Pavarotti wanted new boots; Elizabeth Taylor, dim lighting; Francis Bacon, drink – lots of it. As ‘The South Bank Show’ celebrates its 30th birthday, Nigel Farndale meets its presiding genius, Melvyn Bragg – and talks to some of his best-known friends, fans and critics
When The South Bank Show was first broadcast 30 years ago this month, The Daily Telegraph was less than ecstatic. ‘The title does not inspire confidence,’ the paper sniffed. ‘It sounds like yet another addition to ITV’s endless song-and-dance spectaculars.’ Having dug this particular cutting out of the archive, I figure it would be rude not to show it to the man who has presented the programme from the start, Melvyn Bragg; Lord Bragg as he has become.
He laughs the laugh of the vindicated. ‘Actually the word “show” was slapped on the end by Michael Grade when he commissioned the first series. We had slogged away for months trying to find a title. I had wanted to call it Imagine, but we couldn’t get the rights to the Lennon song, so we had to think again.’
Bragg, 68, is sitting in The South Bank Show’s office at the top of the ITV tower on… the South Bank. He is wearing startlingly red socks which seem to be an apology for the greyness of his suit. Behind his desk is a framed poster for a Constable exhibition, which is what you would expect. A nearby shelf displays some of the 120 awards the show has won over the years – and that, too, might be what you’d expect. It could be the subliminal association one has with the word ‘brag’, but you suspect the man’s ego is stout. It’s not, as it turns out, but we shall come to that.
For now we are both admiring the extravagant views over the Thames, with St Paul’s to one side and the London Eye to the other. ‘It was this location that inspired the title,’ Bragg says with a neat circle of his wrist. ‘I was opening the Sunday arts sections looking for ideas and all the reviews seemed to say “on the South Bank”. That’s where we are, so I thought, why not? By that time we already had our signature tune with its 16-beat opening – bom, bom, bom – that fit precisely with the 16 letters of the title, so for the graphic artist Pat Gavin it was a gift. Each letter had a beat.’
The music he refers to is, of course, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Variations (on a theme by Paganini), which is as much a part of the show’s identity as Bragg himself. The composer had first played it to Bragg on a tape recorder when he was in the process of moving house and, to Bragg, it seemed to fill the empty and echoey room in which they were both standing. Until that moment he had been toying with the idea of using Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man.
Move over, Ingmar Bergman
Bragg was a fresh-faced 38 then – the Express described him as the ‘Thinking girl’s Michael Parkinson.’ He had a rugged, working-class background – his father being a publican in Cumberland – a grammar school education and, as well as a history degree from Oxford, 15 years’ experience in arts television (having worked on Monitor and Read all About It for the BBC). He also had eight well-regarded novels to his name (that total has now gone up to 19, with another one out this spring).
He has two regrets about the launch of the show. The first was that the format was wrong. Although then, as now, it was an hour long, the first half-hour was given over to arts reviews while the second half was a film profile. ‘After six weeks I went to Michael [Grade, then chairman of ITV] and said I want to go on-screen – “give us another six weeks and we’ll get it right.” One hour-long profile.And so we did.’
The second regret concerns the subject of those profiles, or rather the manifesto Bragg wrote, the one that argued that the singing of Elvis Presley was as interesting as the singing of Pavarotti. To drive the point home, he featured Paul McCartney on the first show, even though he had profiles of Ingmar Bergman and Herbert von Karajan ready to be broadcast (they were aired at later dates). The arts critics were horrified. The Telegraph’s arts correspondent declared: ‘My own definition of the arts would stop short of Lennon-McCartney ballads.’
Nowadays, of course, no one would take issue with the cultural significance of The Beatles. Even so, ‘I’ve never done a manifesto since,’ Bragg says. ‘It was stupid of me. The trouble was, I was in an evangelical mood. I had accepted through university that quite a few of the things I enjoyed, such as the blues and radio drama, were not “the arts”. The arts were opera and ballet and so on. But I had begun to realise that this was not the case. I thought, why not treat high culture and popular culture equally? It doesn’t always work, because popular literature, for me, doesn’t seem to be anywhere near as good as popular music. But still, the critics hated that idea, like your man there in the Telegraph. We got roughed up and I wondered how long I was going to last.’
