He has interviewed the great and the good of the arts world over the years, from Dame Judi Dench to Dolly Parton, but Melvyn Bragg’s latest project sees the focus set firmly on him.
Wigton to Westminster charts The South Bank Show presenter’s journey from a working class Cumbrian schoolboy to one of the nation’s most recognisable broadcasters and authors.
And while the 75-year-old has previously confessed that he “hates” being interviewed about himself, he openly discusses topics including his early romance, an adolescent breakdown, and dealing with the suicide of his first wife, Lisa, in 1971, following a decade of marriage.
The BBC Two documentary, by Bafta-winning producer and director Olivia Lichtenstein, sees Bragg’s childhood friends recall him as a diligent, high-achieving boy, the only son of factory worker parents in the market town of Wigton.
Despite his happy early years, he suffered a nervous breakdown in his teenage years, and another after Lisa’s death. On both occasions, Bragg – a former president of mental health charity Mind – coped by throwing himself into his work.
“I really love doing both of them [writing and broadcasting]. If I didn’t, I don’t know what I would do. I think if you do something you like, it gives you energy to do the next thing,” he says of his work ethic. “People in jobs they hate must be worn out.”
After winning a scholarship to Oxford University in the late Fifties, where he read modern history, Bragg joined the BBC as a trainee. In 1965, his debut novel, For Want of a Nail, was published, and the author now has more than 20 novels to his name.
Presenting roles followed in BBC books show Read All About It and The South Bank Show, which has run for almost 800 episodes.
South Bank Show interviewees have included the aforementioned actress Dench (who describes Bragg in the new documentary as a “polymath”), artist David Hockney and playwright Harold Pinter.
There was also an infamous encounter in 1985 with Francis Bacon over champagne in the artist’s London home, followed by a red wine-fuelled lunch; a classic interview, which Bragg admits will probably “follow me to my grave”.
One of his most emotional interviews came in 1994, with the terminally-ill dramatist Dennis Potter, shortly before his death from pancreatic cancer. The moving encounter, filmed for Channel 4’s Without Walls, earned its presenter a Bafta.
“It was quite hard to keep calm in that,” says Bragg, who has one daughter from his first marriage and two children with second wife Catherine, who he married in 1973.
“Sometimes you’re just moved by people’s journeys. The film I did with Angel Blue [the US opera singer Bragg interviewed for the 2014 series of The South Bank Show on Sky Arts] was talking about her early days, and they were really tough – when her father died, it was terrible for her. She couldn’t contain herself, and you just thought: ‘This kid really went through it, what a journey’.”
Melvyn Bragg – Wigton to Westminster, BBC2, Saturday, 9.15pm