Melvyn Bragg: And the award for longevity goes to...

For 30 years Melvyn Bragg has prided himself on the egalitarianism of 'The South Bank Show'. In ITV's current chilly commercial climate he's had to pare back his team – but he'll never stop being a guardian of the arts. He tells Ciar Byrne why

It is only 10.30am, but already Melvyn Bragg is looking a shade weary. As an interviewer he is at ease, but awards ceremonies take it out of him – at least when he is presenting them.

It is the morning of The South Bank Show awards at the Dorchester Hotel on London's Park Lane. Lord Bragg has just come out of the dress rehearsal and has a brief respite before the real work of the day begins – glad-handing the great and the good who attend this rather unique star in the ever-expanding firmament of awards ceremonies.

What he really wants is a breath of fresh air – and he would rather spare his voice – but he is good enough to spend this interlude talking about The South Bank Show, the ITV arts programme he has edited for the past 30 years, as well as his unexpected Radio 4 hit In Our Time.

Once or twice he loses his train of thought, distracted by the task ahead, which won't end when the last guest has left the Dorchester's ballroom, but will continue over the next few days with the arduous job of editing the ceremony for television.

"The thing about doing this show is I only do it once a year and every year I feel so bloody rusty," Bragg confesses. "I'm using my voice a lot. It's a big day. Everybody turns up. Kevin Spacey slips out of a rehearsal to give an award."

Once the awards get going, however, one suspects that Bragg will be in his element. The event was born 12 years ago, when he was leaving the What the Papers Say awards with the then ITV programme chief David Liddiment. "We could do that for the arts," said Bragg. "Yes," said Liddiment, and that was that. Whereas other awards recognise individual disciplines, The South Bank Show categories correspond to those laid out by Bragg in his now infamous 1978 manifesto, which argued that pop music, comedy and television drama were as worthy of highbrow criticism as painting and opera.

Broadcast on ITV last night, the awards went to talents as diverse as the Arctic Monkeys and the National Theatre's production of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan; Harry Potter millionaire JK Rowling and Mohsin Hamid, whose novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize.

"The attraction was everybody in the same room. [Opera singer] John Tomlinson to Salman Rushdie, Amy Winehouse to [opera singer] Juan Diego Florez. They liked meeting each other," says Bragg. "I remember Alan Bennett making a beeline for the Coronation Street table. Unusually for Alan, he travelled with haste. He was going to get there."

This year's glittering guest list was as eclectic as ever, including Sir Richard Attenborough, Damon Albarn, Kevin Spacey, Tracey Emin, Patrick Stewart, Julian Lloyd Webber, Donna Air, Germaine Greer, June Whitfield and Nicky Haslam.

Three decades on, Bragg is relaxed about the criticism heaped upon his South Bank Show manifesto, particularly by Private Eye and its former editor Richard Ingrams, who christened him "Lord Barg of Ubiquity". "I was a clot, a transparent clot. I was telling it like it really was, which is sometimes the worst thing you can possibly do," he admits.

"I thought, 'I've got my own arts programme and I'm not going to hide my own taste.' I really do think that popular music is in the same category as classical music. I really do think that television drama can be even better than Hamlet; that stand-up comedians are the inheritors of the music hall.

"Old Ingrams is terrific. He's one of life's determined grizzly bears. Richard can't bear popular music. It's the only thing he ever talks about. He never talks about the 20 Nobel prizes for literature we've covered. But that's his prejudice."

The South Bank Show has survived tumultuous times at ITV. For all his on-air intellectualism, Bragg is keenly attuned to the mood at the television company, and towards the end of last year he took pre-emptive action by cutting the number of full-time staff from 12 to four and restructuring the department.

"It's back to what it was when I started 30 years ago. It had got too big, it's as simple as that, and, I thought, therefore vulnerable. ITV is in leaner times and before they did it, I did it. They never leant on me at all, but looking round I thought: 'we've got to do something'."

He has since re-employed many of those who lost their jobs as independent directors. "Some of them were towards the end of their career. It was painful and awful, but it's done now," he says, displaying the steel that has kept him where he is all these years.

Despite the tough commercial environment, he believes that ITV remains as committed to The South Bank Show as ever. The only time he feared for its future was when he sent his best producers off around the world to make a series on the greatest books ever written, leaving him without any decent film-makers to work on the show.

