‘I was always nervous,’ admits Melvyn Bragg, despite having interviewed some of the smartest and most impressive people on the planet during 40 years of The South Bank Show. ‘I always am, even now.’
That’s an incredible thing to hear from a legendary broadcaster who also happens to be Lord Bragg of Wigton in the County of Cumbria, and recently named as a Companion of Honour to Her Majesty. But the nerves before an interview are often so bad he flees to the toilet to pull himself together. ‘It’s a characteristic and I can’t get over it. I go away on my own, usually to the loo for five minutes, sit down and say to myself, “Oh come on! Out!” ’
In the early years of the South Bank Show Melvyn Bragg upset the establishment of the time by taking seriously so-called lowbrow subjects like pop music, comedy and film
Bragg, 77, seems so self-assured in the flesh as well as on screen, running his fingers through his famous hair that remains luxuriant even now. The anxious, nasal voice that impressionists loved to mimic in his early days is now commanding, as he unpacks the big ideas of history with academics on his Radio 4 show, In Our Time. But his nerves are racked before that too, surprisingly. ‘You just suddenly think, “Oh Christ, I’d better get out of this room and be on my own for a while.” But as [director] David Lean said to me about Sir Alec Guinness, “Anybody who is any bloody good gets nervous.” ’
Bragg is a world-class name-dropper, with friends like Lord Puttnam, who appear on a documentary celebrating four decades of The South Bank Show, saying a lot of nice things, like calling him ‘the David Attenborough of the arts’. But he has earned that title (and the right to drop any name he chooses) after changing the way the arts are seen in this country, because The South Bank Show was revolutionary when it started in 1978.
Bragg upset the establishment of the time by taking so-called lowbrow subjects like pop music, comedy and film every bit as seriously as classical music or ballet. ‘It was bumpy at first,’ admits the presenter, who started with Paul McCartney. Critics poured scorn but Bragg didn’t give up. ‘I was serious about saying there was genius to be found in the arts everywhere you looked, if you looked hard enough.’
Does he not think we’ve gone too far and now take silly things like Celebrity Big Brother, for example, far too seriously? ‘No, I don’t,’ he says, flipping it round smartly. ‘Are we taking silly things like classical music too seriously? I heard some music on Radio 3 the other day which was absolutely ridiculous. It was these people screaming. Classical music has its extremes like any other art form. Sometimes when I go to see the Turner Prize entries I think, “What the hell?” I don’t think it’s all gone too far, there are silly edges at either end.’
Then he tells a story about defending Big Brother in its early days to the Prince of Wales at a house party at Sandringham. So can we expect to see him on the show or maybe in the jungle? ‘No! Of course not.’
Melvyn Bragg with Tracy Emin in 2001. Bragg insists that all art forms have their extremes, and even high-brow art is no exception
An early South Bank Show episode featuring the great actor Sir Lawrence Olvier
Elizabeth Taylor is interviewed by Melvyn Bragg for an early episode of The South Bank Show
The son of a publican from Cumbria, Bragg has worked hard to become a mainstay of the establishment he once challenged, so he won’t be risking his dignity like that. The South Bank Show put Macca alongside Herbert von Karajan, featured Ken Dodd as much as Ingmar Bergman, took Tracey Emin in her early days as seriously as Picasso. And it’s still coming up with surprises: Bragg and his team were the ones who, five years ago, brought the music made by the likes of Dizzee Rascal to a mainstream audience for the first time.
How does it feel for a man in his 70s to be the Godfather of Grime? ‘Ha! Well, it was Archie Powell – then one of our young producers – who spotted it. They were just broadcasting from one tower block to another, from each other’s kitchens. They would never turn up on time but Archie persisted and made the film. Somehow or other, we hit the button. Grime is the dominant sound in pop now. It’s huge.’
As he sits in his office near the BBC, looking handsome in a black turtle-neck, I am reminded that The South Bank Show made Melvyn Bragg an unlikely sex symbol (‘Don’t be ridiculous!’). But there was a lot of interest in his love life. His first wife, the French viscountess Marie-Elisabeth Roche, killed herself in 1971, after they had separated. Their daughter Marie-Elsa, now a priest, has recently published a fine novel set in Cumbria and found herself going over those terrible days again in interviews. ‘She was never keen on talking about her mother but they keep asking. It’s painful for both of us,’ says Bragg.
