Melvyn Bragg on David Cameron, Dennis Potter and “my effing hair”

Ahead of his new series on class, Ginny Dougary turns the tables on the interviewer

My interview with Melvyn Bragg in the House of Lords is a bit like a Carry On film. It had been his job to book somewhere quiet for us to talk but the dining room at teatime, alas, is chocka with chattering Lords, and we have to move into a small room that Bragg likens to an inquisition chamber. No sooner have we started than the bell goes for him to go off and vote on a welfare bill. When he returns, ten minutes later, his eyes are fixed on a TV screen while he waits for the count, and the bell to go or, as it turns out, not go again.

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We have a small window of relative calm before there’s a knock on the door and a lady says that she has booked the room and, yes, she does need it… right now. So off we set again, down corridors – bumping into Baron Evans of Temple Guiting (aka Matthew Evans, former boss of Faber and Faber), Bragg bragging about his month off booze, Evans saying he’s only managed a day, and into the Prince’s Chamber, a great vaulted room with portraits and reliefs of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs (and a solitary Baron Hattersley of Sparkbrook, looking studious). Impressive, of course, but akin to conducting an interview in the Bodleian Library or the Sistine Chapel; the impulse to descend into reverential whispers proves overpowering.

We are here to discuss Bragg’s new three-part documentary series on the relationship between class and culture in Britain over the past century. It’s a subject made more piquant because of its presenter’s own upward journey through the class system. Born of working-class parents in Cumbria – his father was a factory machinist, his mother a tailor, and he grew up above the Black-a-Moor pub in Wigton they later ran – in the Lords he is now Baron Bragg of Wigton, when not in his big house in Hampstead, north London, or his second home in the Cumbrian fells.

He has some good people talking in the series: the novelist Pat Barker, uncompromising on the subject of working-class culture around the First World War, saying that people were “too poor for culture – except for gossip”. When I mention her, Bragg says: “We needed that [toughness] – because I was a bit too soppy about the working class.” Another fascinating participant is Jeremy Hutchinson, QC – educated at Stowe and Oxford, worked for the defence on the Lady Chatterley trial, was vice-chairman of the Arts Council, chairman of the Tate – from a background of privilege but with views mirroring Bragg’s own.

“I chose Jeremy because he’s obviously a very good speaker and I’ve known him for a very long time and because it’s more effective coming from an upper-class voice, not in my working-class-grudge voice.”

The first programme ends with Hutchinson wondering whether “we have class in our genes in this country” and Bragg is still wrestling with that question when we talk. “I don’t know whether he’s right. I think it’s something that can be nurtured and so it can therefore be de-nurtured, but it looks as though we’re not going to do that – at least not in my lifetime.”

Taking the risk of asking him a faintly provocative question early on in the interview, I am intrigued by how badly he takes it. It seemed to me that, at 72, he might have been able to come up with a witty reply or an insouciant shrug in response to my asking him whether he’d ever understood why, at the height of his South Bank Show glory years, he seemed to irritate people so much, including the likes of interviewer Lynn Barber. Instead, he says, in a tight little voice, “I had hoped that this interview would be about Class and Culture…”

It is odd having to explain to such an experienced interviewer that this one will be a little more far-reaching, at which he sighs deeply. “We did say that we would not be talking about my first wife’s suicide.” Yes, but… how is that related to the question I’m asking you? “I just think if it’s going to be personal stuff…” He now looks terminally weary, as well as aggrieved. “Fine… I irritate people. Well, all sorts of people irritate me. Why should I help you? I don’t know. Do I irritate people?”

I wonder, perhaps, if his good looks and luxuriant hair may be partly to blame. (It was only later that I realised that, as he put it to another female journalist, “my effing hair” was a sore point.) But he doesn’t take this as a compliment at all. “Well, I don’t think I’m good-looking… I know people who are good-looking and I’m not good-looking,” mumble, mumble, “I mean, I don’t go around thinking I’m attractive or not attractive. It has never occurred to me. People don’t think like that where I come from… No one has ever said ‘Oh, he’s a good-looking bloke.’ They just didn’t use those words about men.”

Neither, where he comes from, do people – particularly men – greet each other with a kiss on each cheek, as Bragg does, these days: “Now perfectly ordinary people will give each other hugs. I mean, it used to be that a hug was reserved for if you came back from Australia – you know, back in the 40s and 50s.”

Are you a big hugger? “If I meet pals we do hug each other and it’s very nice, you know… it’s something that’s come on me late and became second nature and it’s first nature now! Haha!”

Well, now that we’re on a more even keel, I point out to him that I’m not one of the ranks of women interviewers who find him unbearable. If his interviewing style is hardly Paxman-esque, I’m not sure that’s always a bad thing. His chumminess with his subjects might be annoying if he were a print journalist, but on television, it has allowed us to see some funny and revealing moments, such as him getting uproariously drunk with the late Francis Bacon and with the publisher and poet, Felix Dennis. And I will be always grateful to him for one of the most memorable television hours or so ever, Dennis Potter’s final interview, broadcast in April 1994 – two months before the playwright’s death.

