Melvyn Bragg says the driving force behind "In Our Time" is that he wants an education. Photograph: Abigail Zoe Martin/BBC
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Melvyn Bragg, the nation’s schoolmaster

Melvyn Bragg talks to Michael Prodger about family trauma, educating Britain and why Labour is still “deeply wounded”.

Melvyn Bragg is feeling upbeat. The David Attenborough of the arts has no time for those who say we are living in degraded times. “It is in our culture that we don’t want to admit that our culture is good,” he insists. Not only is it good but it is getting better. “Britain is undoubtedly becoming more cultural. No question of it,” he tells me. “People who say it is dumbing down simply don’t look around enough. They don’t know enough.”

It seems a questionable assertion but Baron Bragg of Wigton in the county of Cumbria is adamant – and he is in a position to judge. Bragg, now 74, joined the BBC in 1961. He has presented The South Bank Show since 1978; the show, axed by ITV in 2010, is still running, having moved to the smaller pond of Sky Arts.

Along the way, the arts panjandrum has polarised opinion. He has been called “a genuine Reithian” (by the film critic Peter Whittle); “pompous, dreary, arrogant” (in a Daily Mail headline from 1993); the man who dreamed up the “recipe for high culture mixed with low” that is now “de rigueur” (by Germaine Greer); and “twitchy” and “neurotic” (by the interviewer Lynn Barber).

He was ribbed mercilessly by Spitting Image in the 1980s (for some unexplained reason he was often shown snorting milk from a baby’s bottle) but while most of the programme’s targets – Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Michael Heseltine and Norman Tebbit, for example – seem to belong to another age (and the living show every sign of the passage of time), not Bragg. When we meet in the unshowy offices of his production company in the rag-trade district just north of Oxford Street, he appears unchanged. Smartly suited, energetic and affable, he surveys his youthful staff and talks about them with paternal pride.

Bragg is appearing at the Cambridge Literary Festival (supported by the New Statesman) next month and such events are one reason he is so chipper about the state of our cultural health: “In the 1960s, there was a handful of book festivals. Now there are some 350. Music festivals have seen a similar growth. Opera can now be seen in cinemas – even in Carlisle . . . Sorry, Carlisle.”

Culture seems less prominent, he explains, because it has largely moved off television. “The BBC does a sterling job but I’d like to see it do more. ITV does four arts programmes a year; it used to be 28. At least Sky, with its two arts channels, is trying. It’s a big gamble.” Audience figures for The South Bank Show are going up: “Yes, they’re smaller than I used to get on ITV but it is now catching up with BBC4.” Perhaps the decision by the director general, Tony Hall, to save BBC4 and despatch BBC3 is a sign of a new commitment to the arts.

According to Bragg, the change shows that “arts programmes are not the set pieces they once were”. People are getting their culture away from the old sources. The internet and satellite television have usurped the main channels. “What we’re talking about is the death of the five terrestrial channels. They now get 53 per cent of the audience and the rest get 47 per cent. Wow, that’s amazing. Not so long ago, the main channels were getting everything. Things have changed. Culturally, we’re not able to prescribe as we used to.”

One indicator of an undiminished appetite for the highbrow is his radio programme In Our Time. Bragg was given the show in 1998 as a sop when his ennoblement by Tony Blair gave the BBC the jitters, in case he came across as party political on Start the Week. The format – three academics marshalled by Bragg discussing everything from the Aeneid to Zoroastrianism – seemed to scratch a widespread itch for self-education. The audience rose from 500,000 to 2.5 million and although the BBC won’t release details a likely figure for the number of podcast downloads is around 20 million. Bragg says that the programme’s popularity “surprised me, it still does. I thought it would be a six-month contract.”

The reasons for its success are straightforward, he thinks: “The driving force behind In Our Time is that I want an education. I want to know more about science, say, and if I want to know, then other people probably do, too.”

He tells me that preparing for each programme is the equivalent of reading one non-fiction book a week. Does he remember what he learns? There have, after all, been more than 630 episodes. “I retain some of the information. With some scientists, I think I know what they’re talking about when they are talking about it. Ask me at lunchtime and I’m less sure. Ask me the following day and, well . . .”

Because he has to prep for the programme and run his production company, time for his own writing is limited. He has, however, written 21 novels over the years, as well as more than a dozen works of non-fiction. Despite this, he confesses: “I’ve never had much self-confidence about my books. About television, yes, I thought, ‘I can do this.’ Nevertheless, when my novels have been criticised, it didn’t get to me. But I’m pleased with this one.”

