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26 February 2020

Melvyn Bragg’s Diary: The battle for the BBC, the teacher who changed my life, and “the greatest novelist of all”

After almost 100 years of history, we have in the BBC – apart from the royal family – the UK’s only global brand; the key nourisher of the arts.

By Melvyn Bragg

On 5 March I’ll be speaking in a debate in the House of Lords. Lord Young of Norwood Green has proposed a debate on the subject, “This House takes note of the role of the BBC and public service broadcasting to the United Kingdom’s economy and creative culture.” It will last for two and a half hours. There won’t be a vote at the end of it but it will set the scene for a battle about our culture and identity.

The Tory position is already clear: the BBC should be “whacked”. That’s the word from the cabinet and is consistent with the childish, Maoist chanting about goals and targets and the attention-seeking ideas proposed by Dominic Cummings, who sometimes appears to be in charge of Boris Johnson’s brain. Chop it. Bin it. Sorted. 

After almost 100 years of history, we have in the BBC – apart from the royal family – the UK’s only global brand; the key nourisher of the arts; and often the standard for quality in documentaries, comedy and, above all, drama. It is to be pulled apart. We are to follow the success model of the great American corporations and in the process discard or irreparably damage that bespoke variety of programming that intertwines the BBC with its British audience.

Bouncy castle politics aside, could the motivation for this move simply be that our prime minister – whom we expect to stand up to Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping – did not have the guts to stand up to Andrew Neil and John Humphrys, so is wiping them off the map?

Power to the Lords

The House of Lords – for all the derision directed at it by Conservative politicians – appears to be hugely valued by the Commons. Some years ago, I voted in seven motions proposed by the whole House of Lords that we should abolish the hereditary and selective principle and become an elected second house. The Commons turned down every option we offered. As a footnote, the Lords’ considerations on Brexit – on which we defeated the government in 17 straight votes – were generally thought to be far more thoughtful and well-researched than the spasms of hysteria seen in the Commons.

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Looking for a new England

I have been in and out of my local NHS hospital for several years. Yes, there have been protracted waiting times, but they are understandable given the relentless demand.

Perhaps I’ve been lucky, but what I’ve found is a workforce generally cheerful, attentive, intelligent and effective. The staff from a variety of cultural backgrounds seem to me to represent an integrated new England. The service is a small miracle despite the deep cuts inflicted by Tory austerity. Johnson has promised to change this approach for the better; sadly, it seems that his most reliable characteristic is that he breaks his promises.

Local heroes

A few days ago I was in Wigton, Cumbria, where I was brought up, for the funeral of my former history teacher Mr James. He died two weeks short of his 100th birthday, mind intact (when I saw him recently he talked in detail about the complications of politics in Northern Ireland).

Mr James was a child of a Congregationalist missionary in Madagascar. At the age of 12, he and his brothers were sent back to England to a nonconformist public school. He won a place at Wadham College, Oxford, leaving after a year to serve as a Spitfire pilot, doing extremely dangerous reconnaissance work behind the lines (which, had he talked to us about it at school, would have transformed this rather severe teacher into a total hero). One way or another he stayed in the service of our grammar school, which then became a comprehensive school, for more than 50 years.

Like many others in the packed church at his funeral, I owe him a great debt. I was set to leave school at 15. Although I did not know this until five years ago, Mr James went to see my mother and father three times to persuade them to let me stay on.

On the South Bank Show, I’ve been fortunate to interview hundreds of people who have achieved great things in the arts. At some stage in the interview almost all of them have started a sentence with precisely the same phrase: “There was this teacher”. On 16 February Ian Wright spoke movingly of his teacher Mr Pigden on Desert Island Discs and the response of the Radio 4 audience was overwhelming. Good teachers change lives.

The magic of Maigret

At the moment I’m reading what is described as “the last Maigret novel” – Georges Simenon’s Maigret and Monsieur Charles. Penguin has now retranslated and re-covered all the Maigret novels with triumphant success.

I interviewed Simenon in the first season of the South Bank Show 42 years ago. My strongest memory is of his wife sitting very close to him, giving me what I thought was a rather menacing look, perhaps willing me to avoid any reference to his frequent and freely-confessed habit of seeing several prostitutes every time he finished a novel.

André Gide, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947 – an honour not afforded to Simenon – wrote that he was “the greatest of all… the most genuine novelist we have had in literature”. He is said to have written about 800 books but, alas, only 75 are Maigrets. So what’s to be done? My friend Bernard Donoughue came up with a solution. “We’ll just have to go back to the first one and read them all again.”

Labour’s self-destruction

Tony Blair is now a voice crying in the wilderness. His latest survey of the Labour Party is, as usual, full of urgent good sense. DH Lawrence wrote: “Never trust the teller, trust the tale” – and Blair’s tale is what the Labour Party needs now.

There’s no doubt that Blair could inspire the essential regrouping of Labour. Will the Labour Party’s genius for self-harm never stop?

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This article appears in the 26 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The death of privacy