Melvyn Bragg photographed by Andrew Hayes-Watkins
Melvyn Bragg is legendarily curmudgeonly. He’s been known to reduce hapless interviewers, interviewees and even top-flight CEOs to little balls of quivering jelly. His vast pool of knowledge – from culture to language to philosophy – as well as his solid working-class upbringing, lifelong intellectual passions, mean he suffers fools about as gladly as an irritated medieval king with a jester allergy. Fortunately for this interview, he has one weak spot – Scottish Border surnames. Obviously.
Spotting that I’m an Armstrong, his glowering brow lifts and he asks about my Borders connections – my grandfather moved south, I tell him – and he grins. ‘My grandfather married an Armstrong. Troublemakers all of them.’ After that, he’s positively cheerful.
Of course, he’s got good reason to be. His beloved South Bank Show – axed by ITV in 2009 – has been given a new lease of life by Sky Arts, the increasingly eclectic satellite channel that’s recently commissioned comedies from Will Self and Sandi Toksvig as well as broadcasting live opera and specials on da Vinci.
‘I was very cautious when they approached me,’ he confesses. ‘I agreed to let them televise The South Bank Show Awards in 2011 and they kept their promises and did a good show. So I got back in the saddle and now I’ve remembered that this is what I love doing – working with a young team, ideas flowing, mixing up the highbrow and the populist and a few surprises...’
Back in 2009 he was publicly incensed at ITV’s decision – describing it as ‘extremely shortsighted’ and accusing the channel of ‘underestimating the intelligence of the British people to a great degree. It’s saying: “You dumbos”.’ Three years on – perhaps because, despite owning the rights to the show, he still needed his old boss’s permission to open his culture shop on Sky – he’s more philosophical.
‘Arts TV isn’t in too bad a state,’ he shrugs, munching on fruit in the staff canteen at Sky’s West London HQ. ‘BBC Two’s The Culture Show is on a real run at the moment. BBC Four’s made a real contribution, BBC One and ITV could do a bit better – well, they could do a lot more obviously, but it’s not too bad overall.’
Bragg himself can take some small credit for this – in part because he seems to be presenting half the arts and culture shows on radio and the small screen. Radio 4 listeners hear his stentorian tones with their hint of Cumbrian twang welcoming them to In Our Time and to his recent five-part series The Written World, and he’s just finished presenting Melvyn Bragg on Class and Culture for BBC Two. How does he maintain his energy and enthusiasm at 72?
This full version of this interview is available in the May 2012 issue of Saga Magazine. For more in-depth interviews, plus a wealth of health, money and lifestyle articles, subscribe today.