The Lord Bragg
|Alma mater||Wadham College, Oxford|
|In Our Time|
|Television||The South Bank Show|
Earlier in his career, Bragg worked for the BBC in various roles including presenter, a connection that resumed in 1988 when he began to host Start the Week on Radio 4. After his ennoblement in 1998, he switched to presenting the new In Our Time, an academic discussion radio programme, which has run to over 870 broadcast editions, and is a popular podcast. He was Chancellor of the University of Leeds from 1999 until 2017.
Bragg was born on 6 October 1939 in Carlisle, the son of Mary Ethel (née Park), a tailor, and Stanley Bragg, a stock keeper turned mechanic. He was given the name Melvyn by his mother after she saw the actor Melvyn Douglas at a local cinema. He was raised in the small town of Wigton, where he attended the Wigton primary school and later The Nelson Thomlinson School, where he was Head Boy. He was an only child, born a year after his parents married. His father was away from home serving with the Royal Air Force for four years during the war. His upbringing and childhood experiences were typical of the working class environment of that era.
As a child, the woman he was led to believe was his maternal grandmother was in reality the foster parent of his own mother; his grandmother having been forced to leave the town owing to the stigma of her daughter being born illegitimately. From the age of 8 until he left for university, his family home was above a pub in Wigton, the Black-A-Moor Hotel, of which his father had become the landlord. Into his teens he was a member of the Scouts and played rugby in his school's first team. Encouraged by a teacher who had recognised his work ethic, Bragg was one of an increasing number of working class teenagers of the era being given a path to university through the grammar school system. At university he read Modern History at Wadham College, Oxford, in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Throughout his working life, Bragg has combined a career in broadcasting with one in writing.
Bragg began his career in 1961 as a general trainee at the BBC. He was the recipient of one of only three traineeships awarded that year. He spent his first two years in radio at the BBC World Service, then at the BBC Third Programme and BBC Home Service. He joined the production team of Huw Wheldon's Monitor arts series on BBC Television. He presented the BBC books programme Read All About It (and was also its editor, 1976–77) and The Lively Arts, a BBC Two arts series. He then edited and presented the London Weekend Television (LWT) arts programme The South Bank Show from 1978 to 2010. His interview with playwright Dennis Potter shortly before his death is regularly cited as one of the most moving and memorable television moments ever. By being just as interested in popular as well as classical genres, he is credited with making the arts more accessible and less elitist.
He was Head of Arts at LWT from 1982 to 1990 and Controller of Arts at LWT from 1990. He is also known for his many programmes on BBC Radio 4, including Start the Week (1988 to 1998), The Routes of English (mapping the history of the English language), and In Our Time (1998 to present), which in March 2011 broadcast its 500th programme. Bragg's pending departure from the South Bank Show was portrayed by The Guardian as the last of the ITV grandees, speculating that the next generation of ITV broadcasters would not have the same longevity or influence as Bragg or his ITV contemporaries John Birt, Greg Dyke, Michael Grade and Christopher Bland.
In 2012 he brought The South Bank Show back to Sky Arts 1. In December 2012, he began The Value of Culture, a five-part series on BBC Radio 4 examining the meaning of culture, expanding on Matthew Arnold's landmark (1869) collection of essays Culture and Anarchy. In June 2013 Bragg wrote and presented The Most Dangerous Man in Tudor England, broadcast by the BBC. This told the dramatic story of William Tyndale's mission to translate the Bible from the original languages to English. In February 2012, he began Melvyn Bragg on Class and Culture, a three-part series on BBC2 examining popular media culture, with an analysis of the British social class system. Bragg appeared on the Front Row "Cultural Exchange" on May Day 2013. He nominated a self-portrait by Rembrandt as a piece of art which he had found especially interesting. In 2015, Bragg was appointed as a Vice President of the Royal Television Society.
Having produced unpublished short stories since age 19, Bragg had initially decided to become a writer after university. He recognised that writing would not, initially at least, earn him a living, and he took the opportunity at the BBC that arose after he had applied for posts in a variety of industries. While at the BBC, he continued writing. Publishing his first novel in 1965, he decided to leave the BBC to concentrate full-time on writing.
In 1972 he co-wrote the script for Norman Jewison's film Jesus Christ Superstar (1973). Although he published several works, he was unable to make a living, forcing a return to television by the mid-1970s.
