21 novels and 13 works of non-fiction to his name. Diversity is his trademark: during The South Bank Show’s 33-year history, we were as likely to be treated to an insight into Dolly Parton or Billy Connelly as more highbrow subjects such as Francis Bacon or the Royal Shakespeare Company. “That’s exactly what I set out to do when I was given my own arts programme back in ‘77,” he says. “I wanted to bring popular art into the same tent as established art. It wasn’t going to be the odd tokenist gesture. Everything from pop music to grand opera to theatre and TV would all be given serious attention.”
Serious it was, but then Bragg’s talent is to create extremely engaging TV. “It’s a fine balancing act,” he explains. “You have to treat your viewers with respect and not patronise them by dumbing down. You also need to treat your artist with respect and not thin down what they want to say.”
While he clearly loves to collaborate, Bragg is equally comfortable with the solitary nature of writing. “I like writing,” he stresses. “I enjoy the contrast of being just me and the sheet of paper. I can be solitary for long periods, but I couldn’t do it ad infinitum – I do need a social life too.”
With the understatement that he “likes to be busy”, Bragg is launching two new books at the festival. In Our Time is a companion to his eponymous BBC Radio 4 programme, which charts the history of ideas, covering subjects as diverse as The Great Wall of China, Munch’s The Scream and the development of the infant brain. The South Bank Show Final Cut, comprising 25 vignettes, is a homage to the show’s finest moments. “I won’t say I’m proud,” he says, at pains not to sound smug, “but I am pleased that we brought the arts to so many people and got across the idea that it’s not something you can access only in a theatre or a concert hall. TV is fantastic,” he enthuses. “You don’t have to dress up for it, or travel to London or be with people who intimidate you. You can just turn it on like a tap, and an arts programme is right there next to Coronation Street.”
Now in his 70th year, he says he feels “incredibly lucky” to have enjoyed being at the forefront of arts broadcasting. “There was never any great career plan. I was twenty-one and married and needed to earn money. I was lucky to stumble into the BBC.” While Bragg lives in Hampstead, he and his second wife, TV producer and writer Cate Haste, have kept a cottage in Cumbria, close to Wigton where he grew up, for forty years. “I walk and see old school friends, who I’m still very lucky to have in my life. But I don’t fish or play golf, or do things that take up enormous amounts of time. Yes, I work hard, but it’s not unusual to have two jobs. In fact most writers do.”
Appointed to the House of Lords in 1998 as a Labour life peer, he still sits on numerous arts boards and was recently awarded a BAFTA fellowship. ITV’s statement that he was retiring was clearly off the mark. He has secured a further three-year contract for In Our Time and is working on a history of the King James Bible. However, he has no current plans to write another novel, as his last one, Remember Me, “completely drained me” (it was based on his first, doomed marriage to French artist Lisa Roche, the mother of his eldest daughter, who suffered serious mental health issues and committed suicide).
He won’t divulge whether he’ll be fronting a new arts series, although there are rumours of enticing offers from Sky Arts. “It’s an incredibly exciting time,” he says. “The arts in this country have never been in better shape or more accessible to everyone.”
In our quick-fix, throwaway culture, does he believe there is still a role for a programme like The South Bank Show? “Yes,” he says, “more than ever. But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?”
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