Melvyn Bragg: This time it is personal and painful

A broadcasting institution, Melvyn Bragg has an unmatched record in bringing arts and ideas to the masses (not to mention some 30 books). Now he is about to embark on what could be his most important project yet.
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This time it is personal and painful.

Melvyn - Lord Bragg of Wigton and the UK's broadcasting arts supremo - has decided to confront in fiction the tragedy that has to some extent overshadowed his life, the suicide of his first wife.

"After my father died I started this series of novels beginning with the one about my father, The Soldier's Return. This is the fourth set in the Sixties. This young man goes into the BBC. It's fiction disguised as autobiography," says Bragg talking in his London Weekend Television office.

But it will be about considerably more than a young man joining the BBC after Oxford. When he married Marie-Elisabeth Roche, a French vicountess, at the age of 21 he did not know she had a history of suicide attempts. In 1971 she took her own life. She left a young daughter, Marie-Elsa. Bragg has commented little in public about the tragedy other than to admit: "I could have done things which helped and I did things which harmed. So yes, I feel guilt. I feel remorse."

Speaking later over lunch in the House of Lords, Bragg explains that the book, still without a firm title and already rewritten six times, has been the most challenging he has ever written. It may have started off as just the next in The Soldier's Return cycle but gradually it evolved into a book that allowed Bragg to confront the tragedy, possibly for the first time.

"I'm glad it's fiction. There are gaps, whole conversations I can't recall," says Bragg, who has written 30 books while editing and presenting The South Bank Show and raising the intellectual tone of Radio 4 with In Our Time.

Friends who have read the manuscript say it is the best thing Bragg has ever done. They hope that the book, due to be finished in the summer and published next year, will help to finally lay to rest such painful ghosts.

Then after discussing the book, Bragg becomes the smooth public man again wafting through the Lords' dining room on the way to their lordships' urinals - you drink an awful lot of water making a live programme, he explains.

On the way he is charming to aged female peers and stops for brief chats with his old mates Lords Puttnam and Kinnock.

Fiction disguised as autobiography may have troubled this man of the arts greatly but he is obviously very comfortable indeed with big ideas, lots of very big ideas. His latest project for ITV - choosing and portraying for the general audience Twelve Books That Changed the World - plays to both his strengths and appetites. "It actually satisfies me personally because, again, a bit like The South Bank Show, it's the sort of life I want to live, which means taking in as much as possible rather than being stratified or classified or classed," he says.

The ITV project, which launches on 16 April, all started with Isaac Newton. Bragg was fascinated by the lonely, awkward figure whose father had died and who had been abandoned by his mother, conducting his love affair with mathematics. Bragg thought there might be a novel in it. Instead it led to the new television series, with Newton's The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy on the list.

Bragg has come up with an eclectic choice of British books. It includes the obvious names of Shakespeare and Darwin, but then we move on to Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, Faraday's Experimental Researches in Electricity, Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wilberforce's anti-slavery speeches, and perhaps most surprisingly of all, the first rule book of the Football Association.

Bragg is very much a football man. As a child, he was taken to see Carlisle United by his father, and that tradition has been maintained. Bragg has supported Arsenal for 17 years, an allegiance that his own son also shares.

Until 12 people came together in the Freemasons' Arms in London in 1863 to draw up 13 basic rules for the game, there had been no agreed way of playing. Different public schools played with different rules, and half-time, Bragg explains, was created to cope with having one set of rules in the first half, another in the second. Within a decade the FA rules had gone round the world.

"It's been estimated that eight out of every 10 people on the planet will watch something of the World Cup this summer and there are 3.5 million football clubs outside schools and universities," says Bragg, who has clearly done his research.

Each of the 12 works will be featured in a 20-minute film arguing why they are important. Bragg, ever fearful of being shunted to the edge of the schedule, says ITV "are trying their best" to show the four-part series at 10.45pm.