This one, his latest, is Grace and Mary, a heavily autobiographical tale that deals in fictional form with his grandmother, his mother’s illegitimacy and her old-age Alzheimer’s. That it is so personal is a surprise, given that writing his previous novel, Remember Me, was a distressing experience. Published in 2008, it covered his first marriage, to the French artist Lisa Roche, who later committed suicide. The couple had a child, Marie-Elsa – now an Anglican vicar – but were separated at the time of the suicide. Working on the book was not the therapeutic exercise Bragg had expected. It churned up a slew of emotions so painful that they stopped him writing for a while. “The trauma after Remember Me was published was huge. For my daughter, too . . .” He tails off. “It is still with me. I sometimes feel it was wrong to publish it – not to write it but to publish it.”

Wasn’t he worried that the same thing would happen again? “No. I didn’t publish Grace and Mary until after my mother had died. I wanted to write about how those two women face up to what life throws at them.” Of the circumstances of his mother’s birth, Bragg recalls simply that when he was 18 and about to head off to Oxford, she announced, “I’m illegitimate.” He tells me, “That was it. We never spoke of it again.”

This matter-of-factness is a trait evident in Bragg’s writing. Although he has had his fair share of criticism (“Sometimes they’ve had a point”), he is a literary realist who hasn’t, perhaps, received his due because of his television profile.

Lack of time also impinges on his public life. He tries to attend the House of Lords three times a week, not least because it is an institution for which he has a high regard: “The Lords works well because it is full of people who know what they’re talking about. As a revising chamber, it’s excellent. The Commons has nothing like the same wealth of intellectual experience.”

He confines himself to speaking on the arts, broadcasting and universities. The last is exercising him most at the moment. As chancellor of Leeds University, he is scathing about the government’s attempts to cut the numbers of foreign students. “We’ve lost heaven knows how many Chinese and Indian students, all highly educated. It’s madness, absolute madness. These people came with PhDs. They aren’t terrorists, they couldn’t integrate better. The government is swinging an axe, rather than using a small pair of scissors.”

On the arts, he is more forgiving: “My Labour Party friends will jump up and down but, given the cuts, the coalition hasn’t done a bad job.” To avoid being too charitable, he qualifies himself; perhaps, he muses, the arts might be “simply too strongly established for them to mess around with . . . The creative industries employ two million highly skilled people and amount to 8 per cent of GDP. It’s too big to ignore now. London, for example, is the greatest cultural city the world has ever seen.” No government, he acknowledges, will ever get it quite right: “The arts are a bit like the NHS. They are an open-ended claim.”

If Ed Miliband wouldn’t necessarily do any better, how does this Blairite Labour peer think he is shaping up in other ways? There is a long, long pause – 20 seconds, an age for such a fluent talker. It is the only pause during the interview. His response, when it eventually comes, is measured in the extreme: “Well, he says a lot of good things. He’s a thoughtful young man. What he needs to find, though, is a centre of gravity inside the Labour Party that he can work out of. The party is still deeply winded and wounded by the last phase of Gordon Brown’s government.”

He warns that what is hampering this project is the “feeling that Labour is going to win the election anyway. It’s dangerous and treacherously pervasive. Though I hope they do, obviously.” And the person who might help the most, he reckons, is Nick Clegg. “He is an amazing asset for the Labour Party. I mean, to turn down constituency boundary changes because he couldn’t get through his Lords reform was nothing less than petulant. Clegg buggered it up and now he’s sucking up to Labour. Wow.”

If Bragg had a say on Labour policy, what would he put into the election manifesto? “More in schools – school choirs, school orchestras, school bands. Schools, schools, schools.” The mantra sounds familiar, I note. “Well, sometimes we’re just echoes.”

Wider politics seems to hold less interest for him than it used to: “The whole thing does seem like the comédie humaine, sometimes – blustering Alex Salmond saying that Osborne’s blustering, and so on. Still, there’s a lot of enjoyment to be had.”

That last comment seems characteristic of the Bragg modus vivendi. Enjoyment takes many forms – novel-writing; T S Eliot’s poems, which he is currently rereading; religion, which he discusses with his vicar daughter (“She doesn’t take advantage of her position to try to convert me”); music; intermittently even Arsenal Football Club. Most of all, it comes through self-improvement and, he believes, if it works for him, like those Zoroastrians on In Our Time, it will work for others, too. 

“Grace and Mary” is out now in paperback (Hodder & Stoughton, £7.99)

Melvyn Bragg will be in conversation at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 4 April. The festival runs from 1-6 April and other guests include Simon Singh, Germaine Greer, Carol Ann Duffy and Jim Crace. Tickets: 01223 300 085 or cambridgeliteraryfestival.com.

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.