But the show soon found its feet. There was some shrewd talent-spotting in the first few seasons: up-and-coming writers such as Martin Amis and Ian McEwan were featured, as well as the relatively unknown Dennis Potter (it was a first for an arts programme to take television drama seriously in this way). There were also plenty of the more traditional heavyweight arts figures featured, such as Tippett, Auerbach, Truffaut, Hockney and Kurosawa.
We talk about some of the more memorable profiles over the years – there have been more than 800 in all. Olivier was like an onion. ‘Peel off one skin and you found another below. I knew about the rages, but there was no way we were going to get them on camera, even with fly on the wall, because Olivier could sense a camera 600 yards away.’ Pinter, meanwhile, behaved like a character from one of his own plays. ‘All the pauses, all the awkwardness. I was tempted to cut myself out of it, but I’m glad I left it in. I thought, f— it, I’m not going to be intimidated.’ Elizabeth Taylor would not appear until she had had all the lighting rearranged, which took longer than the interview itself. ‘She directed the whole film.’ And Pavarotti liked Bragg’s boots so much, Bragg offered to have some made for him. The opera singer stood on a piece of paper while Bragg drew round his feet.
Darkness on the South Bank
Some golden moments then, but this is not to say the detractors went away. Private Eye lampooned Bragg as ‘the unavoidable Barg’ and later as ‘Lord Barg of Ubiquity’. I asked Richard Ingrams, then editor of the Eye, why this was. ‘I suppose because The South Bank Show seemed pretentious compared with Monitor, which had been the best arts programme up to that point. It is the grovelling to artistic folk one finds objectionable. Pop stars, I mean. The show wants to elevate pop to the cultural level of classical, and plainly it doesn’t belong there. But hats off to old Barg. He’s got staying power.’
This is the recurring theme when you talk to people about the show. Even the director Ken Russell, who is a friend of Bragg’s, takes this line. Russell worked on the show many times over the years, beginning with a profile of Elgar. More recently he was seen and heard drunkenly heckling at the South Bank Show Awards. ‘Melvyn’s heart is in the right place. If he goes, that will be the end of arts programming in this country – because the BBC has already gone. How has it changed over the years? I think they do more fluffy stuff than they did. McCartney was fine because he is a real star. But Dusty Springfield? Too slight.’
Actually, the number of pop acts has always been about the same. It’s the calibre of them that seems to have changed. The Tom Robinson Band was fair enough because, as Bragg says, ‘they represented a phenomenon; the increasing influence of gay performers in the arts.’ George Michael and Annie Lennox also made for fascinating profiles, not least because they were articulate in the way they analysed their own work. (The Michael one caused a stir because he was filmed smoking a joint.) But as one goes through the programme lists over the years, certain less weighty pop acts do leap out: Hot Chocolate, Barry Manilow, Craig David, Lulu…
Bragg looks puzzled, then his face clears. ‘No, no. That’s Lulu, the opera by Alban Berg.’
How embarrassing. OK, maybe not Lulu then, but what about other lightweight ‘arts’ subjects such as Norman Wisdom? Barbara Cartland? Michael Crawford? Charlotte Church? And, most notoriously, the glam rock band The Darkness? Remember them? Exactly.
‘Yep. Yep. The Darkness were a ship that passed in the night,’ Bragg says. ‘But when I get enthusiasm from a very good producer in an area where I feel uncertain… I thought Susan [Shaw] had a good shot at it, but there you are.’ He clicks his fingers, a habit of his.
Later, when I put this same point to Michael Grade, who recently came back to ITV as chairman, he said: ‘But you have to remember that is how the show was pitched to me. It was meant to be iconoclastic and contemporary. Sometimes that means taking a punt on something which may not last. Beside, when I look back over the 30 years of the show, the landmarks are not the profiles of pop stars but programmes such as the making of Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling. It was groundbreaking and beautiful. It attracted the highest audience ballet has ever had on television.’
