Melvyn Bragg, 75, is one of Britain’s most celebrated TV and radio broadcasters. He’s best known for The South Bank Show, which begins a new series this month

…going from house to house on the back of my mum’s bike

My mother Ethel used to clean some of the wealthier homes in our town—Wigton in Cumbria —and she’d take me with her. Every house was like a new playground. I also recall crawling around our kitchen. There was a chest with a picture of a ship on it, and I would trace my finger around its outline. But I’m not sure if I know what my earliest memory is. Memories are such treacherous things, aren’t they?

 

…a happy time at primary school

I was only four when I started. You went early if your father, like mine, was fighting in the war, so your mother could work. But my school was staffed by really nice women, it had only been built a few years before and it was a good place. It was in lovely fields at the edge of town. There were hedges you could build dens in and a football pitch!

 

…enjoying living above a pub

When my father Stanley came home from the war, he worked shifts in a factory at first. Then, when I was seven or eight, he got a pub…well, more of a beer house. I thought it was a great world to be brought up in. I got to see a lot of different people, which may have made me more gregarious, but as an only child I also had the flat upstairs to myself a lot of the time, so I could get on with my own life: homework, reading, that sort of thing.

 

…a slow start to academia

I quite enjoyed grammar school for the first two or three years. But not a lot because I was mad on football, even though I was very bad at it, and the school played rugby. And I wasn’t all that interested in work. I dodged homework or copied it off a girl—most of us boys did. Then, when I was 14, two brilliant new teachers arrived. Mr James, the history teacher, had flown Spitfires in the war and been to Oxford. The headteacher Mr Stowe, meanwhile, had been a major in the intelligence services—and got a first at Oxford. He taught religious instruction, but really he taught you how to argue. These two men transformed the school and inspired me to take my studies seriously.

Mucking in with the Scouts
Mucking in with the Scouts

 

…getting into Oxford was a big surprise

I hadn’t even expected to stay at school after 15. I discovered many years later that Mr James had gone to see my father three or four times to persuade him that I should stay on and do A levels. No one else in my family had, and my father was worried about whether I’d manage. But Mr James convinced him otherwise, and away we went.

Wadham College was a genial place. Although there were a few grammar school boys, the vast majority were from public schools, but the fact I was from a different background never seemed to be an issue.

 

…writing about what I knew

I started producing novels and short stories when I was 19, and many of them were about Cumbria [Melvyn has since written several best-sellers set in the area, including 1987’s The Maid of Buttermere and 1990’s A Time to Dance]. The landscape and people had a big effect on me, and the human condition is the same everywhere, so I could write about Cumbria and feel like I was on solid ground. Writing a novel seemed a rather audacious and dangerous enterprise, so I needed all the help I could get.

The sleeve photo from Melvyn's first novel
The sleeve photo from Melvyn's first novel

 

…joining BBC radio and never wanting to leave

I was awarded something called a general traineeship. The BBC only gave three a year —I was very lucky to get one and not entirely sure why I did. I suppose I’d made a film at Oxford, acted and written for the university magazine, and the BBC were looking for a grammar school all-rounder.

It was wonderful training. I started in the World Service, where the people were so clever and good. Then I worked in north-east local radio, then the Home Service—which is now Radio 4. I had a ball. I was PA to the great Irish poet Louis MacNeice, who wrote plays for the BBC, and worked with several great producers.

 

…television came calling

I didn’t really want to go on TV because I didn’t know much about it. But I loved arts programmes and the one series I was interested in was Huw Wheldon’s magazine show Monitor. When I was asked to join the team, it was a huge career break.

I was surrounded by a very bright and helpful gang of people, such as [subsequent film directors] David Jones and Ken Russell. In 1965, I wrote my first TV screenplay for Monitor; Debussy, which Ken directed. The BBC was a great place to be as a young person from my sort of background at that time. We didn’t really want to try for the Foreign Office because you’d become a Foreign Office man. But at the BBC, there were no such rigid patterns. You could really make your mark. And people such as Huw Weldon, who’d fought in the war and won a military cross, were tough guys who wanted to help and look after the younger generation.

