How We Met: Gillian Greenwood & Melvyn Bragg

'He's got this buccaneer spirit that the general public don't ever get to see'


Gillian Greenwood, 57, joined 'The South Bank Show' as a researcher in 1984 before rising to become the executive producer. After leaving the programme in 2006 she released her first novel, 'Satisfaction', to widespread acclaim, and is now working on her third. She lives in north London with her partner

Melvyn was already a very public figure when I met him in 1984, for an interview as a researcher for The South Bank Show. He ran the department but he was also the face of the programme. It's very odd being interviewed by someone who's on TV so much, but he seemed professional and approachable, and I got the job.

We got on well from the start. I was very keen on literature (I'd come from The Literary Review) and he was a writer, and we both come from the North, which was something I recognised in him; he had a directness, he'd speak his mind when required. I got to know him well tackling the Salman Rushdie interview. It was the first one since the fatwa [issued by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989] and I wasn't used to all this cloak-and-dagger stuff. We had to hang around a lot and I felt that we started talking about things away from work and we became much more then just colleagues.

Afterwards, I started going to dinner with him and his wife, Cate, on a regular basis and we became firm friends. A few years later I decided to move on to the BBC and became editor of the arts programme Omnibus, a direct competitor to Melvyn's show. We would have regular lunches over the years and he joked about us working for competing arts strands.

I find him a fantastically helpful sounding-board; he's been through quite a lot in his life [his first wife committed suicide and Bragg has suffered two nervous breakdowns] so he's in a position to offer a lot of advice and, as our friendship has progressed, we've talked more about these things.

Just before the millennium, over one of our lunches, he asked me to come back to The South Bank Show, which came as a huge surprise. What swung it for me was going back to work for Melvyn. He has this tremendous intellectual energy and infectious passion for whatever he focuses on, and although he can be quite sharp in [his admonishments] to other people, we knew each other well enough to work out any disagreements we had.

I've always been interested in writing and he always knew I was scribbling away, and was very encouraging. He read my first novel twice for me – it wasn't a small undertaking, and he was really helpful with suggestions. He's such enormous fun to be around, too – he's got this buccaneer spirit which the general public don't see. We went out for dinner one evening with a couple of friends and he suddenly said: "Let's go to a casino." It's like a great adventure when you're with Melvyn.

Melvyn Bragg, 69, is a veteran broadcaster and award-winning author of over 30 books, most famously associated with the long-running ITV arts programme 'The South Bank Show', which he has presented for over 30 years. He lives in north London with his wife

Friendship is a curious thing; there's no one thing that connects me to Gilly, and I don't know exactly what makes our friendship work. I first met her very formally when she applied for a researcher's job on The South Bank Show in the early 1980s and swanned her way to the top of the shortlist. She was lots of opposites together – very quick but also thorough – so she was a delight to work alongside and very soon we became friends.

I found her easy to talk to because we had so much in common; we read a lot of the same books and she's a very appreciative reader. But she also wielded a stiletto – she's not afraid to wipe reputations out – and I liked that.

After she'd been through this lengthy business of being a researcher, she moved on to become a director, so I wasn't surprised when the BBC snuffled her up to edit their big arts programme at the time, Omnibus. A lot of work friendships are based on geography – you're in the same space – but not with Gilly, we stayed good friends and she'd still come to ours for dinner, or over to mutual friends' places and when we had a few parties, she started to come to those, too. Then, nine or 10 years ago I was expanding the department and made a move to get her back here. She became a confidante in terms of everything to do with the office, and as an extension we chatted about our lives, too. Recently, she came along to the ordination of my daughter at St Paul's, which was a huge occasion, so she knows all the children well.

I missed her very much after she left the show again three years ago, but it's great she's now gone on to write novels and I was delighted when I read the first draft of her first novel and she asked me to say what I thought. I told her straight – it was terrific, although her second novel is a leap forward, and now she's on her third. Now, we have a massive area of common discourse, but looking back it has been a bit of as surprise that we became friends – it's unusual to make a new one later in your life. I have to say, though, it's been a very nice surprise.

Gillian Greenwood's second novel, 'The Ghost Lover' (£17.99, John Murray) is out now

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