(In terms of viewing figures, The South Bank Show rarely dips below a million, which is about on a par with Newsnight, and it has been as high as eight million for – sigh – Michael Flatley. That’s popular culture for you.)
Bragg bites back
Another recurring theme as you look back through the archives has been Bragg’s stiff letters to editors. There were dozens of them. When, for example, Giles Smith wrote in the Independent in 1992 that ‘everyone agrees The South Bank Show has gone down market’ our man couldn’t contain himself. ‘I think this falls into the category of factual error,’ he wrote to the paper. ‘I’d be intrigued to know your definition of down market. Does it include David Lodge, Heinrich Schiff, Arthur Miller, José Carreras… There were indeed intelligent essays by Lenny Henry on funk and The Pet Shop Boys on pop, but these more popular subjects came well within traditional South Bank Show parameters.’
So. The letters. Is it that he’s easily wounded? ‘Yeah, I used to get very pissed off, but I’ve stopped doing that now.’ He grins. ‘Actually that’s not quite true because I just sent one off to the Express the other day. I do reach for the pen. Actually the number of letters I don’t write shows great restraint.’ He only remembered the bad reviews, he adds. ‘I will say, “Did you read what that bastard said in the Croydon Herald?” Of course no one has read it.’ It was telling that when I mentioned the Telegraph article of 30 years ago he immediately said, ‘Do you mean the one by Sean Day-Lewis?’ I didn’t, but I duly dug it up and it described Bragg as ‘a neurotic workaholic quite unlike the relaxed and affable (or smug and self-satisfied, as some see him) Bragg who appears on and off the screen.’
Love the film, darling
Another recurring theme is what Richard Ingrams calls the grovelling. The danger is that his subjects agree to be profiled because they have new work to plug and when the work turns out to be a turkey, as with Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein, it can be discomforting. This was why The Sunday Times in 1994 described the show as the Hello! of the arts. ‘The marquessa (alias Melvyn Bragg) tends to ask his interviewees to agree with his impression that they and their latest products are absolutely marvellous.’
A case in point was the recent South Bank Show profile of the airport novelist Ken Follett. It did rather take him at his own estimation. ‘Actually, I don’t think it did,’ Bragg counters. ‘We wanted to go behind the scenes to watch a big bestseller being written and marketed. That approach hadn’t been tried before. Follett went to his American agent and asked if it was OK and was told, “No, Ken, you’ve got to have sex in it. And dogs.” Then he went to a historian for advice and so on. I suppose we risked it becoming an advertisement for the new book.’
So does he think he sometimes gives people an easy ride, avoiding the awkward issues? ‘I’ve never – maybe once or twice, but accidentally – talked about people’s private lives. You could say that is a mistake, but I haven’t. I didn’t talk to Mailer about his six wives because I wanted to talk to him about his work – Gary Gilmour and reincarnation and crime. That was the deal in my mind. Always thought, let’s go for the work and the rest will somehow come out. The face and gesture will reveal the rest. Television is like a lie detector in that respect. My view is that the audience can make up their own minds. We did Kevin Spacey the other night and reviewers asked why we didn’t ask him why his early plays had failed, but I knew what he would say. That his plays have a right to fail. Why should we spend 14 weeks making a programme in order to demolish someone’s reputation? What is the point? What’s in it for us? Besides, we would end up not being able to get anyone to appear on the show. Authors, especially, can be pretty precious and paranoid. I could name a few, but I won’t.’
Did he wonder whether he was exploiting the painter Francis Bacon by showing him drunk? ‘But we were both drunk! Plastered. By the end of the day the room was spinning. We had started drinking at 9am when he came out with Bollinger, then we carried on drinking and filming over lunch and into the evening. But curiously I was asking things that were OK. I looked like, well, what I looked like, but I thought keep it in, keep it in.’
