Melvyn Bragg is one of the most successful broadcasters and authors of his generation. The 72-year-old’s presence throughout mainstream media, coupled with his prolific portfolio as a novelist, has seen him entertain audiences across Great Britain.
Bragg’s Cumbrian upbringing has and continues to influence much of his work. For example, he started to write the first novel of his Cumbrian Trilogy in the late 1960s.
“It was the place where I grew up and it inspired me. There are two sorts of writers, those who regret their background and create an image of something completely different, while others work up from their upbringing and out of it. I seem to be one of the second kind,” he declares.
Bragg was brought up in a working class family and revealed that the environment he was exposed to shaped both his life and career.
“I was born just after the Second World War in Great Britain and I remember the blackouts at night, and at that age, everything seemed strange to me. I mixed in a very powerful community and people used to do things together – socials, dances, clubs, jazz bands and choirs.
“Wigton was a small town, so as it was, you knew everybody. It gave you an extensive feeling of friendship and companionship. I lived close to the Lake District as well and I started to go there as a teenager. I became besotted by the landscape and the poetry it inspired. One way or another, that place meant a great deal to me. When I started to write, it just happened that I recalled all of those experiences.”
Having found an early interest in writing, Bragg won a scholarship to read Modern History at Wadham College in Oxford.
“I started to write and construct short stories at college when I was 19-years-old. It was what I always wanted to do and then I turned them into short films. I also started to do some acting, write for the university magazine and move towards that area.”
Little did he know at the time, but his next move would have a big impact on his career.
“After my time at Oxford ended, I applied for lots of different jobs and I was lucky that I got a job as a trainee at the BBC. I worked on many different programmes, across various platforms. I loved it and after that I did not want to do anything else apart from write and make shows. That is the story of my career really.”
He then began to work on and present BBC arts show ‘The Lively Arts’, before becoming better known as a presenter for the London Weekend Television (LWT) arts programme ‘The South Bank Show’. The popular, hour-long programme, which combined interviews, high art and popular culture originally run from 1978 to 2010, but is due to return to our screens from May on Sky Arts.
“When we started the programme, we wanted to cover pop music, comedy and television drama to cover all bases. We thought that these subjects were every bit as important as what was being done in classical music and stage drama. We put them all in the same bag as it were (but not on an equal basis) and tried new things and plugged away for a long time.
“I have always had an amazing time doing the programme, whilst having the opportunity to work with some terrific people. I could not have envisaged a better way to spend a working life really, it was just terrific,” he added.
Bragg is also known for his work on BBC Radio 4, particularly discussion programme ‘Start the Week’, which he hosted for the best part of a decade from 1988. In addition, he also traced the history of the English language in the series ‘The Routes of English’ and he still presents historical radio programme ‘In Our Time’ today.
Whilst Bragg’s broadcasting capabilities are unquestionable, he has also turned many screenplays into biographical dramas with the late filmmaker Ken Russell.
“I have been able to do a lot of different things in my career and I do not mind them all being bundled up together. However, it is neater to describe me as a writer and broadcaster.”
Bragg, who is a Life Peer in the House of Lords and Labour Party follower, at the time of the interview, was working on what would become his 21st novel. However, he would not disclose too much about it and instead preferred to talk about the process he goes through to construct his work.
“It is the planning that matters when you are writing as you are trying to find something that is stored away in your mind. You hope you can do it,” he laughs.
With thanks to Stephanie Pochet from Directors Cut Productions for assisting in setting up the interview.