Radio 4’s Melvyn Bragg: “We used to be the clever country – and now we’re clearly the stupid country”

Bragg gives his view on a new golden age of television, his personal fame and how Britain has changed

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 27: Melvyn Bragg attends the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 27, 2016 in Edinburgh, Scotland. The Edinburgh International Book Festival is one of the most important annual literary events, and takes place in the city which became a UNESCO City of Literature in 2004. (Photo by Awakening/Getty Images)

Legendary broadcaster and Radio 4 presenter Melvin Bragg gives his view on a new golden age of television, his personal fame, and how Britain has changed…

We imagine you in a huge mansion in Hampstead, Melvyn.

No, I don’t live in a huge mansion. We’ve got a Victorian semi in Hampstead, which is very nice, thank you. And a television that is – and this is probably the kindest thing you could say– in need of replacement. It isn’t flash.

Are you watching the World Cup?

Sometimes. I’ve got quite a bit to do around the house. When my son Tom is at home we watch a lot of sport. Football on Sky, and rugby.

Do you still manage a kick about?

Well, I’ve just been in hospital. I had a hip replacement. And after that I got pneumonia, which is still hanging on. It’s a bit of a pain.

Good job there’s lots on television at the moment, then.

Oh yes, people are making great TV dramas: Patrick Melrose and A Very English Scandal were sensationally good. Those were great productions with main actors on top form. You could talk about the Redgrave-Olivier years – well, now you can talk about the Grant-Cumberbatch years in equal terms.

Is the living room full of your many awards?

Not on the wall, no. There’s some on the fireplace. They’re not prominent but I have them around the house. It is thrilling to win things, and I’ve been very, very lucky in all sorts of areas.

Do you really believe it’s luck?

No I don’t, but it’s the best thing to say!

What was the first thing you ever watched on television?

Our television was in the kitchen of the pub my parents ran, in Wigton in Cumberland. I saw the Six–Five Special just before I went out to a dance on Saturdays. On Sunday afternoons, I would watch The Brains Trust with my dad.

Do you ever go back to the glowering fells of your youth?

Yes, I’ve got a cottage on the fells that I’ve had for over 40 years. We walk up there quite a lot. I love it. And I know it well enough to know where I can go and see nobody. Sometimes you bump into people, but they’re always nice people.

Have you tried to hold on to your North Country accent?

I haven’t held on to anything. I think Alan Bennett is the best example of holding onto it. But Joan Bakewell [from Stockport] was spectacular. She jokes that when she went to Cambridge she locked herself in a lavatory and came out speaking in RP.

Hugh Grant - House of Commons - A Very English Scandal
Hugh Grant in A Very English Scandal

Has television failed to take women seriously?

I don’t think it was television in particular. I just think it was the culture. Guys making sexist jokes… it was just around. I don’t know what conclusions you can draw except to say, “That was then.”

Have you ever googled the words “Melvyn Bragg”?

No, never in my life. Why should I?

Because it’s fun being famous…

I don’t think I’m famous. I’m on the margins.

Did you ask Rupert Murdoch to keep The South Bank Show going, after 40 years?

I’ve met him a few times, but I don’t know him, and I wouldn’t dream of saying, “Why don’t you keep The South Bank Show on?” There’s obviously thunder in the air now, Disney and the other one [US company Comcast] attempting to take over. People change. It’s just like at the BBC.

Is our culture under threat?

I don’t trust myself to speak, frankly. I mean, we have, per capita, the best university system in the world, but it’s being – carelessly and utterly stupidly – destroyed very slowly. We used to be the clever country and now we’re clearly the stupid country. Except for certain highlights.

Melvyn Bragg hosts the South Bank Sky Arts Awards, Wednesday 8pm Sky Arts

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