Is Melvyn Bragg the only broadcaster interesting enough to be his own subject?

Melvyn Bragg: Wigton to Westminster, the 75-minute film by BAFTA award-winning producer and director Olivia Lichtenstein, will be the first time Bragg has allowed himself to become the subject of the camera's attention

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The Independent Culture

If you type the words "Melvyn", "Bragg" and "documentary" into a search engine, you'll quickly find pages on The Most Dangerous Man in Tudor Britain, a 2013 profile of William Tyndale the 16th century scholar who translated the Bible into English, pages on his Radical Lives series profiling John Ball and Thomas Paine, plus references to his famously drunken profile of/pub crawl with Francis Bacon and the many other memorable programmes on cultural, political and historical topics with which Bragg has been involved over the years. It will be a while, however, before you turn up any mention of the latest Melvyn Bragg documentary, the one on BBC2 on Saturday night, the one which is a profile of Bragg himself.

Despite that surname, the 75-year-old veteran broadcaster isn’t really one for self-promotion, and Melvyn Bragg: Wigton to Westminster, the 75-minute film by BAFTA award-winning producer and director Olivia Lichtenstein, will be the first time he has allowed himself to become the subject of the camera’s attention.

Bragg’s long and prolific career in broadcasting will seem justification enough for the film's existence. In addition to the documentaries mentioned above, he has published 23 novels, presented nearly 750 episodes of The South Bank Show and fronted Radio 4’s In Our Time since 1998, the same year he was ennobled by his friend Tony Blair. Yet Lord Bragg is not the only one of his radio and TV contemporaries with an impressive CV, and neither John Humphrys nor Terry Wogan nor David Dimbleby have not been honoured in this way. The lack of a BBC2 profile doesn’t necessarily reflect badly on them, either. That very same quality of unobtrusive authority which makes a man a great broadcaster would also, usually, make him an inappropriate or dull subject for documentary.

 

So what is it about Bragg that makes him the exception? According to Olivia Lichtenstein, he finds the media’s constant references to his lovely locks annoying, but that Byronic hair does suggest a poet’s instinctive understanding of the arts, while his even lovelier voice soothes the listener into a deeper contemplation of the topic under discussion. These are the typical tools of a radio and television broadcaster, but in Bragg's case, they are also attributes which hint at a background other than the typical establishment upbringing usually associated with successful figures in British public life.

As explored in the documentary, Bragg’s childhood in the working class town of Wigton, Cumbria was overshadowed by family secrets, in 1971 his first wife, Marie-Elisabeth Roche, committed suicide and he has personally experienced two nervous breakdowns. Does all this make him a subject for documentary at least as intriguing as Tyndale or Paine or Bacon? Certainly if Bragg is presenting.

Celebrity endorsements - the one battle in the Charter Review war that the BBC can’t help but win

As you might expect, Lord Melvyn Bragg was among the big names who signed this week’s open letter calling on the Government to lay off the BBC. Others included Dame Judi Dench, Sir David Attenborough and Special Agent Daniel Craig. They called on the government to recognise the BBC as “a very precious organisation” and warned that, “nothing should be done to diminish the BBC or turn it into a narrowly focused market-failure broadcaster.”

Celebrity intervention in public debates and political rows is common: Scottish Independence (Sean Connery was for, David Tennant was against), Fox hunting ban (Ricky Gervais, for; Harry Enfield, against), but whereas these issues attracted celebrity supporters on both sides, it seems unlikely that any anti-BBC celebrity movement will gather momentum. After all, even those who don’t take any principled stance will be wise enough to consider how a strong public broadcaster will benefit their own future careers

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