 

…irritating the literary establishment

In 1973, I launched, edited and presented a books review show on BBC1 called Read All About It. I’d done similar programmes before, but you just got someone to sit there talking about a hardback, as if reading something they’d done for a Sunday newspaper. Dead in the water. So I took a risk and instead made what looked like a panel game, with people such as Clive James, Jonathan Miller, Margaret Drabble and Gore Vidal talking about novels. It was, I think, the most watched books programme there’s ever been. But my literary reputation, which had been going up and up with the publication of several novels, suddenly plunged. The literati were very snobbish about Read All About It—particularly those who hadn’t been invited on.

Recording at the BBC in 1988
Recording at the BBC in 1988

 

…irritating the rest of the arts establishment

London Weekend Television asked me to come and do an arts programme, which was fine as long as I could present it and edit it—the only way to have any control. I wanted it to change the way people thought about the arts in this country. Previously, it had been a pyramid, with ballet, opera and poetry near the top, theatre, then cinema further down, and comedy and music hall at the bottom. I disliked that. I thought of art as more of a rainbow, and I wanted The South Bank Show, which launched in 1978, to reflect that. So I produced films on Paul McCartney, say, with every bit as much as scrupulous attention as I did those focusing on the Berlin Philharmonic. And I did things on TV drama, which I thought was much better than anything in the West End at the time.

I was telling the arts establishment, “You can’t have your hierarchies any more; we can see through them.” What matters is inspiration and quality, and this can come in any form. The lyrics of a pop song can be better than a poem. Lots of people gave me flack for it, but not Clive James. He got the point straight away.

 

…the South Bank Show has brought me many pleasures

The huge four-hour-long portrait of the work and complicated personal life of Laurence Olivier was something we did that just hadn’t been done before. I liked speaking to the author Norman Mailer in America—such a good talker. Paul McCartney was able to say important things but be witty about it. And Dennis Potter was way ahead of the field in discussing drama.

 

…radio still being a big thing for me

I took over Radio 4’s discussion programme Start the Week from Russell Harty in 1988 and I was far more nervous than I was doing TV. I’d listened to so much radio over my life, so it loomed larger in my mind.

Since then, I’ve done other Radio 4 shows, such as In Our Time [a show exploring the history of thought, which Melyvn has presented since 1998]. We’ve taken it from 500,000 to two million listeners. I think Radio 4 shows endure in a way other TV and radio programmes don’t because they are great pieces of work and people trust them. Things such as Gardener’s Question Time or Just a Minute—listeners know they aren’t going to let them down.

 

…always following my nose

I’ve generally done a book or a TV programme for no other reason than the subject interests me. I wrote and presented The Most Dangerous Man in Tudor England for the BBC in 2013, for instance, because I was fascinated by William Tyndale [whose 16th-century translation of the Bible into English formed the basis of the King James Bible] and the effect his work had on literature, behavior and democracy.

 

…taking my kids to the Lakes when they were young

We’d swish up and down hills and even the odd mountain. I loved sharing my childhood with them and their sharing their childhood with me.

 

…a Cumbrian institution to be slightly less proud off

We live near Arsenal’s ground in north London, so I took my son Tom to games for 19 years when he was young. But my main team are Carlisle United. I remember the 1940s when they had a wonderful team, but now they’re near the bottom of League 2. It can be more rewarding being a fan of a lower league team, but not when they’re about to disappear out of the league altogether.

 

…the BAFTA Academy Fellowship award in 2010

It was a wonderful moment, as were many of the other TV, literary and screenwriting awards and nominations I’ve had. I’ve been lucky; I can’t have any complaints. I just keep pegging away. Keeping on, keeping on.

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