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

Tattie pie apart, Melvyn’s not that interested in food and doesn’t cook, although he’s not averse to a drink – most memorably with the artist Francis Bacon in 1985 on the episode of The South Bank Show he says will “follow [him] to the grave”. Doubtless the odd drink affords Bragg a little much-needed relaxation as he’s always “so busy inside [his] head”. 

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He has written about Wigton so much in his autobiographical novels that he acknowledges he sometimes fuses fact with his own fiction.

But his memories of his childhood are visceral and visual – he can see the town simultaneously both as it was then and as it is today.

A small and unremarkable market town isolated in countryside, seen through Bragg’s eyes it assumes a mystical, bucolic quality, becoming a place of hidden alleyways and the unparalleled freedom of roaming in fields, riding bicycles, stealing apples from orchards, running to choir practice, school dances, listening to Elvis Presley and meeting girls.

Even as he recalls this, Bragg contradicts himself, stressing the poverty and lack of hygiene in the town, and the family secrets that ran through his childhood. His busy head makes him talk in parentheses, positing different arguments and theories as he tries to clarify his statements. 

This makes writing about him difficult as you can hear his rebuttals and questions while you try to pin him down.

His relationship with his mother, Ethel, is central – an only child, for the first six years of his life his father was away at war and it was just the two of them.

“She was everything to me,” he says. His parents were well-loved figures in Wigton, first running one of the local pubs, the Blackamoor (although Ethel was teetotal and used to encourage the local lads to save their money rather than squander it on drink) and later, the sweet shop on the high street.

Someone who knew his mother told me that she “‘worked very hard at being ordinary”.

In some senses, this is true of Melvyn, too. Notwithstanding his surname, the ethos of not getting above yourself is firmly held and he recalls with amusement the way his mother’s words would cut him down “like a scimitar below the knees” if he showed the least sign of getting above himself.

But at another level, he knows who he is and what he’s achieved and this makes him simultaneously keen to stress both the general nature of his own experience and the specificity of it.

At the centre of his family lay the secret of his mother’s illegitimacy and this spawned other mysteries –people who professed to be “uncles” and “aunts” weren’t, while others who appeared to be acquaintances were in fact blood relatives.

He only discovered the truth as an adult and kept it a secret until his mother died, when he fictionalised her story in his novel Grace and Mary.

I wonder about the effect on him of all this secrecy. “It’s made me the wreck I am today,” he laughs.

In truth he suspects it was partly responsible for the breakdown he had as a sensitive 13-year-old when he experienced frightening moments of dissociation, where he felt his essence separate and hover above his body: “I was frightened out of my mind and didn’t know what to do.”

Girls and grammar school saved him, along with a visionary teacher who saw his potential and determined he should go to Oxford University. Now 94, his former history teacher, Mr James, recalls his extraordinary capacity for hard work: Bragg was “one of those bright-eyed little devils,” he says.

It was this hard work and his great love of learning that have made Bragg the prolific success he is today. He has an extraordinarily retentive memory, coupled with a barrister’s facility to amass information and extract its salient points. 

If his Wigton childhood is a defining part of his history, so too is an altogether more painful and less easily discussed episode – the shocking suicide of his first wife, a French aristocrat, Marie-Elisabeth Roche, known as Lisa, whom he met in his final year at Oxford in 1961 and married soon after.

It is an event that has cast a long shadow over his life for the past 45 years. 

Although separated from her at the time of her death in 1971, he can never forgive himself for not saving her from herself. “People tell me I should get over it, but I just can’t… I feel very guilty. I feel inadequate, betrayal, all of that.” He had a daughter, Marie-Elsa, with Lisa and a daughter Alice and a son Tom with Cate. 

On our last day’s filming, we’re waiting while the camera operator is setting up. Bragg’s delightfully chatty and talks to me about his children. 

He is warm and engaged. I’ve long known that he’s a force for good, an important voice in British cultural life, but by now I really like him and feel we’ve forged a connection.

“He’s broken boundaries and gone through life with a sword out front,” says Marie-Elsa, who is a priest in the diocese of London and a duty chaplain of Westminster Abbey. “He’s a very complex person,” she continues, “but he really does love. And he really has loved me.”

When months later we bump into each other at a book launch, Melvyn chooses to sit chatting cosily with me in a corner, telling me that he’s already planning his next novel. It’s impossible not to be charmed by him, and now I find I’m irritated on his behalf when, on hearing I’ve made a film about him, people’s first comment is about his hair.

I saw him again just recently as he was coming out of BBC Broadcasting House. “The days are drawing ever nearer to the film,” he said ominously. “Are you dreading it?” I asked. “Of course I am,” he laughed, showing that fine set of choppers he has. 

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Melvyn Bragg is at the inaugural Radio Times Festival, which takes place on 24-27th September 2015 at Hampton Court Palace. Other TV and radio favourites appearing include David Attenborough, the cast of Doctor Who and The Archers. You can buy tickets here.