Howard Jacobson: The money men were bound to win, but Melvyn showed us how good TV can be

Our writer admires how his friend kept the South Bank Show's bean-counters at bay
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The Independent Online

Dum diddle iddle, um diddle iddle... Funny how differently that mocking, neurasthenic little jingle has struck one over the years, depending on whether or not you've enjoyed the programme it introduces, whether it has celebrated someone you consider worthy or someone you consider pointless, and of course whether it has celebrated you. Hard to believe there will soon be a time when we won't be able to tune into ITV at an unearthly hour – and when else would we want to tune into ITV? – to catch it. Has it not been with us all our lives? Dum diddle iddle, um diddle iddle... Good that it called itself a "show". The South Bank Show – from the wrong side of the river. It felt carnivalesque. And now the carnival, as they say, is over.

There's a poem by Dr Johnson about the delusive mine of hope to which we are all condemned, into which our "social comforts" one by one disappear. A touch over-sonorous, you might think, to evoke such a poem at such a time. We are, after all, only waving off a television series that has enjoyed a run of more than 30 years, and all good things etc etc.

But The South Bank Show has been a social comfort, coming at the clapped-out end of Sunday, a solitary look at something serious, or a solitary serious look at something not so serious, before the frivolities of the weekend give way to the wearisomeness of the working week. There was comfort in just knowing it was there, whether one watched it from the beginning to the end, or whether one watched it at all. Just to see it in the schedules calmed the nerves – amid all the dross, Fonteyn dancing, Isaac Bashevis Singer talking, Hockney looking at Picasso. The world of significant endeavour had not died after all, and if that meant one could then go to another channel and watch World Darts instead, well that was one's own funeral.

It was a "show" in the sense that you could hop in and out of it, not because it was fragmented or magazine-like, but because the mix of interview and performance, the alternation of talk and archive, and the tenor of a conversation that never descended to the inquisitorial, kept up a flow of interest. Not the least of that interest, for Melvyn Bragg watchers, being the matter of his own – who would engross him and who would not, did he really give two hoots about how George Michael felt about himself, was it as delightful as it looked to walk the boardwalk with Joseph Heller, would his mind be able to survive one more drink in the company of Francis Bacon.

The best South Bank Shows have always been those in which Bragg has been simultaneously our Virgil and ourselves, taking us where we never expected or particularly wanted to go, quite simply educating us in this or that person's work, but at the same time asking the questions we would ask. Call that tact. You have it or you don't. Part of the reason a fascination with Melvyn Bragg's personality and looks and hair has persisted for 30 years is that he has filled in for our curiosity. If he is us and we are him, we ask, how come we haven't done so well for ourselves. I must, before I go any further, declare an interest. I did once get the dum diddle iddle treatment myself. And later I made a South Bank Show Special. "Why the Novel Matters", it was called, a title I had taken from a DH Lawrence essay. Why the Novel Matters – who other than Melvyn Bragg would ever give you an hour on that subject? And on ITV! You'd struggle, under anyone's else aegis, to get it on BBC12.

We became friends after his profile of me. As northern grammar school boys who'd made it to Oxbridge, who read Wordsworth and D H Lawrence, who felt half in and half out of a culture we aspired to and mistrusted, and above all who wrote novels in an age increasingly baffled by novels, we believed we had stuff to talk about. Which means I take personally the loss of The South Bank Show, not only because I know its going will hurt him, but because it stands for something to which I am bound to feel a loyalty. It caressed me – how can I not feel loyal? But also it changed my mind. And any cynic who thinks the two are connected is of course a little um diddle iddle right.

What it changed my mind about cannot be contained in a single sentence. Let's say the whole business of culture, what's high and what's low, what's of now and what's too early to say, what can be done justice to in an hour of telly so long as a recording of the Grand Prix doesn't interrupt, and what cannot be made available in that form without diminishing the very thing that gives it interest. I didn't care for the show when it began, partly because it wasn't me presenting it, partly because I am an elitist. As television critic for the Sunday Correspondent in the late 1980s I wrote Melvyn Bragg, whom I then didn't know, an open letter, castigating him for devoting an entire programme to a pop singer. Don't pop singers get enough time devoted to them, I asked. Wasn't the justification for an "arts" programme that it brought to our attention artists otherwise invisible in a frivolous personality driven culture?

I still think that. I didn't see the programme about Will Young and would rather have cut my throat than do so. But at least I now understand the counter-argument. It's doing a deal with the devil partly. When you think of ITV's remit and the spirit in which it has fulfilled it, it is nothing short of astounding that for 30 years Melvyn Bragg has succeeded in persuading the channel to keep faith with any arts programme, let alone one in which, to take a current example, two hours are devoted to Nigerian writing. So if the price of that is Will Young, which we are not when all is said and done obliged to watch, so be it. Yes, the real world of crass accountancy wins in the end. It always does. But in the meantime in excess of 600 programmes, the majority of them not about Will Young, have been made and shown.

But that's not all. What's driven The South Bank Show all this time is what I can best describe, in a mouthful, as Melvyn Bragg's own northern educated working-class self-help utterly unsnobbish ideology – except that it isn't an ideology, it's a passion. It's no coincidence that before he landed up in broadcasting he wanted to go into the WEA.

"I thought that all writers were on shelves," he told me once, describing how he was mesmerised by seeing Robert Graves on Monitor. Getting writers off shelves is what he has been about. Not to dust off a mouldering reputation here and there – he hates the antiquarian, water-colour-gazing nature of much that passes for arts programming – but because the work of now fascinates him; "the currency of the times" is how I have heard him describe it, banging the table because the popularising he has gone in for – think of In Our Time with its army of devoted listeners, not a one of whom is condescended to – has nothing to do with dumbing down but the very opposite, allowing the best to be seen and heard, and if the best happens to be the most difficult, well that too. That especially.

But to be seen where everybody can see it: here's why the connection with ITV has been so important to him. Art not as an afterthought but where it belongs, at the very centre of everything else we do. It is why he is revered no less by artists whose work he's featured than by the public to whom he has made that work familiar.

The poet, Wordsworth wrote, is "a man speaking to men". It has been in that spirit that The South Bank Show, neither falsely elevated nor falsely egalitarian, has spoken to us. And when and where is that going to happen again?