Melvyn and his mates
Bacon was a friend of his. Does he ever feel compromised by moving in the same circles as these people – dinner parties, book launches and so on – chatting cosily with his chums Martin, Harold and Salman one day, then making films about them the next? ‘I don’t move in those circles as much as you might think. I bet I don’t go to more than four literary parties a year and they will be for friends, Howard Jacobson or Martin [Amis]. Actually, there is sometimes a sense of me putting my own ego under the heel and pressing it down.’
Because he is more famous than the people he is interviewing? ‘Sometimes I feel it gets in the way of my own reputation because I am always associated with interviewing other people. I write my own novels and here I am interviewing other novelists. But there it is.’ Another click of the finger. ‘That is the career I’ve chosen.’
Novelists lead isolated lives and Bragg discovered early on that his appetite for solitude was limited. In fact it brought about acute depression. I ask whether he craves office life now almost as a survival mechanism. ‘Running this office has saved me, in a way. You think, it has happened twice, it could happen again.’
It? ‘For about a year, when I was 13 and 14, I had a massive breakdown. I didn’t know what was happening to me. Out-of-body experiences a dozen times a day. Terrible depression. I got through that by working very hard at school. Ridiculously hard. And I loved it. Work was a liberation. At the end of my twenties I had another very serious crack-up. I got through that period by working hard, too. Keeping busy.’
That was when his first wife, Lisa, killed herself after a long struggle with mental and physical illness. They had one child. (Two years after her death, in 1973, Bragg married the writer and film-maker Cate Haste. They have two grown-up children.)
I ask if his depression gave him an empathetic advantage with certain interviewees, such as Victoria Wood. ‘Not really, but what I think I do have is a nervousness around my edges, which I think can be reassuring for the people I am talking to. It’s a sort of self-consciousness. You’ll be surprised to hear I cut myself out of films a lot.’
Is that insecurity or vanity? ‘Um, I think a touch of both. Nearly always though it is to speed the programme up. Speaking of which…’
While he goes off to do a voice-over for a forthcoming profile of the pianist Lang Lang, I have a wander around the offices and meet some of his team, such as Jack, a callow youth who has just joined as a runner. Archie Powell, who did a South Bank Show film on Alan Bennett, started as a runner, it seems. Another step onto the ladder is to become a researcher. I meet Jonathan Levi, a former researcher who is now, at 29, a producer. He had been Bragg’s researcher on the always edifying In Our Time. ‘Melvyn has been a mentor,’ he says. ‘He has taught me so much. If you come to him with the right idea he will let you get on with it.’ At the moment he is working on profiles of Simon Cowell, Gore Vidal and Ronnie Corbett. As well as Ken Russell, James Ivory and Ken Loach have also worked as directors on the show. Loach had a contretemps with Bragg when a film he made about the miners’ strike was pulled on the grounds that it was too political. Bragg persuaded Channel 4 to air it instead. ‘He’s always quite defensive about that,’ Loach says of Bragg. ‘He was very fair, but it was a shocking story.’ Not all the alumni have been as distinguished as this. One ex-producer ended up a mini-cab driver, but no one on the staff will tell me his name.
Last autumn the number of full-time staff was reduced from 12 to four and the department was restructured as ‘specialist factual and arts for ITV Productions.’ But, unusually for an arts programme, The South Bank Show has just been given the thumbs-up for at least the next three years, a re-commission that coincided with the return to ITV of Michael Grade.
I meet one of the longest-serving producers, Susan Shaw – blonde hair, black clothes, degree from Oxford. She has worked on the show since 1989. ‘We are all expected to be as conversant with the works of Stravinsky as Kylie,’ she says. They have been trying to get Kylie, it transpires. And Madonna and Robbie Williams. But isn’t Kylie, lovable though she is, borderline Justin Hawkins?
‘Oh my God!’ Shaw claps a hand over her mouth. ‘The Darkness was one of mine! I will admit that that was a problematic show, because viewers expect a degree of gravitas. My point of view as the director was that it would be ludicrous to try and bring gravitas to The Darkness. I didn’t want them to be interviewed by Melvyn because they weren’t big enough or serious enough. But they wanted the Melvyn interview for the kudos. They wanted the furrowed brow. They don’t feel it’s a proper SBS unless they’ve had Melvyn.’
