‘In fiction you’re free’ says Melyvn Bragg, ‘but if you’re lucky you get the truth’
Melvyn Bragg is famous as a broadcasting polymath, but his new autobiographical novel is a reminder of his literary talents
But his position as the media face of British arts, cemented by his life peerage in 1998, has not necessarily bolstered his literary reputation. A recent – positive – review of Grace and Mary in the Guardian, which expressed suspicion that previous good notices had been “mere toadying to his eminent Lordship”, is symptomatic of this attitude.
“Writing is the dearest thing to me, but you can’t choose how you’re thought about,” says Bragg. “And a lot of people think, ‘He does the television and the radio, so how can he write?’ There’s a lot of that nonsense goes on. You put up with it, it doesn’t matter.”
From the time he was a teenager, Bragg wanted to be a novelist. “I found I could write stories – I’d previously attempted to write poetry, but couldn’t do that – and I thought, this is what I want to do.” As a member of the post-war generation of British working-class youth able to access higher education for the first time, Bragg had the opportunity to follow his ambition, studying at Oxford. At the same time, he saw exciting new avenues open up for himself and his peers.
“It was the things we could do, coming from the backgrounds we had: Dennis Potter or Ken Loach or myself or many others. We could write, we knew that. We couldn’t get into things, but then there was this thing called television, which was an open, democratic, new medium. And being new in this country means that most people turn their noses up at it, which was great, because it left it open for us.”
Having earned his spurs working on the BBC television culture show Monitor, Bragg gradually moved into presenting, fired by a mission to bring the best of the arts to a mass audience.
“I think one of the great changes in English-speaking countries since the introduction of television is people getting access to this stuff for the first time,” says Bragg. “All they have to do if they want to see these great poets or playwrights is turn on a switch, the same switch they use to turn on the news, or Morecambe and Wise. And with a bit of luck we’ll catch enough of them, so that they know there’s this imaginative cache out there for them, that’s being done by people very like them. Yes, I was evangelical and yes, that’s why I keep doing it.”
From 1978 onward, Bragg’s primary television vehicle was the South Bank Show, his Sunday-night arts programme on ITV. The show’s style was accessible yet intelligent if occasionally uncritical, covering everything from highbrow art to pop culture.
In 2010, however, the series was dropped, a decision that grates.
“Well. I think ITV made a terrible mistake and I think a lot of people in ITV now think that they did too,” says Bragg. “I think it’s such a dereliction of responsibility. And we got good audiences. We got one and a half million at ridiculous times of the night, sometimes two million. What do they want? They’d crave that now.”
The cancellation of the show did not remove him from the screen. He has arguably been more visible than ever in recent years. Not only was the South Bank Show revived by Sky Arts, but Bragg has presented a succession of BBC documentaries, including several fascinating ones about the impact of the Bible on English language and life. He likens making his most recent film, about the Tudor biblical translator William Tyndale, to returning to an old love.