Melvyn Bragg: Lord of the Arts

The South Bank Show, launched 30 years ago, changed Britain's cultural landscape. Liz Hoggard meets its creator
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The Independent Online

In 1977, Melvyn Bragg had an idea for a new kind of arts programme. Alongside the "high arts" of painting and opera, it would cover comedy and pop music (considered too lowbrow for serious criticism). "I wrote a manifesto," he recalls, "arguing that the singing of Elvis Presley was as interesting as the singing of Pavarotti." London Weekend Television commissioned the show and Bragg named it South Bank after LWT's riverside headquarters. Michael Grade, his boss at the time, added the word "Show" to the title - and a TV phenomenon was born.

This year it celebrates its 30th anniversary, but back then Bragg expected to be sacked at any minute. So he took risks. The first programme profiled Paul McCartney and the cartoonist Gerald Scarfe. "I thought, 'Sod it, let's do it.' It got me into a lot of trouble."

But it worked. Last week ITV announced it had commissioned the show until 2010, which is virtually unknown for an arts series on a commercial network - especially one that goes out in a Sunday graveyard slot.

For people like me, growing up in the late 1970s, The South Bank Show was our only contact with alternative culture. Tracey Emin says she started watching it aged 10, hoping that one day she'd be on it. A young Damon Albarn tuned in to hear Morrissey insisting that the Smiths were the last great pop band - and started writing music just to prove him wrong.

The new series of The South Bank Show, which starts next Sunday, is as eclectic as ever, with shows on W H Auden, Joan Didion, Tim Burton - and June Whitfield. "She is a very interesting comedy artist," argues Bragg. "Why shouldn't we examine her work in the same way as Judi Dench?"

Our interview takes place at the House of Lords. (He was made a Labour life peer in 1998.) Now 67 he looks absurdly youthful, with that luxuriant whoosh of hair and the best-manicured nails I've seen on a man. But there is nothing foppish about Bragg. Although you'll often see him out on the party circuit he is not a flirt. Friends say he is essentially a shy man. "I've just been ridiculously lucky," he says.

And yet Bragg hasn't always had it easy. He experienced a "massive onslaught of depression" in his late teens, and then came a mental crash in his late 20s after the suicide of his first wife. Today he is president of the mental health charity Mind.

Bragg is one of a unique generation of 1950s working-class grammar school boys who benefited from the 1944 Education Act. Although his father ran a pub, he was encouraged to sing in choirs, take piano lessons and visit the cinema. But growing up in a small market town in Cumbria, he also experienced terrible lows. During one period of undiagnosed depression he sank from being in the top three in his class to the bottom. With no possibility of confiding his crippling anxiety, he became, he says, good at subterfuge. There is still an unknowable quality about him.

He managed to pull through, and won a place at Wadham College, Oxford. Aged 25 he published his first novel. Still too fragile to hold down a regular job, he survived by writing film scripts and taking part-time work in television. To date Bragg has written 19 novels.

Bragg has a horror of what he calls class hierarchies in the arts. "The idea that it's better to appreciate a deeply indifferent opera than a really fantastic concert by a great group is still unchallenged. It is quite simply foolish."

Bragg has no time for intellectual laziness. A polymath, he is seen by many as the true voice of Radio 4. He has done much to popularise modern science, and his unapologetically brainy radio show In Our Time gives academics of every field the chance to talk at length. He is, he says, humbled by scientists who know everything about the arts but get asked "damn all back". He is convinced the true source of culture will eventually turn out to be the sciences, not the arts.

Before he went up to Oxford, he lived in a boarding house in Victoria - sleeping seven to a room with Irish labourers - so he could afford to go to galleries. Today he lives an extremely privileged life as part of what he calls "the media middle class", but he insists the barrier to entry is always talent.

Eleven years ago he launched the South Bank Awards - the only awards ceremony that deals exclusively with the arts. "Where else would you get members of the Stones and The Who in the same room as people from the Hallé Orchestra and the Royal Opera House?" he says.

Today he lives in London and Cumbria with his wife, the author Cate Haste. He is a besotted Arsenal fan - that rare being, an elitist who believes in popular culture. He says he'd rather be on ITV than any other channel. "You don't have to have been to university to watch an arts programme; you don't have to dress up and go to the opera house. You just turn on the box."

The South Bank Awards are on ITV tonight at 10.45pm