How Melvyn Bragg went from Wigton to Westminster

Filmmaker Olivia Lichtenstein turns the camera on the lord of the arts in her latest documentary - and found him surprisingly candid

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Sitting in the corner of an unpretentious café in the small town of Wigton in Cumbria, a familiar figure is enthusiastically tucking into tattie pie.

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A local woman greets him comfortably. “You’re looking more and more like your mother, Melvyn,” she says nudging her companion for confirmation. “She was a lovely woman, your mother,” the other agrees. 

With his film-star looks, luxuriant hair (constant reference to which he finds tiresome) and his – unusual when he started – regional accent, Melvyn Bragg has been a constant presence on our television screens for the past 50 years.

Best known for The South Bank Show, the country’s longest-running arts programme, first on ITV and now on Sky Arts, he has profiled many of the world’s most notable writers, artists, actors and musicians.

He has also written numerous works of non-fiction, plays and film scripts and his 23rd novel, Now Is the Time, is due to be published in October.

Created a life peer by Tony Blair in 1998 and the progenitor and presenter of Radio 4’s unapologetically intellectual series In Our Time, it’s easy to overlook Bragg’s humble, working-class, origins.

But his Cumbrian childhood is key to understanding the man who crossed the class divide to become Baron Bragg of Wigton and a member of the British establishment (a statement at which he would doubtless baulk).

I started making a documentary about his life and career for BBC2 last October and when we first met I was struck, as one so often is with people “off the telly”, by how much smaller and slighter he is in person.

Persuaded to take part by the film’s executive producer, Stuart Prebble, Bragg was at times ambivalent about having allowed the cameras to be turned so intimately on him – it’s the first time he’s agreed to it. But having done so, he was surprisingly candid.

“What’s the point if you don’t tell the truth? I’m only going to do it this once,” he said. He’s now 75 and perhaps the time seemed right to submit to the medium to which he has subjected others for so long. As someone who has been the editor as well as the presenter of his shows, it’s remarkable that he did not try to interfere. 

His friend, the novelist Howard Jacobson’s first memory of Bragg was of his throwing his head back and showing “that fine set of choppers he has” and laughing. It’s a distinctive trait.

However, he also has a habit of scrunching up his face and rubbing both hands over it as though to erase a black- board teeming with ideas and concerns – it’s clear that he has a very busy and crowded head and that it can exhaust him.

Like most interesting people, he’s complicated and contradictory: at once self-deprecating and grand, grumpy and charming, chatty and introspective.

One of the most striking things about him is his encyclopaedic recall of his childhood and his love for the place and the people he came from.

This may be because it’s the source of much of his literary inspiration and he draws on it again and again in his novels, many of which are autobiographical. He takes the facts of his life, plants them in different soil and allows them to grow.

(Many of his childhood Wigton friends are still his friends today and crop up in his fiction.) Interestingly, for someone who has dominated the field of arts broadcasting in this country for so long, it is as a writer that he would most like to be remembered. 

We travelled with him to Wigton last November and, as the southern scenery framed in the train’s windows was gradually replaced by the variegated northern Cumbrian landscape, so Bragg seemed visibly to relax.

He has kept a house near Wigton for some 40 years and goes there as often as he can, although on this trip he chose to stay with us in a hotel – he likes being part of a television team and enjoys the conviviality of programme-making as much as the solitude of writing.

Unsurprisingly, his Cumbrian house, like his London one, is crammed with books and papers and objets he has collected. 

His study gives out onto a pretty garden and he writes here (and in London), at a crowded desk, by hand with an ordinary biro. 

He doesn’t drive and appears a little confounded by technology; he has to phone his wife of 42 years, writer and film-maker Cate Haste, to work out how to turn the Wi-Fi on and for advice on various other domestic matters.

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It’s clear that the practicalities of everyday life are her domain and not his. If he had his way, he would probably be living in a different century and writing with a quill pen, although he successfully makes coffee and finds a bar of chocolate in the cupboard to share with us.