Profile: A time to dance back to Cumbria?: Melvyn Bragg, cultural supremo in a crisis

Saturday 27 November 1993 00:02

WHAT has come over that nice Melvyn Bragg? Why has the nation's most powerful - but least challenging - cultural impresario suddenly started to come on strong? Is Melvyn finally showing his true colours, or is it just a passing phase - and if so, what's rattling his cage?

Twelve days ago, on Radio 4's Start the Week, which Bragg has chaired for the past five years, he suddenly laid into Michael Dobbs, author of the book To Play the King, from which the acclaimed BBC television series had been adapted. The bone of contention was the supposedly unfair manner in which the series portrayed a Prince Charles-type monarch. This week, following an article about To Play the King that Bragg wrote in the Evening Standard, Mr Dobbs instructed his lawyers to issue a libel writ. On previous Start the Week programmmes, Bragg has had angry exchanges with other authors, including Kathy Lette and Bill Cash.

To be fair, Bragg has received his own fair share of criticism for years. On the right are those who dislike millionaire media stars preaching socialism and the need for subsidies for the arts, the BBC - and for independent television. On the left are those who sneer at the stock options and the 'golden handcuffs' from London Weekend Television that have made him rich. He finds it hard to cope with Labour friends who ask why he wants to be a member of the Garrick Club, a Lloyd's name, or to send his children to prestigious private schools.

But, on Tuesday, things became more unpleasant. The Daily Mail devoted a full page to the work of two reporters who had gathered comments from the (relatively) great and good, slagging off the cultural superstar. They appeared under the headline 'Pompous, dreary, arrogant. And now Melvyn Bragg is turning nasty, too'. On the same day, the Literary Review pilloried him for the sexual purple prose in his novel A Time To Dance.

The Mail's purported aim was to explain why Bragg, at 54, has suddenly developed such an abrasive style. Predictably it was Germaine Greer who blamed the male menopause. Milton Shulman picked on the arrogance of new wealth. Others identified the ambition of the new producer of Start the Week, Mary Sharp, or the smugness generated by Bragg's supposedly unparalleled power of patronage.

Melvyn Bragg was an only child, born in 1939 and raised in Wigton, Cumbria, a part of the country to which he remains deeply attached. There his working-class parents kept a modest public house, the Black-a-moor. Superficially, his was a happy, meritocratic, upwardly-mobile childhood. He passed his 11-plus examination, won a scholarship to the local grammar school, played rugby, sang in the church choir - he was then deeply religious - and read avidly. It all came together in a further scholarship to Wadham College, Oxford, where he read History. After graduating in 1961, he took up a BBC traineeship.

Yet Bragg was a more insecure and tortured soul than he appeared. There was always what Winston Churchill, himself a depressive, described as a black dog snapping at his heels. Bragg's black dog was not, he insists, depression. But (as he told Lynn Barber in a now notorious interview with the Independent on Sunday in 1990) for three teenage years he suffered 'a sort of nervous breakdown . . . private, locked-in desperation'.

Among other horrors his condition involved out-of-body experiences during which he hovered in a corner of the bedroom watching himself shrink. These returned to haunt him 15 years later when his brilliant but mentally unstable first wife, the novelist Lisa Roche, committed suicide in 1971 after a prolonged struggle with a number of afflictions, physical and mental. Bragg had resigned from the BBC to nurse her. They had both gone into psychoanalysis and exacerbated each other's neuroses.

During his two periods of 'desperation', Bragg discovered that grinding busy-ness was the only way to keep the black dog at bay. If he worked himself to exhaustion, he was more likely to fall asleep at night rather than - literally - to go out of his mind. Since then he has never stopped running.

Two years after Lisa's death, Bragg married his present wife, Cate Haste, herself a television personality and author. They have two children and live in some style in Hampstead and, more modestly, in Cumbria. Bragg returned to the BBC in 1973 and - while continuing to churn out novels - headed two innovativearts programmes, 2nd House and Read All About It.

The young Nigel Williams was one of his directors at that time. 'The wonderful thing was that here was this well-regarded writer who took books seriously and he really wanted to communicate his excitement,' he said. 'I was a pretty chippy youngster but he treated me with affection and concern and showed respect for what one thought.'

