“When it comes to art,” says Melvyn Bragg, “you never know where quality will turn up.” If the British arts establishment is a broad church, Bragg, 76, is its high priest. For almost 40 years, as creator and presenter of The South Bank Show, he has championed home-grown achievements from hip-hop to high baroque, Coronation Street to Coriolanus. This week the South Bank Sky Arts Awards will honour artists in in every field – theatre, film and television, classical and pop music, visual arts and comedy.
Looking back, the awards scheme – now in its 20th year – stands as an exceptional run of cultural milestones. Past winners include Ian McEwan, Jimmy McGovern, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tracey Emin, Seamus Heaney, Little Britain, Alfred Brendel and Amy Winehouse. “We’re living in a very strong age for the arts,” says Bragg. “These awards, and the number of nominees coming through every year, are proof of that.”
From the very first South Bank Show in 1977, a profile on Paul McCartney, Bragg was on a mission to “democratise” the arts. “We had films lined up on the Royal Shakespeare Company and [conductor] Herbert von Karajan, but I led with McCartney to show we were serious about my manifesto,” recalls Bragg. His espousal of TV as a serious art form was met with the same nostril-flaring alarm.
“The first play I did was a television play by Dennis Potter, and we got slaughtered [by the critics]. Only Clive James in The Observer understood what we were doing. Now TV writing is one of our most important exports. Look at what Russell T Davies did with Doctor Who – he turned it into a global success.”
Bragg considers the need for inclusive, “joined-up” arts programming ever more urgent in an era of slashed arts budgets. He looks back gratefully on the artistic upbringing he enjoyed as a grammar school boy in 1950s Cumbria: “I had the working-class culture, which was pop songs, dancing, comedies on the radio, but also, being brought up in the church, I grew up with very good classical music, and I went to a school where we read Shakespeare aloud in class.”
Elitism in the arts, Bragg maintains, is best countered by this kind of active participation at an early age, and by targeted sponsorship. He’s particularly proud of the Sky Academy Arts Scholarships, which gives five awards of £30,000 to five emerging artists each year.
“People seem to think the arts just pop out of the ground. They don’t. Young people need support, and our scheme should be replicated all over the place. The National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Opera House all get whacking great subsidies from us as taxpayers. Why don’t each of them sponsor five or ten scholarships a year?”
While Bragg could wish for more arts programmes on terrestrial TV (Sky picked up the South Bank Show in 2010, a year after it was dropped by ITV), he is a stout defender of the BBC. “Any time people are asked, they overwhelmingly want to keep it. So where’s the fuss coming from? From a small amount of people, not dissimilar to the small number of people who are trying to get us out of Europe. As for [Culture Secretary] John Whittingdale’s outrageous proposal to take money from the BBC to prop up social policy, it’s ridiculous. I pay my license fee to watch programmes!”
Bragg believes the Government is missing an important trick. Strategic support for the artists, he says, will pay a rich dividend. “I hate to call the arts an industry – it’s feeding with the devil’s spoon – but when you consider the revenue from television, film, radio, visual arts, books, we’re bigger than the oil and car industry put together. It’s curious,” says Bragg – and by “curious”, he clearly means “insane” – “that people don’t realise how vital that is.”
My game changers: Melvyn Bragg recalls past winners of the South Bank Awards
Sir Matthew Bourne; Dance, 1997
“We caught Matthew right at the start with his all-male Swan Lake. Matthew activated ballet. He added a different dimension to it. Instead of just being impossibly fit, pretty people dancing, his work was about something. The idea seems so simple now, but nobody thought about it before Matthew, and he did with style.”
Amy Winehouse; Pop Music, 2007
“Amy was one of those people who began to create a myth about herself early on. There was always a buzz about her, and of course, she had that fantastic, idiosyncratic blues voice. After the awards ceremony at the Savoy she went to the bar with Michael Ball and two or three others of that ilk. They got round the piano and gave this most fantastic concert. The people who were there couldn’t believe their luck, but Amy and friends got thrown out for making too much noise.”
Sir Anish Kapoor; Visual Art, 2003 and 2010
“Anish has got this great, elegant talent. He brought an abstract idea to sculptural form, with beautiful metals and shapes, and he captured the world. People can identify with his work, but it isn’t teaching you anything – you look at it, and you make your own mind up.”
Tom Hiddleston; Breakthrough Award, 2013
“This one was ready for take-off. One minute, he was the bashful Tom Hiddleston, accepting his award; the next he was a superstar. But we were there first, so we’re rather pleased with that. John Berger said the difference between good art and great art is in the self-confidence of the artist. And Tom’s like that; he’s easy in his skin.”
Sam Mendes; Cinema 2001, Theatre, 2003
“Sam had a heavy grounding in London theatre, then he conquered Hollywood with his first shot at film [1999’s American Beauty]. He went down the blockbuster route with James Bond and came back to do King Lear at the National Theatre. In that regard, he’s everything the South Bank Show Awards are about.”
The South Bank Sky Arts Awards premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. on Sky Arts.