Big boss man
Sometimes, it should be explained, the producers make the films and do the interviews and Bragg just does the introduction. Still, it raises an interesting point. Is The South Bank Show actually the Melvyn Bragg show? Shaw is unequivocal. ‘I think The South Bank Show without Melvyn would be a hollow construct. It would have to be reinvented, given a new name. I hope there will be a future for arts programming at ITV but in my view, without Melvyn, The South Bank Show as a brand no longer exists. He’s the one who has held it together. You would not believe the amount of politicking and corporate manoeuvring he has had to do over the years. Innumerable times he has had to bear his teeth to protect the show against cuts or takeovers. He can be quite a bruiser. There is no one in ITV who can challenge his authority.’
This is a view echoed by Michael Grade. ‘He’s untouchable at ITV. His position here is more secure than mine as chairman.’
It is said that Bragg makes sure he is in charge financially, politically and emotionally. I ask Shaw if this means he is a control freak? ‘On the management side he has to pay such close attention to which way the sands are shifting I would say he is a control freak, but not while we are making the films. He gives you autonomy once you have sold your idea to him and got your budget agreed. He will then leave you to get on with it, until the rough-cut stage. At that moment he really becomes hands-on. If you haven’t delivered what you told him you would deliver, there will be blood on the walls. You may never work for him again.’
Another producer, 32-year-old Matt Cain – a Cambridge graduate who started off in television making soft porn – says that one of the misconceptions about the show is that every programme is made in the same way. ‘Actually, every film is different. For my first one, for example, Melvyn sent me off with a camera for a year to do a video diary with Ian McKellen.’ He grins. ‘You want the dirt on Melvyn? There isn’t any! He’s really sweet and daddyish. He’s a patriarch. He looks after us. As to whether he is The South Bank Show, well, you couldn’t have Coronation Street without Ken Barlow.’
When Nick Park was profiled on the show, he spent two weeks modelling and filming a Plasticine model of Bragg – toothy, crow’s feet, broken nose. It was a funny episode. I look around the office for the model. When Bragg returns for an ideas meeting, I ask if he has it. ‘No, Nick probably put it in a dustbin somewhere.’
Hey, good looking
How does Bragg feel about being caricatured? ‘Some are quite good. But you do wince. We used to follow Spitting Image and one really cracked me up.’ He does an impersonation of himself with a nasal voice: ‘And now The South Bank Show. Please do not forget to turn off your sets.’
He says of his nasal delivery, ‘It’s not adenoids, it’s sinus trouble. I’ve had it since I was 17. My nose was broken. It gives me crippling headaches. I’ve had operations every five years or so.’
The other trademark, of course, is the luxuriant hair. He sighs. ‘I know, I know. I don’t get to the barber’s often enough, that’s the trouble. I do sometimes think, oh not again, when people go on about it. You get a preview of something you have worked on for three months and it’s seven lines long and most of the words are taken up with the f—ing hair. Such a bore. Lazy journalists.’ Does he dye it? ‘Dye it! You must be crackers. Course not. I would never dream of dyeing it. Nor would I have anything done to my increasingly jailbird face. I had a passport photo done this morning and I looked like Magwitch.’
And on that literary allusion, I take my leave. Dickens was a populist, of course. Like Bragg, he had the common touch. As I’m walking back along the South Bank, I reflect on how strange it is that populism in the arts can still be a sensitive subject, even after 30 years of Bragg’s tele-evangelism. It is a remarkable achievement, whichever way you slice it. No one has presented a British TV programme for longer. More importantly, no one has done more to make people in this country think about the arts and question their own prejudices. Does pop deserve a place on the arts spectrum? The South Bank Show is still asking that question. It is the secret of its longevity and success, the reason it still gets talked about. That and the hair. Right, Melvyn?