Since leaving the BBC, for the second time, in 1978, Bragg has presented and edited The South Bank Show. The worst you can say of the programme is that it is relatively undemanding, uncritical and middlebrow. But it is serious, worthy and attracts audiences of up to 3 million. It remains ITV's flagship arts programme.

In addition, he has become Controller of Arts for London Weekend Television and an active chairman of Border Television. He serves on the Arts Council and has chaired its literature panel. He is an active member of the National Campaign for the Arts and a tireless performer of little noticed cultural good deeds. This week, for example, he travelled to Leeds to open a small art gallery. All in all, it is a formidable as well as honourable record. Less driven men might have rested on it.

But Bragg had hoped for more. He was widely tipped to be Heritage Secretary had his friend Neil Kinnock come to power in last year's general election. He is one of the original Luvvies for Labour. It did not happen and now he is left frustrated.

It is crucial to any understanding of Bragg that the most painful event of this week for him was the discovery that the Literary Review had awarded him its Grand Booby Prize for Bad Sex in Fiction. It was given for steamy, button-bursting, zip-tugging prose in A Time to Dance. For he takes his written oeuvre, which includes plays and film scripts, 15 novels and a best-selling biography of Richard Burton, particularly seriously. He has said that he strives to emulate the works of Dickens, Hardy and Updike. And, in his Who's Who entry, he starts by describing himself baldly as a 'writer', before outlining his distinguished broadcasting career.

So it took a great effort on Bragg's part to play along as he did with the Literary Review's trashing of his prose style. Indeed, Auberon Waugh, editor of the journal, claims that he had to threaten Bragg with 'a hate Melvyn rally' before he would agree to appear in person at an Academy Club dinner to receive the award - a revolting statuette symbolising bad sex. After the meal, Waugh says, 'Melvyn accepted the award with the statutory modest remarks about how the prize had gone to the wrong chap and there were much more deserving recipients.'

The award is supposedly made to the writer who has collected most nominations from the review's readership. But, as the shameless Waugh admitted later, 'The real reason we picked on him was that he was the most famous (literary) man we could think of, so it was good publicity to go for him.'

This remark will feed the conviction Bragg shares with his many friends that he is an outstandingly good writer who for ignoble reasons is picked on rather than taken seriously. There is a degree of truth in this. In the mid-Eighties the Sunday Telegraph called him 'quite simply one of the best writers we have', while the Times said 'he has the same quality as J B Priestley at his best'. Today Bryan Appleyard talks in glowing terms about some of his novels but adds that he is 'an easy target to take the piss out of' because he is 'so ridiculously spiky about criticism'. Nigel Williams adds, 'The fact that he is a media celeb works against him as a writer. But at his best, as in Crystal Rooms (1992), he really does produce big, Dickensian works with a strong narrative line and powerful characters.'

However, not everyone agrees. The reviewer Craig Brown says, 'I pioneered being critical of him about 10 years ago. I was flabbergasted to discover that really awful works like Kingdom Come (1980) were being favourably reviewed by critics who can only have been sucking up to him. Do you know that about seven of Bragg's books start with somebody waking up and thinking about the state of things? That is a sign of sheer laziness. And they are full of people going to the top of hills and having global insights about the state of things.'

The truth is that Bragg can be good, when he takes the time. Long-standing friends, including Phillip Whitehead, the television producer, and Neil Lyndon, the author, have for years been pressing him to devote more time - and less talk - to his writing. Lyndon says, 'He could write really serious novels, but if he wants to do so he has to find the time'. This echoes a remark of Whitehead's made more than a decade ago. 'Personally I don't think he can write decent books by jotting down chapter headings on a transatlantic jet.'

According to Lyndon, Bragg's recent tetchiness is not just the symptom of a bad mood, nor a personality change. 'What you are seeing and hearing now in public is the real Melvyn. In private he has always been combative and won't let go of a subject until he has worried his way through it. He is a rather old- fashioned, serious sort of person.' Other friends agree that he is letting the mask slip, because he is bored and unsettled after two decades as a rather bland yet successful television and radio frontman. He wants to move on, but where?

The answer might be to his study. Bragg is wealthy enough now to retire from the studios and the boardroom, to settle down in his beloved Cumbria and devote himself to writing. But to do so he would have to abandon the power and the patronage, the glamour and the glitz. Perhaps that's what's Bragg's mid- life crisis is about.

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