Melvyn Bragg: 'I just don't want to go there'

Melvyn Bragg’s latest autobiographical novel forced him to relive the ordeal of his first wife’s suicide. He tells Danuta Kean where he lays the blame and why writing about it hasn’t been therapeutic

Behind the charm, the soft Cumbrian lilt, the flashing smile and twinkling eyes, something darker festers in Melvyn Bragg, award-winning broadcaster, acclaimed novelist and ennobled member of the Labour elite. Despite the success and celebrity, the dapper grammar school boy from working-class Wigton carries within him a mixture of guilt, rage and bewilderment that others would find hard to conceal. The thought crosses my mind as a late sun pours its weakening light into his office on the 22nd floor of LWT’s Waterloo HQ at the end of a freezing Tuesday in February.

The room is packed up for a move to the sixth floor. Boxes are strewn around. A handful of books are abandoned on a shelf; like forlorn drunks they lean against one another for support. I am here to talk about Bragg’s book Remember Me…, the latest in a series of autobiographical novels and the most searing of them all. It is an account of the doomed relationship between Bragg’s literary doppelganger Joe Richardson and a troubled French poet, Natasha, who bears a striking resemblance to the author’s first wife, the French artist Lisa Roche. Both were gifted artists, both tried to distance themselves from aristocratic roots, both had troubled childhoods and both ended their lives as their marriages fell to pieces. As with all suicides, both left a legacy of guilt, regret and profound sadness with the friends and family, including a young daughter.

In the novel, Bragg anatomises the relationship from hungry courtship and heady marriage through to a gradual breaking apart and bitterness as Richardson leaves for another woman. Cutting into the narrative are conversations between Richardson and his daughter Marcelle. They feel real rather than imagined, and Bragg admits he sought the approval of Marie-Elsa, his daughter by Lisa, before handing over the manuscript. “She was glad for me, that I had faced up to it,” he confides. Then adds, barely audibly: “She had faced up to it far earlier than I had because she had been through stuff on her way to being a priest, which made her think more deeply and clearly than I had.” Marie-Elsa, 40, is an Anglican vicar in a “tough” London parish.

The relationship flourishes and fades against the fluid social background of the 1960s; a time, Bragg recalls, “full of working-class arrivistes who were clambering all over television, music, journalism and the art world. They saw a few open doors and they rushed for them like a herd.” He mimes ferociously elbowing out the competition and laughs loudly. It is one of the few times he laughs throughout the interview.

The line between Bragg’s life and the plot of Remember Me… is so thin that at times it is hard to distinguish whether he is talking about fact or fiction. Like Bragg, Joe graduates from Oxford, a grammar-school boy made good, works in the BBC and becomes a published author. Both work on acclaimed arts documentaries and films, marry their French girlfriends and leave for other women 10 years later. Both fail to return to their wives on the eve of their suicide, and the guilt they carry down the years is unbearable. For Bragg it unravelled into a second nervous breakdown – the first happened in his teens.

Even Bragg seems confused about where fact ends and fiction begins. When I ask about the loneliness that engulfs Natasha and whether her character would have been more fulfilled in a post-feminist world, he looks shocked, as though a thought had just struck him. “Maybe, maybe,” he says, his voice sinking to a whisper of regret. “There were things to do. Kew wasn’t in the middle of nowhere, nor was Hampstead.” He gazes out of the window across to west London. Kew is where his wife committed suicide – as does Natasha.

He looks weary, the lines on his face betray his 69 years and the famous lustrous locks are grey. The book was hard to write – he pulled it from publication three times – and is even harder to discuss. When the hardback finally appeared last year he cancelled all interviews after appearing at the Oxford Literary Festival. “I just couldn’t do it,” he says. When I begin the interview he draws in his breath apprehensively.

Though he admits to still feeling guilty, there is one person he feels contributed to his wife’s suicide: her psychotherapist. In the novel Natasha’s therapist kills herself, leaving her psychologically marooned. The impact of the death on her already fragile psyche is heartrending. “One thing that is absolutely accurate, and I think really terrible, is the death of the psychoanalyst,” Bragg explains, and rage bubbles to the surface.

Lisa’s analyst was Anne Darquier, the daughter of a French Nazi war criminal. She committed suicide, leaving her patients (including the Virago founder Carmen Callil) to flounder. Bragg clearly believes the news pushed his wife into the psychosis of suicide. “Why somebody who is ill continues to treat patients and doesn’t say ‘I am ill but I recommend Dr X’… I can’t understand it.” His teeth are clenched as he speaks, the words extracted rather than spoken. He has been unable to read Bad Faith, Callil’s book about Darquier’s father Louis, though he realises it may provide answers about what happened. “I am just too tired,” he says.

His anger is compounded by the notion that Darquier, through her father, had links to Lisa’s past that Bragg finds hard to stomach. He almost spits out: “This woman – I don’t mean to be rude but I can’t remember her name – came from the same part of France, and it is more than possible that Lisa’s father or grandfather knew her father, or would have known or known of him. We are talking about neighbouring villages in Haute Provence, so I could imagine the two of them…” He pauses and sighs, suddenly drained. “I just don’t want to go there.”

His pain in talking about his wife and the way his life twists “like rope” with that of Joe, is palpable. He scrambles around for words in a way that contrasts sharply with his image as the frontman of high culture on television and radio. Autobiographical fiction is not new, but his high profile made it inevitable that readers would pore over the novel digging for concealed truth. Was he not concerned about that level of exposure? “I really didn’t think about its reception.” He runs his hand through his hair. “I am a target and I am handing them the bows and arrows,” he admits with a shrug. But he could not hold back, he maintains, because the fact spun into the fiction held the story together. It is a reminder that before Bragg the Broadcaster was Bragg the Writer, which makes it doubly hard that he has been unable to write a scrap of fiction since completing Remember Me…

All this character-building perseverance, giving unwanted interviews and writing articles that fail to sate the appetite for intrusion. I wonder what does Melvyn Bragg have left to prove? Is all this activity an outcome of his “working-class lad made good” roots?

Bragg takes a swipe at his alter ego when Joe joins the Garrick – a club to which Bragg belongs. Is this a sign he feels like an imposter, straddling two conflicting worlds? “I think I still am [an outsider],” he acknowledges. “I know it is a curious thing to say, but I still feel it, I don’t feel inferior in the slightest to anybody – or superior to anybody, let’s get that clear. But I do feel different.”

Does he feel guilty about the Garrick? Not a bit, he says, he joined the club in very different circumstances to Joe. “I was being a bit wry and also wanting to be a bit hard on Joe. It is a bit like Candide. But I didn’t want him to escape censure.” He giggles and looks down at his hands.

The sun has disappeared into a blood-red gash across the sky. The office is dark, yet Bragg leaves the lights off. It seems the right moment to ask whether the book was cathartic. “No it wasn’t,” he shoots back. But it feels redemptive, I say: Joe is absolved of some of the guilt, as are their friends; Natasha's death feels inevitable, no one could have saved her. He peers at me through the gloom. “Redemptive?” he asks. “Well, in the sense of…” He takes a long pause. The penumbrous light suits the sombre atmosphere. “Redemptive in the sense of a properly considered response and considered answer, but not in terms of absolution,” he finally answers, precise to the last.

The extract

Remember Me, By Melvyn Bragg (Sceptre £7.99)

“...He would attempt to fly free and alone. And Natasha, who meant to tell Joseph of her decision that night, but delayed it because she sensed it would take away from the innocent pleasure of the celebration, had finally decided to go into analysis, to re-examine herself, to sink as deeply into her past as she dare, to claim it back whatever the risk.”

Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower