Melvyn Bragg: “I think I’ll go on a bit longer”
Melvyn Bragg has been a champion of the arts for nearly four decades – ever since he began editing and presenting The South Bank Show. So when he voices his opinion about the current state of the arts, you’re inclined to listen intently.
The author, broadcaster and parliamentarian, who is preparing to come to Derbyshire to speak at his fifth Buxton Festival, broke off from his manically busy schedule to chat about the lack of coverage of the arts on television channels; the “misguided” decision by councils to cut funding for the arts; and his view of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport who Melvyn classes as “absolutely stupid” for trying to reform the BBC.
We chatted only days after stars had queued up to defend the independence of the BBC at the BAFTA TV awards. It was also in the week that the government was publishing its White Paper which includes plans for a major overhaul of the way the BBC is governed.
Melvyn criticised all the terrestrial TV channels for not covering the arts enough, although his only criticism of the BBC’s arts programmes is there are too few.
His own independent television production company is still making The South Bank Show, although these days it’s broadcast on Sky Arts, and he praises the satellite company for its foresight.
“It is curious that the Sky Arts channel does more programmes about the arts than any other channel in Britain. We do four series: The South Bank Show, The South Bank Show Originals, The South Bank Sky Arts Awards and Sky Academy Arts Scholarship Films – we make films about young scholars. The BBC should be doing that, or at least matching us. They don’t do enough in my view.”
“It’s a very bad time to cut.”
He is similarly dismissive of local authorities who have reduced or even cut altogether their grants to theatres, museums and other cultural organisations.
“I think the arts give a great deal of pleasure, inspiration and comfort to people. They’re an enormous part of people’s lives.
“The media industries, the arts and so on, make as much money as the oil business and the motor car business put together. I think (councils are) very misguided. When you look at the cities that have gathered around the arts, Glasgow for instance, what’s happened to Gateshead with the Sage (a purpose-built music and arts centre by the River Tyne), what’s happening in Leeds – sensible cities and sensible towns are using the arts to gather populations together. It’s working. It’s a very bad time to cut.”
Melvyn sits in the House of Lords as a Labour peer, so he might be expected to voice his opposition to the government’s arts policies. But you have to acknowledge that as a broadcaster and commentator he has a wealth of experience of how the industry works and his comments are not purely political.
He has little time for Culture Secretary John Whittingdale who indicated that the new BBC charter, which will come into force next January, might affect the corporation’s independence.
“Whether his threats will come off or not I doubt because there’s so much opposition to what he’s doing. It’s quite outrageous. Nobody has ever said ‘it’s a state broadcaster, you must do what we want, we will say what time programmes go out in the evening, we will have government people in to decide on the schedules’. It’s absurd.
“If they try that, the blundering philistine Whittingdale won’t know what’s hit him. The arts community is a big community and politically it’s absolutely stupid because it’s a very influential community. I think Whittingdale is absolutely stupid.”
Lord Bragg of Wigton has had a momentous journey since being born on 6th October 1939 in a small town near Carlisle. The only child of a mechanic and a tailor attended Wigton primary school and Nelson Thomlinson Grammar School where he was head boy.
He became one of the working-class teenagers who qualified for university through the grammar school system. He read modern history at Wadham College, Oxford.
His career began as a general trainee at the BBC and he rose swiftly to become a radio presenter, editor and presenter of The South Bank Show and controller of arts at London Weekend Television. He has probably done more than any other person to make the arts more accessible and less elitist.
He seems to be good at everything he tackles. He has written more than 20 novels and a number of non-fiction books.
A collaboration with flamboyant director Ken Russell resulted in Melvyn writing the screenplay for a film about Tchaikovsky, The Music Lovers, and later he co-wrote the film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar.
His latest work which he will be talking about at the Buxton Festival is his first historical novel for 20 years, Now Is The Time.
It is set in 1381 when a force of common people led by Walter (“Wat”) Tyler and the priest John Ball marched on London. They were protesting about unfair taxes, the corruption of those in power and the unacceptable wealth of the Church. The Peasants’ Revolt was the biggest in English history.
So why did Melvyn want to write about that time?
“Nobody had ever written about it. It wasn’t just peasants – it was across the classes. There were also artisans and priests and lawyers. It was a massive rebellion which was within a hair’s breadth of working.
“I like the characters involved. I like John Ball, the radical preacher – the first sermons retained in the English language are by John Ball – and I like Walter Tyler, the man who brought the whole thing together. I also wanted to explore the 14-year-old king who thought he was a divine king, Richard II, and his mother who was probably the richest woman in Europe, massively influential and a very important player. So there are a lot of big characters there.”
He enjoys coming back to Buxton and last appeared at the Festival three years ago.
“I like Buxton very much. I like the theatre, I like the idea of seeing an opera the night before, I like walking in the gardens and wandering around the town.
“It’s also got a sentimental association because my late friend Philip Whitehead who was the MP for Derby North was my very close friend. We met at Oxford and I used to stay with him in Rowsley.”
Some of Melvyn’s other books have had great success: his 1969 novel The Hired Man won the Time/Life Silver Pen award; The Soldier’s Return picked up the W H Smith Literary Award; and A Place in England, A Son of War and Crossing the Lines were all long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.
But his 2013 book Grace and Mary, an “insightful, moving tale of ageing and our helplessness in the face of dementia”, is his favourite.
“When I finished it I thought ‘that’s really good’. It was the first time I’d ever thought that. I’d like to have that feeling again once or twice.”
Melvyn was still a student at Oxford when he met Marie-Elisabeth Roche, a writer and painter. They married in 1961. She committed suicide ten years later. They had a daughter, Marie-Elsa.
In 1973 Melvyn married writer and film-maker Cate Haste. They have two children, Tom and Alice.
He was appointed to the House of Lords by Tony Blair in 1998, the year after Labour came to power with a landslide victory.
So what drives Melvyn on – what makes him get up every morning?
” You don’t stop wanting to be as good as you possibly can.”
“I think it’s to do the next thing, really. I’m beginning to write another book and I do a lot of radio programmes – I love doing In Our Time. I do what I do and I want to do more of it. I keep wanting to do it better.”
In Our Time is his Radio 4 discussion show. He has presented more than 600 editions of the programme.
“We’ve gone from an audience of half a million to two and a half million downloads a month. It seems to be the most popular download of all BBC programmes.”
Why is it so popular? “I don’t know – the idea was to have three British academics talk about one subject with no plugging of any books whatsoever. It just caught on.”
At the age of 76 Melvyn doesn’t envisage quitting that or any of his other shows just yet.
“I want to do the same thing only better. You don’t stop wanting to be as good as you possibly can. That’s why you do something, to make it good. You try, you fail, you try again and fail again. Fail better, in the words of Samuel Beckett. I think if I go on a bit longer I’ll get it right one of these days.”
* This article first appeared in the June 2016 edition of Country Images magazine