He married the writer Cate Haste in 1973, but they have stopped living together after 43 years. ‘Yeah, Cate and I separated a year last June and I got her a house in Hampstead, up on the hill. She also got the house in the Chilterns. I stayed in the house in Hampstead that I’ve been living in for 40 years.’ Has the split been amicable? ‘Well, it’s like everything else: it has its good times and its bad times. But we haven’t actually thrown the chair at each other. I mean, it was a generous settlement. Very. So it’s fine.’
His new partner is Gabriel Clare-Hunt, 61. ‘I live with Gabriel half the week, we go on holidays together, she came up to Cumbria for a fortnight this Christmas and met my friends and everyone up there… and so on we go.’
Bragg with first guest Paul McCartney, in 1978. For young artists from less privileged backgrounds, watching The South Bank Show has often been an education
Bragg has always felt himself to be a bit of an outsider. But he recently found out that none of this illustrious career would have happened at all if it had not been for one man. ‘I only stayed at school after O-levels because my teacher, Mr James, went to see my parents three times to persuade them to let me stay. I saw him again recently, when he was aged 97, and he said, “Stan and Ethel didn’t want you to stay on at school. They were worried about the people you’d meet in that sort of life. They were worried you wouldn’t be able to cope with it. They took quite a bit of convincing.” That was the first I’d heard of it.’
What would he have done instead?
‘I’d have gone to the factory and worked in the office in the back. Or to the local government, then to night school as some of my friends did.’ Instead, he went up to Oxford on a scholarship then joined the BBC. ‘The opportunities are not there now as they were then. We had a free run.’
Working-class kids like him are squeezed out of the arts now, he says. ‘I think the gates have closed. I feel it more and more when I listen to the radio, when I watch the television, the arts are closing down again. It’s sad.’
What’s changed? ‘Let’s talk in crude class terms. People of middle class have seen what a wonderful life it is in the arts and have moved in.’ Acting is one example, as seen in the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch. ‘You go to Eton, with three theatres or whatever they have there, and proper people training you, so you come out at 17 or 18 way ahead of the pack. Instead of schools like that urging people to go into the civil service and do something serious, they’re saying, “Why not?” ’
His top three encounters
The best interview Bragg’s mesmerising encounter with the artist Francis Bacon, which won an Emmy in 1985. Bacon was rip-roaring drunk. They both were. ‘He’d lined up the champagne bottles in his studio. This was 9.30 in the morning. He was high on the champagne and it was pretty good. Then we went on to a proper lunch with booze and did the interview in the corner. And we kept drinking. Bloody hell. We just went on and on.’
The one that got away Drinking didn’t work with Samuel Beckett. ‘I met him very near the beginning of The South Bank Show. He was very nice, very well-mannered. We met in the foyer of a hotel for a good long time and drank a bit, but in the end he said, “I just wanted to say thank you very much… I don’t want to do this.” ’
The trickiest subject ‘It was my first season and the playwright Harold Pinter hung me out to dry.’ As Pinter gave one-word answers, Bragg flailed around. ‘I wanted to say, “Come on Harold!” Then I watched it on screen and thought, “That’s OK, it brings out a cruel side of Pinter that people won’t have seen.” ’
For young artists from less privileged backgrounds, watching The South Bank Show has often been an education, as Damon Albarn of Blur and the film director Amma Asante say in the new documentary. But the number of arts programmes being made elsewhere has fallen away dramatically, he says. ‘We used to do 26 programmes a year at ITV – then it went down to four. They’re basically pals’ progs [made by friends about each other]. Channel 4 is all over the place. Sometimes they do Grayson Perry, which is great, but they don’t seem to do much else. The BBC seems to have shrunk rather than grown. What’s wrong with them?’
There are six new episodes of The South Bank Show a year on Sky, and 30 South Bank Originals, taken from his archive of films. Does he have any remaining ambitions? ‘I want the next novel to be the best I have ever written.’ He’s written over 35 books and been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize three times. What else? ‘I’ve not had many ambitions.’ That can’t be true. ‘It is. I didn’t really want to leave Wigton. The first year I kept hitching a lift back as often as I could. I wanted to get to university to please Mr James, as much as anything.’
Well, nerves or no nerves, Lord Bragg seems to have coped with the life his parents were afraid of. His old teacher must have been very pleased indeed.
‘The South Bank Show 40th Anniversary Special’ is on Sky Arts tonight at 9pm