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Interview: Melvyn Bragg

Melvyn Bragg, author and broadcaster, talks to Sheena Sweeney about the end of The South Bank Show and why art is important

Melvyn Bragg will be seventy this year. Not that you’d know it from his evenly lined face and more specifically his beautifully coiffed, luxurious chestnut hair that is deserving of as many adjectives as a thesaurus has to offer. Only the filmmaker David Lynch can rival him in being so fantastically follicled. There is a personable quality to Bragg that goes beyond that of most well-known interviewees. He calls me by my name frequently, suggests that there is common ground between us – “you must know all about that sort of thing” – and seems to want to make it crystal clear to me that he understands certain things about Ireland. Which makes me think he doesn’t. Much of that could be down to the work for which he is best known, as an arts journalist on the South Bank Show, and as a commentator on all things artistic over the greater part of the last thirty years. The immediate sense is that he is well versed in luring people in and getting information. His broad approach back in 1978 when the South Bank Show began was peculiarly egalitarian for its time, everyone was fair game and everything was art as far as Bragg was concerned, from Hollywood movies to opera, and the programme flourished. Meanwhile, he has been writing constantly over the years, mostly books (more than thirty) and a few plays at the beginning of his career.

So art has been his working life, and will continue to be in spite of ITV’s decision to cancel The South Bank Show earlier this month. The question of art, though, provokes an unusual stream of consciousness, a sort of trip down memory lane. “Um. It’s something that I found before I knew it was there, and was part of me way before I would admit to it and by that time it had become essential. And I can unravel that. I was lucky enough to be able to sing at the age of six, I mean really good choirs, we were good at choirs in the North of England….and then later, I don’t know…I was fourteen/ fifteen, I thought, ‘God I love this stuff, I’m listening to it on the radio, as well as singing it’. So it had become part of what I wanted to do. And then you sort of look up when you’re eight een or nineteen and you’re lucky to maybe have those two or three years of university where you can – just the right age to think, ‘I want to go in this direction’, and you never go in the direction you chose, you go in the other direction where there’s a rather steeper slope and hopefully you have a bit of luck. But anyway, that was what I wanted to do, from then on I wanted to write fiction and that was what I started to do from when I was about nineteen/twenty, and away you go.”

Bragg’s steeper slope might have been his relationship with his first wife whom he married when he was twenty-one. His most recent book, “Remember Me”, is based on their relationship and its tragic demise when ten years later, she committed suicide after he left her. His writing, despite the intense subject matter, is rather light and draws you in like a trick. I tell him it reminds me of Evelyn Waugh. “Yeah I like Waugh very much, that’s very kind of you to pick it up. I very much like Waugh. He seemed to be one of those people who could move past on the surface, but big things are going on that you remember and you all of a sudden realise the woman he’s been gently prodding along is absolutely and totally, and almost fatally in love with a man, who in every way is hopeless, drunken and unfaithful and everything and you think ‘Christ what’s going on in her life?’ But he presents it so lightly on the surface, I love that contrast.”

There is a strong sense in the book of nothing ever being enough, particularly for the central character Joe, who is based on Bragg himself. Is that part of the human condition, I wonder? “To be honest, I think that’s a … I’d go along with that. I mean I wouldn’t have formulated it quite in that way myself, but yeah, I do think this is an uncapped nature of the lives that a lot of people lead when they’re released form restraining context, which is class, location, tradition, which has been there very heavily. I mean you must find it in your contemporaries in Ireland, because that’s exhibiting it in a very vivid way.” I wonder what he can mean about my contemporaries here in Ireland, and he’s careful. “They just get out of a background which has been extraordinarily – it’s been sustaining, it might have been ruinously constricted, it’s both those things, it’s been very nourishing because of the closeness and the community, and the idea of lines being drawn all over the place, which are almost criss-crossed out of existence. And when you get away from that then I think you are without a compass. I think certain people are without a compass and they drive in different directions, thinking ‘I’m going to get there’, but they don’t know where is where, and you know, what happens if you do? And it’s”, he chuckles, “difficult to know what it is when you get there.”

I gather he means that at one time the church and state were inextricably linked in Ireland and that now things are different. Booms come along and suddenly we don’t know where we are, or even if we do, as he says, what do we do about it? Bragg got out of his own background through education and art. He was “what would have once been termed working class”, growing up in Cumbria, the son of a dressmaker and a factory worker. He made his own escape scaling the walls of education and art, and now he’s Lord Bragg. Which might explain his amusement at where one ends up, although he did accept the title. He believes that art is important because, amongst other things, it gives people pleasure. “…The Church has told us that our pleasures were sinful, and the economy told us our pleasures were limited by money. So the idea of taking pleasure has always been aligned with being sinful and spending too much. The arts give you pleasure and I think that’s very undervalued. Certainly as is proved in schools, you let children play or teach them in choirs and it is of enormous benefit. It has an effect on the social individual, if you want to put it that way. And thirdly, the law of unintended consequences strikes again, because certainly in this country, in Britain, the arts are growing more than any other industry, and they’re growing where everything else is shrinking, so there’s something about it that is part of the world that we now live in.”

And yet despite that growth, The South Bank Show, which Bragg has produced, edited, directed and done everything else on at one time or another, is over. Many have decried the decision: The Telegraph described it as “flawed thinking at ITV”; The Cumberland News mourned its passing saying, Popular culture’s status in the UK is largely due to The South Bank Show chipping away at long-held definitions of high and low art”; novelist Kate Mosse commented, “It’s absurd to cut The South Bank Show — it was the one arts series that achieved its goal of putting the best of the arts on an equal level and offering it to the viewing public to make a choice”; Ed Vaizey, Britain’s shadow Culture Minister, said, “Why not buy the South Bank format and put it on BBC One at 8pm on a Saturday night?”. And then there’s Bragg. “I’m ah…I just think it’s a great shame. I mean if they wanted to say, ‘why don’t you push off and we’ll get somebody else to do it’, that would’ve been one thing, but it was the other way around, it was ‘well we’re going to drop the show, but we’d like you to keep on and do something’. So I thought ‘well if the show’s going, I’m going’.” And so they both are, but there is a strong sense that Bragg will be OK and that he will inevitably thrive in his artistic universe. Shortly afterwards he tells me he’s not running away from me, but he has to go. Maybe he’s off to the British Museum to look at the Elgin Marbles, a place that according to him is so busy these days it’s like Arsenal. How interesting though, that he is so intimately acquainted with both.

Melvyn Bragg will be reading from Remember Me at the Dublin Writers Festival Thursday June 4th, Project Arts Centre, 8pm Tickets €12/10