When he first appeared on our screens in 1973 he seemed to be, and to some has remained, the arts presenter of a satirist’s greedy dream: the velvet suit, the pervasive interdisciplinary keenness, the impeccable Northern origin softened and balanced by a Hampstead address, the blown-dry hair, the sensitively flattened features of a bookish front-row forward, and the bloated tie-knot wedged like a Danish pastry under the jowl.
He even gave damaging little interviews in which he said things like, “In the world in which I move now it’s taken for granted that you can flip from rock music to George Eliot without losing your intellectual gear” (1975). But whereas most of the other members of the pack are no more interesting than their success, and often frighteningly less so, Bragg is an exception: a man of serious ambition, deeply interested in television and its future, yet by no means dependent on his present success. Friends of long standing see him as largely unaltered by fame: he is a likeable and kindly man, cautious and resilient, with much natural charm, who admits to an egocentricity which few who know him rush to deny; in Jonathan Miller’s phrase, he is “about as modest as Larry Adler”. For the last 15 years he has written novels and worked in television; and when there has been a conflict of interest, television has taken second place. It is the novels — patient, traditional fictions about character, landscape and feeling — which confirm how far Bragg’s centre of gravity is from his television image.
Bragg was born in Wigton, Cumberland, in 1939, the only child of a professional publican who now keeps a sweetshop. His Cumbrian working-class origins have always been of value and continuing importance to him: “It’s a kind of real aristocratic birth — it gave me 20 years of solidity, solid family, solid moral values, solid ambitions.” Cumbria, where he still returns for three months of every year, has provided all the emotional (plus most of the topographical) sources of his fiction, as well as the material for his recent oral history Speak for England.
He went to the local grammar school, and passed through a largely self-inflicted religious phase — “if there was any brain-washing, then I brain-washed myself” — whose influence still survives in a residual Christian belief of a Wordsworthian flavour. Bragg won a history scholarship to Wadham College, Oxford, where he worked assiduously, was widely liked, and built up his first library, appropriately, with threepenny paperbacks from the Oxfam shop. He acted a little, began his first novel, and courted P. F. Strawson’s au pair, the daughter of the Rector of the Sorbonne, whom he married in his last term. He put in to do research on Eleanor Marx, took a Second from an isolation hospital while suffering from glandular fever, applied, in the vague way of most graduates, for jobs with Marks & Spencer and the Blyth Iron and Steel Works, and ended up joining the BBC in 1961 as a general trainee, alongside Phillip Whitehead.
Here he received the usual catholic training, and worked in radio under Rena Cutforth and Louis MacNeice, before being given his first job in television by the editor of Monitor, Humphrey Burton. He joined the programme on the same day as Patrick Garland; Huw Wheldon was presenter, and Ken Russell chief film director. Later he moved to production work on Writer’s World, New Release, Bookstand, and Take It or Leave It, but all the time continuing to write, completing seven novels before he was confident enough to publish one.
At 21, with two published novels behind him and, in his own words, cocky enough to think he could push off, he drew the £273 owing to him in the BBC pension fund, and went freelance. He financed his fiction by writing film-scripts: The Music Lovers for Russell, Isadora for Karel Reisz, and Jesus Christ Superstar. The early novels which this work underwrote contain a fair amount of familial dues-paying — “I had to put my parents, and my grandparents, on the fictive shelf”: and Bragg, who was starting after the first fashionable wave of Northern working-class novelists, and whose work was conspicuously lacking in both social aggression and sexual grunt-and-groan, received the kind of reviews, respectful but not heated, which have become his lot.
Freelancing, however, had its drawbacks: Bragg found, not least, that the solitude of writing imposed a severe strain. Other eadnesses and troubles — including the death of his first wife — disturbed this seven-year period. He ran into tax problems; he discovered the painfully lowly status accorded to the writer by the film industry; and he had his first experience of presenting a television show, a Manchester flop called Somewhere Up There.
Bragg’s achievements since that time are both impressive and important. For ten years, from the early Sixties, there were simply no books programmes on television; while the concept of interviewing a writer remained frozen at ten minutes’ chatter plus the odd shot of him wandering self-consciously round his house, trying to look as if he were thinking. Now, with Second House and The Lively Arts, the idea of interviewing a major writer (like Bellow, Singer, Mailer) at a potentially profitable length of up to 90 minutes is at least established in the minds of programme planners and viewers as something which can be done, and done productively. Such a breakthrough always looks obvious after it has happened; less often before.
Bragg’s second achievement is to succeed, almost single-handed, in getting a book programme on BBC l. Read All About It is wholly Bragg’s creation; he edits it, introduces it, and has a large part in choosing who appears on it. He is touchy about criticism, and tends to threaten you with transcripts as soon as he senses doubt. This, however, is understandable, since Bragg sees the programme in some ways as being an extension of himself, and the two main assumptions of the show, both fundamentally populist, can be traced directly to his own beliefs.
These are, first, his stated view that everyone’s opinion of a book is interesting; and, second, a sort of broad, optimistic belief that books are per se a good thing, so that the whole question of Books on BBC l becomes an evangelical issue, rather like the fluoridisation of water. Thus tension exists between the programme’s basic job-description — to provide critical reception for books — and the demands of television for it to be a show, i.e. generate novelty arising from more than just the different fortnightly choices of books. Hence painful sights of the Joe-Bugner-on-Chomsky variety, and the actresses who begin, “Well, I haven't actually read this sort book, Melvyn, but...” This tendency can only be heightened by Bragg’s ultimate plans for the show: in two years he hopes to turn it from a late-night show watched by 2 ½ to 3 ½ million into an earlier-evening programme attracting “massive” audiences.
Bragg admits that Read All About It by itself would provide a service to books which would be “thoroughly inadequate” without the ballast of longer programmes on BBC 2; furthermore, he views the balance between the two channels as a function of the responsibility which he feels personally to viewers. This self-identification with his programmes, coupled with a certain imperviousness to irony, results in an edginess over criticism (not to mention a habit of feeding the words “interview” and “profile” into his linguistic unscrambler and coming up with “assassination plot”). Indeed, for such a variedly successful man (and one who is, at bottom, very sure of himself) he offers a considerable lack of surface confidence. Even after eight published novels, he admits to nervousness about writing fiction.
There is still a lot of Melvyn Bragg to come — he expects to produce his best fiction over the next ten years — but it will not necessarily be in predictable fields. At present he gives himself another three years in television; but things might change more quickly. Bragg is a solid middle-of-the-road Labour Party man whose political views, he claims quaintly but attractively, haven’t changed since he was 14. He has a deep attachment to his roots, no lack of ambition, and a certain strain of hortatory bonhomie. No one reading the editorial matter in Speak for England can fail to notice the proud, full, optimistic patriotism voiced in it.
Politics would not be an extraordinary pursuit for such a man. Phillip Whitehead’s example beckons; and Bragg is certainly Cumbria’s favourite son, even though, in the days of his first appearances on Second House, Wigtonians used to watch glumly and ask at the end, “Do we get a medal?” His literal first memory is of sitting in the fourth row of the Temperance Hall in Wigton and listening to his mother read the treasurer’s report to the local Labour Party meeting. It would perhaps be neither surprising, nor wholly inappropriate, for a man who has represented the people of Cumbria for 15 years in fiction to end up representing them in Parliament.