Curtain falls on 'South Bank Show'

Melvyn Bragg quits after 32 years at the helm of ITV's flagship arts programme

Tears were shed yesterday among staff on The South Bank Show after Melvyn Bragg announced by email that he will depart when the current season completes its run next year. Lord Bragg has written, edited and produced the flagship ITV arts programme since its inception in 1978.

The distress of the production team reflected fears for the future of arts programming at ITV, which is beset by enormous funding difficulties following the collapse of its advertising revenues. Lord Bragg was the face of ITV's arts output and The South Bank Show, which will cease to be broadcast after more than 30 years on air, has won great kudos and more than 100 awards for its groundbreaking programming, which is exported around the world.

The stricken broadcaster announced 600 job losses in March, after profits fell by 41 per cent last year. Last month ITV's executive chairman Michael Grade decided to stand down a year earlier than expected. Mr Grade called a meeting of senior executives yesterday to tell them of Lord Bragg's departure.

Lord Bragg, 69, has been one of ITV's staunchest champions, and as a Labour life peer and a friend of Tony Blair, he has been an important political ally. He spent yesterday working on a forthcoming edition of The South Bank Show focused on the band Coldplay.

Over the past 31 years The South Bank Show has featured Arthur Miller, Sir Laurence Olivier, Alan Bennett and Marlene Dietrich, and the scale of its ambition has often put the BBC to shame. So much so that Lord Bragg spoke out in 2001 to criticise BBC1's arts output as being a "total dereliction of its public duty". The loss of Lord Bragg could signal ITV's departure from the field and the news was immediately met with concerns of job losses within the broadcaster's already-depleted arts department.

ITV yesterday issued a statement saying Lord Bragg was "looking at opportunities for new arts programming". The news of Lord Bragg's departure came on a dark day for British television, with Channel 4 announcing that it would need to seek further cost savings which could mean a £75m cut from its annual programming and content budget, while BBC News released details of 90 job losses under its five-year cost-saving plan. The BBC cuts will hit the corporation's news gathering, economics, business and political teams.

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