He notes with pride that a conventional selection would never have included football, nor indeed Married Love by Marie Stopes, the book on contraception denounced as obscene when it was published. The mix is the very mark of Melvyn and the characteristic he has brought to the coverage of television arts over more than three decades.

When he left the BBC after working on the arts programmes Monitor and Read All About It, Bragg went to ITV with a clear manifesto.

"Pinter, Ingmar Bergman, Hockney, MacMillan's ballet Mayerling - programmes I knew BBC Arts wouldn't do. They hadn't done these at the lengths we did them. So I just did the whole lot and said: 'Sod you.' That's what we can do in ITV."

The South Bank Show was going to be about what mattered to Bragg in the arts and that included film, radio, records and the emerging medium of video.

As soon as popular culture could be recorded it had "a posterity", and therefore it could be compared, contrasted and discussed. "So I was going to take popular music every bit as seriously as classical music. I was going to take television comedy every bit as seriously as television drama, and television drama as seriously as the theatre," Bragg explains.

The first music programme he did was on Paul McCartney and the second was on the conductor Herbert von Karajan. The contrast was a deliberate statement, one that was ground-breaking at the time. Victories at the Prix Italia swiftly followed, including a personal award and even one for the distinctive South Bank Show titles.

Then, with an audience of one, Melvyn slips effortlessly into his In Our Time mode.

"It's a very interesting debate still what constitutes our culture and what constitutes an experience of art because there is no doubt people are as moved by a big rock concert as they are by a big classical concert. So where are the lines drawn? It's very interesting."

Bragg does indeed run his hands through his famous locks periodically. He is also as dapper and neat as legend says, the silk handkerchiefs carefully chosen.

"There are lines to be drawn but they are not simple ones like, one good, one bad, one superior, one inferior. Those lines have gone. There are other lines to be drawn."

Discuss.

The approach has survived all the way down to the current series, which features Dusty Springfield and Robbie Coltrane in the company of P D James and the composer John Rutter.

There have always been rules both for The South Bank Show and for In Our Time. Melvyn says he is very keen on rules.

The key rule for The South Bank Show, apart from being well shot and produced, is that it should appeal to three sets of people simultaneously.

"If the programme is about Pinter it should be clear and accessible enough to reach those only vaguely interested in the subject. But it should also hold the attention of Pinter's peers such as Tom Stoppard who he believes would certainly be watching. They've got to say 'Yeah, that's Harold. That's worth doing'."

Despite all the obvious competitive pressures in ITV, Bragg continues to hold on to his slot and makes 24 South Bank Show programmes a year, plus the annual awards, and he has a contract that runs until December 2007. Obviously he would like the programme to start at 10.30pm on Sunday evening (rather than, say, the 11.10 it was last night). That would be perfect.

"'Some hope' is what you say nowadays," says Bragg, who points out the programme still gets close to two million viewers, despite its late slot.

"It's still very, very worthwhile being on ITV1. You can pick up good audiences for arts programmes and you get the real scatter audience, which I love."

He is not amused that ITV doesn't bother to repeat the series on any of its digital channels.

The rules for In Our Time are if anything more stringent. One recent programme was about ancient tradition of Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq. Bragg insisted that none of his academic guests should compare it to present-day events, and they went along with his request.

Melvyn morphed from Start the Week into In Our Time after he was fired as presenter of the Monday morning discussion programme when he became a Labour peer in 1998. It was seen as a conflict of interest, but after a fuss in the press the Lord Bragg was offered his current Thursday morning "death slot". Did his old LWT colleague and former BBC director-general John Birt have anything to do with his removal? "I have nothing to say about that," says Bragg firmly.

He decided to do exactly what he wanted to do, move "right upmarket" and invite academics to discuss their areas of expertise which can range from science and history to mathematics and philosophy. If the BBC didn't like the programme, it could sack him again. In fact he has made the slot his own, and thousands regularly download it.