A novelist and writer of non-fiction, Bragg has also written a number of television and film screenplays. Some of his early television work was in collaboration with Ken Russell, for whom he wrote the biographical dramas The Debussy Film (1965) and Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World (1967), as well as Russell's film about Tchaikovsky, The Music Lovers (1970). Most of his novels are autobiographical fictions, set in an around the town of Wigton during his childhood.
By the 1990s, having received a range of reviews for his work, from outstanding to lazy, some critics were suggesting that splitting his time between writing and broadcasting was detrimental to the quality, and that his media profile and his known sensitivity to criticism made him an easy target for unjust reviews. The Literary Review's prize mocking his writing of sex in fiction, according to The Independent, was awarded not on readers' nominations, but simply because it would be good PR. From 1996 to 1998 he also wrote a column in The Times newspaper; he has also occasionally written for The Sunday Times, The Guardian and Observer.
Bragg's friends include the former Labour Party leaders Tony Blair, Neil Kinnock and Michael Foot, and former deputy leader Roy Hattersley. He was one of 100 donors who gave the Labour Party a sum in excess of £5,000 in 1997, the year the party came to power under Blair in the general election. The following year he was appointed by Blair to the House of Lords as the life peer Baron Bragg, of Wigton in the County of Cumbria, one of a number of Labour donors given peerages. This led to accusations of cronyism from the defeated Conservative Party.
In the Lords he takes a keen interest in the arts and education. According to The Guardian in 2004, he voted 104 times out of a possible 226 in the 2002/3 session, only once against the government, on the Hunting Act. He campaigned against it on the grounds it could affect the livelihoods of Cumbrian farmers. In August 2014, Bragg was one of 200 public figures who signed a letter to The Guardian opposing Scottish independence in the run-up to September's referendum on that issue.
Bragg has defended Christianity, particularly the King James Bible, although he does not claim to be a believer himself, seeing himself in Albert Einstein's term as a "believing unbeliever", adding that he is "unable to cross the River of Jordan which would lead me to the crucial belief in a godly eternity." In 2012, Bragg criticised what he claimed to be the "Animus and the ignorance" of the atheist debate.
Bragg married his first wife, Marie-Elisabeth Roche, in 1961, and in 1965, they had a daughter. Roche was a French viscountess studying painting at Oxford. In 1971, Roche killed herself. "I could have done things which helped and I did things which harmed", he told The Guardian in 1998. "So yes, I feel guilt, I feel remorse." Bragg's second wife, Cate Haste, whom he married in 1973, is also a television producer and writer, whose literary work includes editing the 2007 memoir of Clarissa Eden, widow of Anthony Eden, and collaborating with Cherie Booth, wife of Tony Blair, on a 2004 book about the wives of British prime ministers. They have a son and a daughter. In June 2016 it was reported that Bragg and Haste had separated amicably, and that Bragg now shared a home with former film assistant Gabriel Clare-Hunt, a woman with whom he had an affair in 1995.
Bragg has publicly discussed two nervous breakdowns that he has suffered, one in his teens and another in his 30s. His first breakdown began at age 13. Inspired by a passage in Wordsworth's The Prelude, he found ways to cope, including exploring the outdoors and the adoption of a strong work ethic, as well as meeting his first girlfriend. The second followed his wife's suicide. He traces the origin of a lifelong nervousness of public speaking to the experience of giving a reading from the lectern as a choirboy at age 6.
At the age of 75, his life was profiled in the BBC Two television programme Melvyn Bragg: Wigton to Westminster, first broadcast on 18 July 2015. He lives in Hampstead, London, but still owns a house near his home town of Wigton. He is a member of the Garrick Club and a supporter of Carlisle United and Arsenal. He is the vice president of the Carlisle United Supporters Club London Branch.
Bragg is a relative of Sir William Henry Bragg and his son Sir Lawrence Bragg, who were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1915 for their work in x-ray crystal structure analysis. He presented a Radio 4 programme on the subject in August 2013.
Public understanding of the arts, literature and sciences. Broadcaster, presenter, interviewer, commentator, novelist, scriptwriter.
...my first wife was an aristocrat. I didn't know that for a year.
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The Lord Sawyer