The interview was clearly as moving for Bragg as for his audience but he had to keep his wits about him, not knowing when Potter would run out of steam. The doctor had reckoned 30 minutes but Potter kept going for 70 – pumping himself up with liquid morphine, cigarettes and champagne. “If I’d thought much, then, about the characteristics of people about to die, I would have thought that it would be sad and bleak with a big sense of ending,” Bragg says now. “But without saying there’s a future or a resurrection, Dennis Potter – in that last interview – gave the last part of life an enormous power and radiance… When he talked about [and who could forget this?] ‘…the blossomest blossom that there ever could be…’” Bragg’s eyes fill up.

He has kept his television looks, which remind me rather of Paul McCartney (the very first interviewee on The South Bank Show); the craggy grin has more folds now and the “effing” hair is more grey than raven. Booze is something he likes, but he keeps off it not only through January but also the first ten days of each month thereafter. He tried the gym in his 20s and hated it, but does a set of exercises for his back every morning and walks everywhere, especially, when in Cumbria, with his son Tom, 31, brother of Alice, 33, both from his second marriage to the writer, Cate Haste. (His daughter from his first marriage, Marie-Elsa, is an Anglican vicar – who gave her blessing to her father’s 2008 autobiographical novel Remember Me, about his love affair and marriage to her mother, as well as its tragic aftermath.)

He is keeping up the work; getting up at 6am to write another novel, the weekly In Our Time on Radio 4, and working towards the return of The South Bank Show on Sky Arts. But does he feel his age? “I suppose I do in some ways. I’m a bit creaky and we have arthritis in my family – look at these joints [he stretches out his fingers] – they’re all swollen.” He used to play the piano but can’t any more. He was in the church choir from age six to 16 and he still sings in Cumbria: “I like singing Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel in Pavarotti’s voice, and the Everly Brothers, and a gang of us sing together, late at night, in each other’s homes.”

When he dies, he wants to go, not like his mother, who is in her 90s and has dementia, but like his old friend the director Ken Russell, for whom he wrote the screenplay for The Music Lovers: “It was after lunch – and it would have been a decent lunch with a good bottle of red wine – Ken sat in his armchair, closed his eyes and died.”

In his own dark times of depression and after his wife’s suicide, Bragg’s solace has been work: “Work that you can lose yourself in. And I mean every word of that. That’s why writing is important for me. Time goes past and you’ve been somewhere and come back that hasn’t hurt and you’ve been somebody else.”

He wrote somewhere that “guilt can be an aphrodisiac”. I ask him to explain this and I am a bit surprised by the openness of his response: “Lawrence wrote an essay about people enjoying having sex when they’re in danger – and I think guilt is similar to that. You feel that this is an extremely dangerous thing to do and that you’re imperilling all sorts of important things. So given that sex has elements of risk, which can be exciting, you’re taking an extra risk and that can be an aphrodisiac.”

Does he feel he’s mellowed at all as he’s aged? “I keep thinking I have, but then it turns out I haven’t.” What makes him angry? “I don’t know – it’s just a sort of flash. Anger is a very fast way to cut through to what you really want to do and sometimes what you really want to do isn’t necessarily all that… nice, for other people.” Do you get angry with tradespeople? “No, no.” What about your children or your wife? “I’ve been angry with my wife.” Is she feisty? “She’s a very strong, independent woman.”

Are you attracted to strong women? Or, perhaps, any sort of woman? A great roar of laughter: “That’ll do it,” gasping with laughter, and hopelessly flustered. “I’m going to take the fourth [presumably he means the fifth] amendment on that, first amendment, whatever amendment or I’ll take a new amendment… I’ll take the hundred and second amendment on that.”

There’s a glimpse of his anger when he talks about the Prime Minister. I’d asked him about the riots (his response was that there’s nothing new about them, plucking out various historic examples). What bothered him more was the reaction: “All this business of a ‘sick’, ‘feral’ and ‘broken’ society is nonsense. I was going round Britain last year [for BBC2 documentary series The Reel History of Britain] and there’s very little that’s broken about this society – it’s tolerant even when it’s a very tough time and the people are decent people. They are not sick, they are grinning and bearing the tough times, and helping each other – and it’s an injustice for the Prime Minister or anybody else to talk about ‘feral youth’ and a broken, sick society.

“He ought to know about soundbites and that they go around the world and do this country a disservice… and more important, he’s wrong!”

We end up where we started, with class. I apologise for the cliché but while, in his case, the man has clearly been taken out of his working-class roots, I wonder how much of the working class has been left in the man? “It’s bound to be there because it’s so indelibly stamped I can’t cast it off; once something is properly in you, it’s never out of you. If there was something puritanical in me, I’m quite sure it keeps popping up – sometimes there’s a kind of prissiness that I have. But you get into Pseuds’ Corner as soon as you start to talk about that sort of thing.”

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Melvyn Bragg on Class and Culture starts on Friday 24 February at 9pm (9:30pm in Wales) on BBC2