Each programme is 14 weeks in the making: six of those weeks are spent in "heavy research", only around two weeks filming and the rest of the time in editing. Ideas come from everyone on the team, from the most junior producer to Bragg himself, but, as editor, he has final say about what gets made. After sitting down with the producer to discuss how the subject should be approached, he lets them get on with it. Once the film is finished, however, he wields his editorial scimitar mercilessly.

"I go into the cutting room and get stuck in, in a closed session, which is going to be very bloody, because I'm very, very certain about what I want," he says.

Bragg is at pains to convey the diversity of films that come under the South Bank umbrella. Sometimes he features on screen, as in the recent profile of Tim Burton to coincide with the release of Sweeney Todd; at other times he is completely absent, as with a forthcoming profile of the Chinese piano prodigy Lang Lang on Sunday.

He did not feel the need (or perhaps did not feel qualified) to take part in a documentary on the Birmingham rapper The Streets, but took it upon himself to interview Gore Vidal, whom he has interviewed before.

He draws a clear distinction between what he does on The South Bank Show and journalistic criticism. "We are not dissecting. We collect material for a portrait. I don't get judgemental," he says.

Although Bragg describes himself as "a BBC man", it is ITV that courses through his veins. He is a staunch defender of the company, but is under no illusions about the challenges it faces. "I think that after two or three years, the whole of commercial television will be in a very different place.

"ITV suffers massively from over-regulation, which is left over from Neanderthal times when it was the only commercial channel. Politicians think they can solve problems in this society by banning different sorts of advertising. It's completely unproven. It just doesn't work like that. You know what happened with Prohibition."

He flags up the amount of "original, quality British production" that ITV makes. "What's Sky doing? What's Channel Five doing? We have a public service remit, which is unique. I'm a BBC man. But there are state broadcasting systems all over the world. There's only one commercial public service broadcaster and that's us."

Bragg is clearly a fan of Michael Grade: "We've got between two and four years and we've got the best man possible leading us. If Michael can't do it, well..." He leaves us to join the dots. Is he optimistic? "Yes, but I'm an optimist, which always qualifies optimism."

A few years ago, when Bragg realised that BBC1 had only made one arts programme in nine months, he got "extremely angry". But now, with Alan Yentob's Imagine on BBC1, The Culture Show on BBC2 and Tim Marlow's series on visual art exhibitions on Five, Bragg believes that, "all in all, the arts on television are not in a bad state".

Lord Bragg of Wigton was born to a publican father in Cumberland and attended grammar school before reading history at Oxford. In his twenties and thirties he wrote novels and worked on arts programmes including the BBC's Monitor, before landing The South Bank Show at the age of 38.

His personal life has not always run so smoothly. His first wife, Lisa, with whom he had one child, killed herself in the early 1970s and he went on to marry the film-maker Cate Haste, with whom he has two grown-up children.

Both The South Bank Show and In Our Time, the hugely successful Radio 4 programme in which he chairs a discussion by three academics each week as they explain their specialist subject to the general public, are rewarding but demanding jobs. "They're two jobs that if you didn't really, really like them you couldn't do them, because they're too hard work," he says.

In Our Time now accounts for almost all of Bragg's non-fiction reading. Recent subjects have ranged from plate tectonics to the myth of the Fisher King. "I get the notes on a Friday and walk around with them until Thursday morning. I do the first draft by Sunday night. Sometimes it's really hard, especially with science ones. I have to say, 'Look, I've done my best, I think I've got to base camp, about 29,000ft below where you are.'"

It would be easy to feel intimidated entering into a discussion each week with a trio of people who have devoted a lifetime to the subject at hand, but Bragg insists the "generosity" of the academics means that this is not the case. "A lot of these people have never even been on Radio Slough, and they come along and deliver to a massive and discerning Radio 4 audience. I'm really impressed by it.

"Academics disappeared off the television map for years and now, thank goodness, they've got a constituency."

Much has been made of Bragg's connections with leading figures in the arts, but he insists that they are mostly people he has met through work. "I've been working on arts programmes for more than 40 years. I very rarely go out of my way to make friends with people. It's not my job to do that. I suppose I know a lot of people, but, working in television and radio, it would be surprising if I didn't."

With a new novel – Remember Me..., his 20th – coming out in April, it is small wonder that Bragg looks a little fatigued. How on earth does he fit it all in? "It's grown organically. Cue for pretension – underline that, please. I never sat down and said: 'Right, I'm going to do arts programmes and radio programmes and novels.' They came slowly together. It seems to get done... with a lot of help from my friends."

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