The last South Bank Show series starts tomorrow, but driven by something – family trauma? Fear of ageing? Being involuntarily ‘retired’ by ITV? – Melvyn Bragg has no intention of going away
There was a story in the paper last month about how Melvyn Bragg had given half a tonne of notes, drafts, pages of ideas and one unpublished novel to Leeds University, of which he is chancellor, one of his many jobs. “It arrived in what you might call a national collection of carrier bags,” said Chris Sheppard, the library’s head of special collections, who drove down to London, to Bragg’s home in Hampstead, to empty his attic. Among everything was a clipboard, holding a yellow chart from 1968 on which Bragg had mapped out how many words he would write that year: “Apr-Dec aim: four books, 75,000 words each.” This goes some way to explaining just how much Bragg has always worked, and continues to: 21 novels, 13 non-fiction books, children’s books, on top of his careers in broadcasting and politics and positions on various arts boards.
No wonder he looks a bit tired. He sits at the table in his conservatory and rubs his face again and again. Maybe I just lack Bragg’s industriousness, and therefore don’t really understand it, but I do wonder if something else is behind it. If the working-class Cumbrian boy in him feels he has something to prove. Or if work is a distraction from difficult thoughts. Or if it is, as he says, that unlike his father and his father’s friends, he just feels lucky to have a job he loves doing. It could as easily be all these things as none. “Some people are prolific, some aren’t,” he says with a shrug. “Compared to the big 19th-century novelists, I’ve got a slim volume of work. I enjoy writing. Would I rather be playing golf? No. Would I rather be fishing? No.”
Bragg is filming a series of South Bank Show specials, which will be a last look back at the work of 10 of the artists featured in the arts show’s 31-year history. The first, on Andrew Lloyd Webber, is finished and about to go out. The others – including David Hockney, Billy Connolly, Judi Dench, Ian McEwan – he is working on. Last summer, ITV put out a statement saying Bragg was retiring; this wasn’t true, he says, it was that his budget had been cut so drastically that making the programme would have been impossible, and it was effectively cancelled. “I was shocked because there had been no prior …” He often doesn’t finish sentences. “I think it wasn’t terribly well handled. In the two years before, we had taken budget cuts, and we were delivering what we were supposed to deliver. We could have got bigger audiences, but then they could have given us more support to get bigger audiences. All the stuff that other programmes get that we didn’t. There was a sort of dive this time last year in ITV advertising and I think there was a panic. Things were chucked overboard and we were one of them. I was shocked, disappointed, then angry because it was presented in a way that wasn’t quite right, that I had left when I hadn’t.” He raps the table. “It’s all over now, though, it’s fine. I’m seeing Peter Fincham [ITV’s director of television] for lunch in a couple of weeks. It’s time to move on.”
Bragg has always said that The South Bank Show was about bringing living artists to as wide an audience as possible, and treating pop stars and comedians with as much reverence as painters and composers. And now that has gone from ITV. “They’re still doing arts programmes,” he says, with a slightly pained expression, “[such as] Popstar to Operastar [the recent show which took popstars and taught them to sing opera] and good for them, but it’s not what I think is important. Maybe what I think is important is too narrow. I don’t think it’s narrow, I think it’s niche, and I think it’s increasingly valuable.”
The show hasn’t been without criticism over the years – some thought it was too reverential, others that it was too trivial. Bragg has been an easy target too – for his abrasiveness, ubiquity, self-regard, perceived smugness, vanity. Is any of that fair? Does he think he is vain? “I think television does tease out a certain vanity in everybody when you look at yourself and you go, ‘Oh Christ.’ Maybe that’s why my intros get shorter and shorter.” He laughs, then sighs, then says wearily: “I see TV reviewers when they talk about my effing hair when there’s a programme on Coppola or Damien Hirst.”
Can he see a time when won’t be making any more television? “Oh yes. I thought very hard about stepping down now, but then this idea of class and culture came up [a forthcoming documentary series for the BBC], and I’ve agreed to do a documentary on the King James Bible, because I’m writing a history of it.” He has been interested in it for years, he says. “I was brought up a strict Anglican and it’s got everything in it, all the things I’m interested in. I’m interested in faith. I don’t believe in the resurrection and all that, but I am fascinated by the metaphor and the morality and the mysticism.” Then he gets a bit carried away and talks about the Bible, which is fascinating and feels like being in an episode of In Our Time, Bragg’s gloriously brainy and eclectic Radio 4 series on art and science and ideas, but it is hard to steer him off the subject.
After this book, which has to be ready to come out next year to mark the King James Bible’s 400th anniversary, Bragg says he will try to return to writing fiction. When he was promoting his last novel, Remember Me, a piece of autobiographical fiction based on his catastrophic first marriage to the artist and writer Lisa Marie Roche, he said he didn’t think he would be able to write another novel until he had written about what happened to them. “Life has a way of biting you on the ankles,” he says now, “since I haven’t actually written any more fiction.” The book follows the broad strokes of life – they married young and had a daughter, but the marriage collapsed as Roche’s depression started to engulf her and Bragg’s own mental health began to buckle. He started seeing the writer Cate Haste (to whom he is still married), separated from Roche, and in 1971, on a night in which Bragg was supposed to have gone to see her, Roche killed herself.