"I think the academics of this country are just so good at explaining what they do. You are basically asking them to put a quart into a thimble, saying you have 44 minutes to discuss your life's work," says Bragg, who keeps up with them through early-morning swotting.

One thing he bristles about is any suggestion that his various broadcasting and political activities might have limited his potential as an author. "It doesn't work like that. Your life doesn't work in retrospect; it works in prospect. The fact is I was 21 years old. I was married. If I hadn't got a job I would have had no money."

Clearly there was a time when he could have earned a modest living as a full-time author, but by then his broadcasting career had taken off. He has no regrets, and believes he has played his hand of cards as well as he could in the circumstances. Bragg reckons he spends as much time writing during holidays and weekends as many writers do working full-time.

"I don't go to writers' conferences. I am not a writer in residence. I don't go to literary parties. I don't fish. I don't play golf and I don't take many holidays. I got the life I have got and then I got used to it," he explains.

Bragg regularly walks a London triangle that maps out much of his working life - from the cutting rooms in Soho to LWT and on to the House of Lords. In the Lords, Bragg speaks on issues he knows about, such as broadcasting, the countryside and higher education (he is chancellor of Leeds University).

Usually he takes the Labour whip, although he voted against the Government over hunting, and on legislation on anti- terrorism and incitement to religious hatred. Bragg remains a supporter and friend of the prime minister - despite the on-screen indiscretion in which Bragg revealed that Tony Blair might step down early because of family pressures - and found himself in a position to defuse the bitter row between the BBC and the Government over weapons of mass destruction.

"I had a row with Greg [Dyke] along the way. We had towering rows. I thought they [the BBC] should have apologised for the bit they got wrong."

He then explained to the prime minister at a social gathering that he felt like piggy in the middle between his two friends. Tony Blair suggested a time for Greg Dyke to call "not to bend his ear or anything, just talk". Dyke did not take well to the suggestion that he call the prime minister.

"I'm not going to ring him. I'm not going to ring him," says Bragg imitating Dyke's gruff tones and thumping the desk for emphasis.

"He didn't want to be thought of as somebody who was suborned by the Prime Minister. I just thought he was too obstinate. I passed on the message. My job was done."

On the night of the publication of the Hutton report Dyke called for advice. The governors were planning to sack him. What should he do?

Bragg asked if in six months he wanted to be known as the guy the BBC fired or the guy who resigned. Dyke thought resignation the better option. " Six months later he tells everyone he was fired. But he is beginning to bounce back. He was very badly hurt."

In recent months Bragg has not only been the television "biographer" of ITV on its 50th anniversary but also the network's defender. There were sharp exchanges with Lord Birt, who saw the ITV history as a melancholy obituary.

In a press conference his lordship was attacked as "a beached grandee", although there had been other names on a list of beached grandees before Bragg crossed them out.

"It just seemed to be a plangent chorus of people who were something once and rather grand and were very good once and who suddenly seemed a year or two ago to turn up proclaiming the funeral of ITV."

He believes some recent ITV drama has been very good, as has Coronation Street and The Bill and that ITN has beaten the BBC to the punch "again and again" over the past year. "ITV hasn't collapsed and I think the BBC has in some ways proved to be a very good custodian (of public service). I have always been a supporter of the BBC but one of the problems with the BBC is that they don't like frank friends."

At the age of 66 Bragg is a grandee in his own right. It's just that he is not at all beached yet and has absolutely no plans to retire.

"If I were to retire from television - maybe I will maybe not - I don't know whether I would necessarily want to retire from radio unless they wanted me to go. We have the example of Alistair Cooke in radio, and in television David Attenborough. David Attenborough didn't think he would be making programmes at 80, did he?" he asks.

When he retires, if he retires, Lord Bragg of Wigton in the county of Cumbria does, however, promise to try to acquire some of the skills of the modern world which have so far passed him by - such as learning to drive, type and use the internet.

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