Melvyn Bragg, Baron Bragg, FRSL, FBA, FRS (born 6 October 1939) is a British broadcaster, author and parliamentarian. He is best known for his work with ITV as editor and presenter of the The South Bank Show (1978–2010).
Earlier in his career, Bragg worked for the BBC in various roles including presenter, a connection that resumed in 1988 when he began to host Start the Week on Radio 4. After his ennoblement in 1998, he switched to presenting the new In Our Time, a discussion radio programme, which has run to over 600 editions. He is currently Chancellor of the University of Leeds.
Bragg was born on 6 October 1939 in Carlisle, the son of Mary Ethel (née Park), a tailor, and Stanley Bragg, a stock keeper turned mechanic. He was given the name Melvyn by his mother after she saw the actor Melvyn Douglas at a local cinema. He was raised in the small town of Wigton, where he attended the Wigton primary school and later the Nelson Thomlinson Grammar School, where he was Head Boy. He was an only child, born a year after his parents married, on the eve of Word War II. His father was away from home serving with the Royal Air Force for four years during the war. His upbringing and childhood experiences were typical of the working class environment of that era.
As a child, the woman he was led to believe was his maternal grandmother was in reality the foster parent of his own mother; his grandmother having been forced to leave the town due to the stigma of her daughter being born illegitimately. From the age of 8 until he left for university, his family home was above a pub in Wigton, the Black-A-Moor Hotel, of which his father had become the landlord. Into his teens he was a member of the Scouts and played rugby in his school's first team. Encouraged by a teacher who had recognised his work ethic, Bragg was one of an increasing number of working class teenagers of the era being given a path to university through the grammar school system. At university he read Modern History at Wadham College, Oxford in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Throughout of his working life, Bragg has combined a career in broadcasting with one in writing.
Bragg began his career in 1961 as a general trainee at the BBC. He was the recipient of one of only three traineeships awarded that year. He spent his first two years in radio at the BBC World Service, then at the BBC Third Programme and BBC Home Service. He joined the production team of Huw Wheldon's Monitor arts series on BBC Television.
He presented the BBC books programme Read All About It (and was also its editor, 1976–77) and The Lively Arts, a BBC Two arts series.
He is best known for the London Weekend Television (LWT) arts programme The South Bank Show, which he edited and presented from 1978 to 2010. His interview with playwright Dennis Potter shortly before his death is regularly cited as one of the most moving and memorable television moments ever. By being just as interested in popular as well as classical genres, he is credited with making the arts more accessible and less elitist.
He was Head of Arts at LWT from 1982 to 1990 and Controller of Arts at LWT from 1990. He is also known for his many programmes on BBC Radio 4, including Start the Week (1988 to 1998),The Routes of English (mapping the history of the English language), and In Our Time (1998 to present), which in March 2011 broadcast its 500th programme.
Bragg's pending departure from the South Bank Show was portrayed by The Guardian as the last of the ITV grandees, speculating that the next generation of ITV broadcasters would not have the same longevity or influence as Bragg or his ITV contemporaries John Birt, Greg Dyke, Michael Grade and Christopher Bland.
In February 2012, he began Melvyn Bragg on Class and Culture, a three-part series on BBC2 examining popular media culture, with an analysis of the British social class system.
In 2012 he brought back The South Bank Show to Sky Arts 1, and is expected to stay with Sky until 2015. In December 2012, he began , a five-part series on BBC Radio 4 examining the meaning of culture, expanding on Matthew Arnold's landmark (1869) collection of essays Culture and Anarchy. In June 2013 Bragg wrote and presented The Most Dangerous Man in Tudor England, broadcast by the BBC. This told the dramatic story of William Tyndale's mission to translate the Bible from the original languages to English.
Having produced unpublished short stories since age 19, Bragg had initially decided to become a writer after university. In recognition that writing would not, initially at least, earn him a living, the opportunity at the BBC arose after filling out applications to posts in a variety of industries. While at the BBC, he continued writing. Publishing his first novel in 1965, he decided to leave the BBC to concentrate full-time on writing. Although he published several works, he was unable to make a living, forcing a return to television by the mid-1970s.
A novelist and writer of non-fiction, Bragg has also written a number of television and film screenplays. Some of his early television work was in collaboration with Ken Russell, for whom he wrote the biographical dramas The Debussy Film (1965) and Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World (1967), as well as Russell's film about Tchaikovsky, The Music Lovers (1970). Most of his novels are autobiographical fictions, set in an around the town of Wigton during his childhood.
By the 1990s, having received a range of reviews for his work, from outstanding to lazy, some critics were suggesting that splitting his time between writing and broadcasting was detrimental to the quality, and that his media profile and his known sensitivity to criticism made him an easy target for unjust reviews. According to The Independent, The Literary Review's prize mocking his poor writing of sex in fiction was awarded not on readers' nominations, but simply because it would be good PR.
Bragg's friends include the former Labour Party leaders Tony Blair, Neil Kinnock and the late Michael Foot, and former deputy leader Roy Hattersley. He was one of 100 donors who gave the Labour a sum in excess of £5,000 in 1997, the year the party came to power under Blair in the general election. The following year he was appointed by Blair to the House of Lords as the life peer Baron Bragg, of Wigton in the County of Cumbria, one of a number of Labour donors given peerages. This led to accusations of cronyism from the defeated Conservative Party.
In the Lords he takes a keen interest in the arts and education. According to The Guardian writing in 2004, his voting and attendance record is good and he takes the role seriously, voting 104 times out of a possible 226 in the 2002/3 session, only once against the government, on the Hunting Act. He campaigned against it on the grounds it could affect the livelihoods of Cumbrian farmers. With Cumbria being on the England-Scotland border, he lent his public support to the No campaign during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.