The pain appears as raw on those pages as it must have been nearly 40 years ago. He must have thought very carefully about publishing it. “Yes, I did and sometimes I wish I hadn’t. I don’t know …” His sentence hangs unfinished. “I was very lucky that people liked it, and I still get letters from people every week. But I wouldn’t have published it if my daughter hadn’t said, ‘OK, go ahead.’ She was very encouraging. But sometimes I think it would have been better to put it in a plastic bag and left it to Leeds with the other stuff.”
The book took three years, and seven drafts, to finish. “I was going to say I wrote it on and off, but I didn’t – I wrote it all the time. Holidays were cancelled. I just felt obsessed by it, I was mired in it, I went back again and again.” In an interview in 2008 with his friend, the critic Peter Kemp, to promote the book, he described Roche’s death as a “rupture” that “just never stops”.
Writing the book stirred up all those feelings of guilt and pain, it didn’t lay any of it to rest. “It didn’t, but I didn’t sit down and expect it to. I didn’t think: ‘I’ll write this because it will be cathartic.'” He had written The Soldier’s Return, the first in his series of autobiographical novels, and then A Son of War, in which he wrote about the breakdown he suffered as a teenager, and then Crossing the Lines, in which his alter-ego Joe Richardson leaves his working-class family for Oxford. “And then I was on to the next stage, and before I realised I was about to get in to this ‘car crash’, effectively, and I had to make the decision about whether I was going to go ahead or not. And that’s when I went to talk to my daughter. I said ‘I really want to write it, but I don’t have to publish it’.”
Bragg hasn’t read it since it was printed. “I was at one event and I was reading from it, towards the end of the first chapter I think, and as soon as I got into paragraph three I knew this was a very bad idea,” he says. “And I never did any reading from it again. It brought too much back.”
There is a silence for a moment, in which he suddenly looks very tired, and then he sits up straight and says – and this is either to get off the subject, or because it has genuinely been bothering him, or both – “Why did you go on about me being vain? Does it bother you? It doesn’t bother me.” Why does it bother him that I asked him? “Oh dear,” he sighs. “You’re going to make a thing of this aren’t you.” I wasn’t even going to make a thing of it first time around, I only asked him in passing because I was interested in how he took criticism. He softens a bit. “It gets to you when you’re younger. I suppose you just learn to ride a punch, that’s about it. And when you get older, you begin to write off the critics. You think, ‘They’re not much good,’ but early on you think, ‘Crikey, they are really important.’ Really, honestly, you have to believe me, it doesn’t bother me.” I’m not sure I do, but there you are.
It does feel like a time of endings. The New Labour years, of which Lord Bragg of Wigton felt so much a part – he was made a life peer in 1998 – seem very long ago. How does he feel about the prospect of a Tory government? “There’s part of me that thinks change is good,” he says. “I’m a Labour party supporter, but I’m also a democrat. But I’m not terribly struck by the quality of [the Conservatives’] policies.” He decries the general “box-ticking” of the Labour government – “the interference and new initiatives … there’s an overmanagement, and also a mismanagement, in certain areas” – but believes Labour have been good for the arts. “On the whole, the arts in this country are in better nick now than they have been for a long time. The arts are rather like the NHS – there are always parts that people are complaining about. But look at what’s going on and it’s extraordinary – little theatres, touring groups, what’s happening in school choirs and orchestras, the Royal Opera and English National Opera is in good nick, the West End according to people like [producer] Cameron Mackintosh has never been better, fringe is good, the book festivals are roaring away. It’s marvellous.” He shrugs off questions about Tony Blair, saying “I knew Tony Blair a little bit, but not as much as people thought I did. Cate knows Cherie a bit.”
One of the things that is strikingly obvious in the South Bank Show retrospectives, so obvious that I feel obvious even mentioning it, is that, while his enthusiasm remains undimmed, Bragg, now 70, is no longer a young man. In person, he appears a little stooped. Is he conscious of getting older, and of time running out? “Yes, very. It’s curious because there have only been two times in my life I’ve been conscious of age,” he says. “The first was around the age of 40. I just began to realise – and this lasted about six to nine months – that this was finite. Of course I’d thought about it before, but it hadn’t really meant anything. Then the same when I came towards 70 – and I think this is to do with Christianity, the three score years and 10. I think, how many really active years have I got, when I can really go at things? How many years are there that matter to live the life I want to lead, which is to write, to do In Our Time, maybe do some more television? It doesn’t make me feel upset, but it does figure. And it has been accentuated by leaving the thingummybob,” he struggles slightly for a second, “The South Bank Show. Your age coming into your calculation about things is happening. Have I done the best I can do? That’s the other thing.”
And it strikes me that for all his flaws (yes, the self-regard, and flashes of insecurity) we’re lucky to have Bragg, and I think we’ll come to treasure his accidental archive – the 800 South Bank Show episodes, the ongoing In Our Time. Are there still books he needs to write? “There are maybe three novels I would really like to write. If I can do them well, then I’ll think I’ll have given it my best shot.” And then he’s awfully sorry but it’s time for me to go because he has a lunch to go to, and then there are all these films to make and he hasn’t even finished interviewing the artists yet. There is always work to do.
The South Bank Show Revisited starts on ITV1 tomorrow night at 10.15pm