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23 July 2015

Humble beginnings: an unnervingly moving portrait of Melvyn Bragg

Yes, Melvyn Bragg is charming, handsome, luxuriantly haired, articulate, a quick study. But there is something questing about him, too – and it is this that made him such a fine interviewee.

By Rachel Cooke

Melvyn Bragg: Wigton to Westminster
BBC2

Cake Bakers and Trouble Makers: Lucy Worsley’s 100 Years of the WI
BBC2

I can’t say I had particularly high hopes for Olivia Lichtenstein’s film Melvyn Bragg: Wigton to Westminster (18 July, 9.15pm). I expected it to be hagiographic and, as things turned out, I wasn’t wrong: the attitude of her various talking heads ranged from respectful (Humphrey Burton) through adoring (Judi Dench) to downright worshipful (Grayson Perry) and nothing in between.

Even so, about 15 minutes in, I noticed I was completely rapt. Even more unnerving, my heart felt full, the way it might do at a family wedding, or even a funeral. Bragg seemed suddenly to be standing proxy not only for some of the men in my life – in particular, my father – but for an entire generation. Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age, but I found this terribly moving.

Bragg was a working-class boy from Cumbria whose parents were first factory workers and then the tenants of a Wigton pub. His rocket-like trajectory up and out into the world can be traced to his grammar-school education – specifically to a passionate history teacher (Jimmie James, now 94 years old, though you’d never know it to hear him) – and to the twin shadows in his life: first, the nervous breakdown he suffered at the age of just 13, and second, the suicide of his first wife, Lisa Roche.

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For Bragg, work is a balm, a place of safety; he needs it. He has enjoyed his material career success, but the TV and the peerage have always run in tandem with something far more vital: his sense that learning is a thing to be done for its own sake. Yes, he is charming, handsome, luxuriantly haired, articulate, a quick study. But there is something questing about him, too – and it is this that made him such a fine interviewee.

He was willing to excavate. Sometimes, he would shake his head at himself, as if he wasn’t doing quite well enough; but far from trotting out the same old stories, he seemed genuinely to be thinking as he spoke.

The newspapers have picked up on the guilt he still feels over Roche’s death. But I was more struck by the moment when he talked of his friendships (he is still close to his Wigton pals, several of whom appeared, as did his adorable first girlfriend, Joan). “I’ve got about ten friends,” he said, in a matter-of-fact way. As statements go, this was disarmingly self-aware. Think about it – and Bragg’s particular kind of fame – a little more
if you don’t know what I’m getting at.

The other significant presence in the film was Bragg’s daughter by Roche, Marie-Elsa, from whose apple cheeks wisdom and kindness seemed to radiate (I gather she is ordained in the Church of England, though the film didn’t mention this). Her father, she said, is a complicated man, but oh, how he has loved her. I teared up at this. What a blessing to have such understanding in a daughter, for we can be awfully Old Testament when it comes to our fathers. My hunch is that we must credit at least part of Bragg’s mental survival to this fine woman, which means that we, too, are in her debt. Watching clips from The South Bank Show – a pissed Francis Bacon; a dying Dennis Potter – I realised how much I owe the series. The autodidact made autodidacts of us all.

And now to less important matters: Lucy Worsley’s 100 Years of the WI (18 July, 8.10pm). The finest sponge cake I ever tasted – so pale and high and crumbly it resembled Beachy Head if you ignored the jam – was purchased at a WI sale, so I was predisposed to be onside for this one. Plus, I’m a long-time enthusiast for women of yore called Edith and Madge, particularly those Ediths and Madges who wandered about being bossy in ties and tweedy trousers when everyone else was in twinsets and white gloves, fawning over the curate.

All the same, it was mildly irritating the way it kept serving up statements of the bleeding obvious as grand surprises (some members of the WI were suffragettes! “Jerusalem” is as radical as it is patriotic!). Just a teeny-weeny bit patronising, I think. There were times, if I’m honest, when I longed to slow-clap it, just as WI members once did a certain Mr Blair.