The first South Bank Show had Paul McCartney, plain Mr then, talking about his new song "Mull of Kintyre". Yes, it was a long time ago. But since that first airing in 1978 it has been ITV's flagship arts programme, and there were times when the BBC was in the cultural doldrums and before Sky Arts was conceived, when Melvyn Bragg's baby was the cultural flagship for television generally.
Bragg as intellectual, cultural commentator and analyst has few equals. As an interviewer, though, he can lack rigour, and was coy about asking guests about their personal life, even if, as in the case of William Golding's depression, it informed his work. But that's a minor quibble.
Over more than 30 years his guest list has been extraordinary and deliberately eclectic – Laurence Olivier being magnetic, George Michael lighting up a spliff, Philip Larkin getting drunk, Francis Bacon likewise, Rudolf Nureyev flying into a rage and stripping off. Yes, the arts could be explosive and fun and informative all at the same time on this show, and often were.
Those saying yesterday that Bragg was the first to treat opera and pop with equal seriousness and the first to make populist arts programmes, have short memories. Back in the Sixties and early Seventies the BBC was doing just that. But the end of The South Bank Show is a loss to the nation's cultural landscape, a loss for television and a devastating loss for ITV. For decades it has been ITV's cultural fig leaf, its only arts programme amid a plethora of reality shows, game shows and largely downmarket dramas.
Will ITV care? Probably not. Its late-night scheduling of the show in recent years has not indicated any real affection for it from the network's executives. It's significant that ITV has already announced that it has no plans to continue The South Bank Show when Bragg retires next year, just as it is significant that Bragg did not announce his retirement out of the blue. He announced it after discussing the future of the show and yet more cost-cutting measures with ITV.
ITV still has an arts department, but its statement yesterday that it would seek further commissions for arts programming is unconvincing. Without The South Bank Show it makes very little noise.
Meanwhile, let's salute Melvyn Bragg. In an increasingly difficult climate, with little apparent support from network bosses, he has kept a thought-provoking arts brand on ITV.
In that first programme in 1978, Paul McCartney tried to compose a quick song around the presenter's name, but concluded it would have been easier if he had been called Melvyn Rigby. Pity. He deserves some sort of tribute.Reuse content