For almost sixty years, legendary writer and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg has presided over the ever changing landscape of popular culture, making him one of Britain’s most enduring presenters. Yet the Arts was something that was never on his professional radar after having a passion for education and destined to become a teacher. Being an amateur actor in stage productions at his local theatre offered the young Melvyn his first taste of popular culture and despite never really catching the acting bug, his love for entertainment remained. Fortunately education’s loss was definitely broadcasting’s gain but it would be still a few years before Melvyn’s passion for the Arts would be recognised.
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Attending Wadham College Oxford in the late 1950’s where he studied modern history indulged his enthusiasm for intellectual debate. At this time, Melvyn maintained his passion for a career in education but partaking in the drama society brought him closer to the world of performing. Despite lacking the glamour and prestige of The Cambridge Footlights, this amateur participation offered him an insight into the psychology of a performer which would prove vital in the years to come. Having sung in the Wigton church choir as a boy offered a subconscious insight into the art of performing and despite opting for what he thought would be a lifetime in academia, it was this experience which would have extra significance.
Joining the BBC in 1961 as a junior producer for BBC radio following graduation, Melvyn quickly became accustomed to the fixed, conservative attitudes of the corporation. Born in Wigton, Carlisle towards the beginning of the Second World War, there had been very little regional representation on both television and radio since its very conception. Yet Bragg’s BBC tenure coincided with the dramatic shift in attitude towards regional accents thanks in part to the worldwide phenomenon of The Beatles. It was obvious that things were changing and suddenly the corporation welcomed individuals with rich regional tones. Securing a role as editor on one of the corporation’s first dedicated arts radio programmes New Release, Melvyn helped to pioneer coverage of art related content on the BBC which possibly reinterpreted the famous Reithian principles to inform, educate and entertain.
New Release was the first programme to chart and celebrate the very best of cinema and theatre releases. Never before had television looked so deeply within itself and documented film, theatre and television like never before. As editor, Melvyn believed in covering the whole breadth of entertainment and fully understood the purpose of the programme. Still in the era where the Arts was seen as a disposable luxury for the upper middle class, television had yet to establish the link between entertainment and culture but with Melvyn’s foresight, New Release introduced the public to the full breadth of the Arts. So much was his passion and enthusiasm for the range of art that was covered, it was promptly decided that he should be promoted to presenter. Unbeknown to him, this would be the start of Melvyn’s unique relationship with the British public which has continued to flourish for over half a century and elevated him to the very top of broadcast journalism.
Joining the BBC’s arts television series Monitor during the early sixties helped to open the young producer’s eyes to cultural affairs. The brainchild of legendary television executive and documentary-maker Sir Huw Wheldon and featured a production team who would later become some of the most prolific figures within the arts including Ken Russell and Jonathan Miller. For Melvyn, this was an invaluable schooling which was miles away from a career in education while still being able to satisfy the born intellectual in him which craved cultural stimulation. This fulfilled the corporation’s main objectives to inform, educate and entertain in the conceptual stages of television. Surrounded by a team of fellow academics; W. G. Archer, Humphrey Burton and John Berger, Melvyn honed his laid back, insightful presenting style which became more prominent with time.
Following seventeen years with the BBC, in 1978 Melvyn was offered the opportunity to front a brand new arts show for London Weekend Television. Written, created and edited by Melvyn himself, The South Bank Show aimed to take a non biased approach to the arts and celebrate every aspect of popular culture. Melvyn thrived upon the opportunity to celebrate Coronation Street in a similar way as Shakespeare. From David Hockney to Victoria Wood, all subjects received the opportunity for self dissection of their art courtesy of Bragg’s intellectual but calming tones. For an unprecedented thirty-two years on ITV, The South Bank Show thrived upon the ability to showcase people and stories from the whole spectrum of showbiz all presided over by the intellectual prowess of a broadcasting titan.
On the 15th March 1994 The South Bank Show touched upon uncharted territory when the playwright Dennis Potter agreed to an interview whilst in the later stages of terminal cancer. Relying on a morphine driver for pain relief, Potter delivered a frank and honest interview which featured everything from the highlights of his career to his perception of death. This was groundbreaking television and in the safe hands of Bragg, was the perfect swan song for this giant of drama. Sadly Potter succumbed to this tragic illness just three months later but this interview was an invaluable record in obtaining an insight into the effects of such a cruel and powerful disease.
Beyond exploring the serious nature of an entertainer’s psychology, The South Bank Show also revelled in obtaining a personal insight into Britain’s most enduring entertainers. In 2008, just three years after the sad passing of the legendary Ronnie Barker, the series profiled the extraordinary life and career of the national treasure Ronnie Corbett. For Melvyn, Corbett was always a dream subject to interview with a never ending supply of stories, anecdotes and jokes which always made his job easy. A born entertainer, Corbett knew exactly what Melvyn was looking for and always delivered the goods. Therefore it didn’t matter if it was in the interior of his favourite bespoke tailors or in a studio because the reactions were always the same.
The South Bank Show reigned supreme on ITV for an unprecedented thirty two years as the final offering on the LWT network in its legendary spot of 10:30 on a Sunday evening. A catchy theme tune, vibrant opening titles and thought provoking subjects were among the factors which made it appeal to the masses. However, just as it had charted the fads and fashions of entertainment, in 2010 the show found itself having to adapt to TV’s cut throat market and secured a new home on Sky Arts. Still thriving in the 360 content world of 2022, Melvyn and the team continue to both champion and celebrate outstanding achievements within the Arts and the series remains a shining example to all other cultural affairs programmes on television. From the late seventies to the present day, The South Bank Show has held a metaphorical mirror up to ourselves and has increased our collective appreciation of popular culture and Melvyn Bragg has been at the very heart of this. A job well done!
In 1998, following a twenty year hiatus, Melvyn was lured back to BBC Radio for Radio 4’s In Our Time: the show in which a panel of experts debate and celebrate a specific subject. From the complete works of Shakespeare to the nineteenth century’s seige of Paris, In Our Time is a platform for highbrow cultural debate. As an intellectual, Melvyn has the unique ability to maintain a balanced view of each subject without displaying his own opinion and this is a vital technique required to direct proceedings. It’s impossible to imagine any other broadcaster who would have the intellectual and cultural prowess to preside over such a level of discussion. Now in its 24th year, In Our Time continues to welcome some of Britain’s brightest minds to celebrate and debate a broad range of themes. Melvyn remains incredibly proud of In Our Time and has the desire to continue preserving the much loved programme for as long as possible.
Despite his vast achievements and ever present career on TV and radio, Melvyn Bragg has always been able to maintain his anonymity from the British public and remains extremely comfortable with his level of fame. He’s extremely grateful that he’s able to take a walk through his village of Wigton without being mobbed by crowds of fans. Yet from the above celebration, it’s obvious that Melvyn Bragg occupies a very significant place within the pantheon of British broadcasting. From the 1960’s to the present day, Melvyn Bragg has presided over the ever changing face of the Arts and has informed our collective understanding of popular culture. As a creator of an entertainment podcast, it was an honour to interview the legendary Melvyn Bragg and his contribution to cultural affairs television shall live forever.