Bragg expressed regret over live interview in 2004 in which he described Blair as experiencing "tremendous stress" in the Spring, causing a media frenzy. While critics suggested this was a misstep that belied his wish to be seen as serious politician, supporters placed blame for the fallout on society, not Bragg, whose answer was characteristically humane and direct.
Bragg married his first wife, Marie-Elisabeth Roche, in 1961, and they had a daughter, Marie-Elsa. Five years older than Bragg, she was a French viscountess studying painting at Oxford. Ten years later Roche killed herself. He did not know that his wife had a history of suicide attempts. "I could have done things which helped and I did things which harmed", he told The Guardian in 1998. "So yes, I feel guilt, I feel remorse."
Bragg's second wife, Catherine Mary Haste, whom he married in 1973, is also a television producer and writer, having, among other things, edited the 2007 memoir of Clarissa Eden, widow of Sir Anthony Eden, and collaborated with Cherie Booth, wife of Tony Blair, on a 2004 book about the wives of British Prime Ministers. They have a son and a daughter, Tom and Alice.
Bragg has publicly discussed two nervous breakdowns that he has suffered, one in his teens and another in his 30s. His first breakdown began at age 13; inspired by a passage in Wordsworth's The Prelude, in the following years he found ways to cope, including exploring the outdoors and the adoption of a strong work ethic, as well as meeting his first girlfriend. The second followed his wife's suicide. He traces the origin of a lifelong nervousness of public speaking to the experience of giving a reading from the lectern as a choirboy at age 6.
Bragg has defended Christianity, particularly the King James Bible, although he does not claim to be a believer himself, seeing himself in Albert Einstein's term as a "believing unbeliever", adding that he is "unable to cross the River of Jordan which would lead me to the crucial belief in a godly eternity."
He lives in Hampstead, London, but still owns a house near his home town of Wigton. He is a member of the Garrick Club and a supporter of Arsenal F.C. and Carlisle United (London Branch Hon. President).
At the age of 75, his life was profiled in the BBC Two television programme Melvyn Bragg: Wigton to Westminster, first broadcast on 18 July 2015.
Positions and memberships
- Peerage - see #Peerage
- President of the National Campaign for the Arts (since 1986)
- Domus Fellow, St Catherine's College, Oxford (1990)
- Chairman of Border Television 1990-96 (deputy chairman 1985-90)
- Honorary Fellowship from Wadham College, Oxford (1995)
- Governor of the London School of Economics (since 1997).
- Chancellor of the University of Leeds (1999)
- President of the charity MIND (2002)
- Honorary Fellowship of the British Academy (2010), for "public understanding of the arts, literature and sciences"
- Honorary Fellowship of Royal Society (2010)
- President of the National Academy of Writing
- Vice President of the Friends of the British Library.
- Chairman of the Arts Council Literature Panel
Awards and honours
- Literary prizes
- Writers' Guild Screenplay Award (1966)
- Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for Without a City Wall (1968)
- Time/Life Silver Pen Award for The Hired Man (1970)
- Northern Arts Association Prose Award (1970)
- Bad Sex in Fiction Award for A Time to Dance (1993)
- WH Smith Literary Award for The Soldier's Return (2000)
- Son of War, Crossing The Lines, and A Place in England, all long-listed for the Man Booker Prize
- Film & television awards
- Broadcasting Guild Award (1984)
- British Academy of Film and Television Arts Dimbleby Award (1986)
- BAFTA TV Award for An Interview with Dennis Potter (1995)
- BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award (2010)
- Best New Radio Series for Routes of English (2000)
- Other awards
- Ivor Novello Musical Award (1985)
- Honorary Degree from the Open University as Doctor of the University. (1989)
- Namesake of Millom School Drama Studio (2005)
- The South Bank Show Lifetime Achievement Award (2010)
- For Want of a Nail (1965)
- The Second Inheritance (1966)
- The Cumbrian Trilogy:
- The Hired Man (1969)
- A Place in England (1970)
- Kingdom Come (1980)
- The Nerve (1971)
- Josh Lawton (1972)
- The Silken Net (1974)
- Autumn Manoeuvres (1978)
- Love and Glory (1983)
- The Maid of Buttermere (1987) (based on the life of Mary Robinson)
- Without a City Wall (1988)
- A Time to Dance (1990)
- Crystal Rooms (1992)
- Credo (1996) also known as The Sword and the Miracle
- The Soldier's Return Quartet:
- The Soldier's Return (1999)
- A Son of War (2001)
- Crossing the Lines (2003)
- Remember Me... (2008)
- Grace and Mary (2013)
- Now is the Time (2015)
- Non-fiction books
- Speak For England (1976)
- Land of The Lakes (1983)
- Laurence Olivier (1984)
- Cumbria in Verse (editor) (1984)
- Rich: The Life of Richard Burton (1988)
- King Lear in New York (1994)
- On Giants' Shoulders (1998)
- Two Thousand Years Part 1: The Birth of Christ to the Crusades (1999)
- Two Thousand Years Part 2 (1999)
- The Routes of English (2001)
- The Adventure of English (2003)
- Twelve Books That Changed the World (2006)
- In Our Time (editor) (2009)
- The Book of Books (2011)
- Children's books
- (editor) (1981)
- The Debussy Film (1965)
- Isadora (1968) (with Clive Exton and Margaret Drabble)
- Play Dirty (1968)
- The Music Lovers (1970) (directed by Ken Russell)
- Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)