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

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.