AN “unparalleled collection” of hundreds of interviews made for the long-running ITV arts programme The South Bank Show is being made available to researchers in a new university archive in Leeds. Chris Bond meets the man behind the man behind the video mountain.
IT’S hard to imagine someone like Mark Lawson going on a bender with Damien Hirst today and the subsequent interview being broadcast to the nation.
But 30 years ago that’s basically what happened, except the interviewer was Melvyn Bragg, the artist in question was Francis Bacon, and the TV programme was The South Bank Show.
Celebrities and booze usually make for car crash TV, as anyone who saw George Best’s shambolic appearance on Wogan, or Oliver Reed’s sozzled attempt at dancing on Michael Aspel’s chat show would attest. But watching Bragg discuss the work of one of the 20th century’s greatest painters while they both knocked back enough red wine to sink a proverbial battleship, proved riveting.
“We both got blisteringly drunk,” says Bragg. “Drink was part of Francis’s life. He would get up and paint till about 11 or 12, then he went out and had a big Italian lunch and then he drank for the rest of the day, in his club, or the casinos, then went home, fell asleep and got up the next morning and did it again.”
In the cold, sober light of the editing room Bragg realised he had some terrific footage that offered a rare glimpse into the artist’s life. “He was saying things which I’d heard him say, because I’d known him for years, which he’d said before but never in public. So I rang him up and said ‘Francis, we’ve got this bit of you absolutely plastered saying stuff that I think is really good. What do you want me to do?’ And he just said, ‘do what you want, darling’ and put the phone down.”
The interview with Bacon is just one of those Bragg conducted during the show’s 32-year run from 1978 and 2010. During this time The South Bank Show became essential viewing for anyone interested in the arts and now the University of Leeds has acquired more than 8,000 tapes from ITV containing interviews with some of the most famous artists, musicians, writers and performers of the past half century.
The list reads like a compendium of modern cultural heroes including Dolly Parton, Rudolph Nureyev, David Lean, Alan Bennett, Luciano Pavarotti, Arthur Miller and Martin Scorsese, to name just a handful.
This major archive includes around 700 hours of footage, much of it previously unseen by the public, and is the result of a collaboration between the university, ITV and Bragg, who conceived, edited and presented the popular show throughout its run.
It will be housed in the University’s Special Collections Library and Bragg, the university’s chancellor, hopes it will become part of our TV arts heritage. “I’m very pleased that it’s here in Leeds and I’m humbled that it’s in such a distinguished library. I think it’s going to be fantastic for the university and for students here and from all over the place.”
When Bragg first started The South Bank Show he had a clear idea of what he wanted it to be. “I come from a very strong working class background and a very strong working class culture and I didn’t see much of that in arts on television.
“So I wanted comedy, which I knew about, and pop music, which I knew about, and television which I knew about, as well as opera and ballet and literature, which I knew quite a bit about too, all in the same programme.”
But not everyone was impressed. “The critics really didn’t like it. The only person who liked it was Clive James.
“My first programme was about Paul McCartney and the Daily Telegraph said, ‘Melvyn Bragg may think he’s doing an arts programme but we draw the line at Lennon and McCartney as being anything to do with the arts.’ They’d change their tune now wouldn’t they?” he says, laughing.
Despite such stuffy and dismissive early reviews the programme soon cemented itself in the minds of viewers, aided perhaps by the memorable theme tune. For many people the sound of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s variation on Paganini’s 24th Caprice was a sign that while the weekend was almost over, there was still time for one last glass of wine before bed.
It was the quality of the subjects, back when selfies and Youtube were still both a twinkle in a distant digital eye, and the fact that in most cases they opened up, that drew viewers in.
“We are asking them to tell their story. The story we want is the story of how Tracey Emin works and how Francis Bacon works,” says Bragg.
But not everyone was forthcoming. Harold Pinter proved to be particularly obstinate. “I let stuff go out that was egg on my face,” says Bragg. “Pinter refused to answer questions about The Homecoming, about a girl that’s brought back into a family and becomes a family prostitute.
“He didn’t want to talk about it because he didn’t like to talk about themes, but I thought I’d have a go and he kept on blocking me, and it became quite cruel in a way. But when I saw it in the editing room I thought it was actually the best bit, it’s like him.”
The South Bank Show has helped make some less popular branches of the arts, like ballet and poetry, more accessible to ordinary people.
Although Bragg insists this wasn’t his intention. “I didn’t set out to do that. People said, ‘you’re just doing Eric Clapton so they’ll watch Stravinsky.’ But I thought that Eric Clapton was a serious musician in his own field, every bit as serious as Stravinsky.
“I didn’t say he was as good as him or anything like that, we were talking about different fields of endeavour. Clapton was the best of his kind and so was Stravinsky. We wanted to get the best of their kind across the board.”
But just as Sir Michael Parkinson never managed to get Frank Sinatra on his chat show, some famous names eluded Bragg, too. Like Samuel Beckett. Bragg had a “memorable meeting” with the acclaimed Irish playwright but nothing came of it.
Graham Greene was another who preferred not to be interviewed, although for a brilliantly baffling reason.
“He wrote a letter saying one of the reasons for coming back to England was so that he could roam around second-hand bookshops,” says Bragg. But he felt that if he became the subject of a TV documentary watched by millions “they would put their prices up”.
The South Bank Show is still going strong today, albeit on Sky Arts rather than ITV, but at the age of 75 Bragg continues to edit and present the show with as much zest as before.
“We’re doing a new season and we’ve just done a long interview with Mark Rylance which I’m very pleased with,” he says.
“The world and his wife isn’t going to rush to see a South Bank Show or other arts programmes, but there are enough people out there so that’s fine with me.”
For a video of Melvyn Bragg in conversation go to yorkshirepost.co.uk/video. More than 780 episodes of The South Bank Show were produced and broadcast and a full list is available by logging on to www.leeds.ac.uk
• The South Bank Show first aired on January 14,1978 and is the longest continuously running arts programme on TV.
Melvyn Bragg came up with the name ‘South Bank’ and his friend Michael Grade added the word ‘show.’ Bragg has edited and presented the show since it was first shown.
Famous names from sculpture and cinema and theatre to pop music, have joined Bragg to film a two-hour in depth interview at some stage in their career.
Among those he has interviewed are Simon Rattle, Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Eric Clapton, Ingmar Bergman, Victoria Wood, William Golding, Judi Dench, David Hockney, Jonathan Miller, Tracey Emin, Frank Auerbach and Dennis Potter.