Melvyn Bragg

Melvyn Bragg

Bragg in 2011
Born (1939-10-06) 6 October 1939
Carlisle, Cumberland, England
Alma mater Wadham College, Oxford
Occupation Broadcaster, presenter, interviewer, commentator, novelist, scriptwriter[1]
Notable work In Our Time
Television The South Bank Show
Political party Labour
Melvyn Bragg's voice
Recorded May 2013 from the BBC Radio 4 programme Front Row

Melvyn Bragg, Baron Bragg, FRSL, FBA, FRS (born 6 October 1939) is an English broadcaster, author and parliamentarian.[2] He is best known for his work with ITV as editor and presenter of the The South Bank Show (1978–2010), and for the Radio 4 discussion series In Our Time.

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,[3] an academic discussion radio programme, which has run to over 700 broadcast editions, and is a popular podcast. He is currently Chancellor of the University of Leeds.[4]

Early life

Bragg was born on 6 October 1939 in Carlisle,[5] the son of Mary Ethel (née Park), a tailor, and Stanley Bragg, a stock keeper turned mechanic.[6] He was given the name Melvyn by his mother after she saw the actor Melvyn Douglas at a local cinema.[7] He was raised in the small town of Wigton,[7] where he attended the Wigton primary school[8] and later the Nelson Thomlinson Grammar School,[5] where he was Head Boy.[7] He was an only child, born a year after his parents married, on the eve of World War II. 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.[7]

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 due to the stigma of her daughter being born illegitimately.[7] 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.[7] Into his teens he was a member of the Scouts and played rugby in his school's first team.[7] 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.[7] At university he read Modern History at Wadham College, Oxford in the late 1950s and early 1960s.[6]


Throughout his working life, Bragg has combined a career in broadcasting with one in writing.[7]


Bragg began his career in 1961 as a general trainee at the BBC.[5] He was the recipient of one of only three traineeships awarded that year.[7] He spent his first two years in radio at the BBC World Service, then at the BBC Third Programme and BBC Home Service.[9] He joined the production team of Huw Wheldon's Monitor arts series on BBC Television.[9]

He presented the BBC books programme Read All About It (and was also its editor, 1976–77)[5] and The Lively Arts, a BBC Two arts series.[10]

He is best known for the London Weekend Television (LWT) arts programme The South Bank Show, which he edited and presented from 1978 to 2010.[11] His interview with playwright Dennis Potter shortly before his death is regularly cited as one of the most moving and memorable television moments ever.[12] By being just as interested in popular as well as classical genres, he is credited with making the arts more accessible and less elitist.[12]

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),[13] 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.[14]

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.[15]

In 2012 he brought back The South Bank Show to Sky Arts 1, and is expected to stay with Sky until 2015.[16] 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.[17] 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.

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.[18]


Having produced unpublished short stories since age 19, Bragg had initially decided to become a writer after university. He recognized 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.[7] 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. Although he published several works, he was unable to make a living, forcing a return to television by the mid-1970s.[7]

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.[7]

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. According to The Independent, The Literary Review's prize mocking his poor writing of sex in fiction was awarded not on readers' nominations, but simply because it would be good PR.[19]

From 1996 to 1998 he also wrote a column in The Times newspaper; he has also occasionally written for the The Sunday Times, The Guardian and Observer.[8]


Bragg's friends include the former Labour Party leaders Tony Blair, Neil Kinnock and Michael Foot, and former deputy leader Roy Hattersley.[8] 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.[20] 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,[21][22] one of a number of Labour donors given peerages. This led to accusations of cronyism from the defeated Conservative Party.[20]

In the Lords he takes a keen interest in the arts and education.[7] According to The Guardian in 2004, his voting and attendance record is good and he takes the role seriously, voting 104 times out of a possible 226 in the 2002/3 session, only once against the government, on the Hunting Act.[8] He campaigned against it on the grounds it could affect the livelihoods of Cumbrian farmers.[23] 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.[24]

Personal life and advocacy

Bragg married his first wife, Marie-Elisabeth Roche, in 1961,[5] and they had a daughter, Marie-Elsa.[25] Five years older than Bragg, Roche was a French viscountess studying painting at Oxford.[7] Ten years later Roche killed herself. He did not know that his wife had a history of suicide attempts. "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."[26]

Bragg's second wife, Catherine Mary Haste, whom he married in 1973,[5] is also a television producer and writer, whose literary work includes editing the 2007 memoir of Clarissa Eden, widow of Sir 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, Tom and Alice. 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.[27]

Bragg has publicly discussed two nervous breakdowns that he has suffered, one in his teens and another in his 30s.[28] His first breakdown began at age 13; inspired by a passage in Wordsworth's The Prelude, in the following years he found ways to cope, including exploring the outdoors and the adoption of a strong work ethic, as well as meeting his first girlfriend.[7] The second followed his wife's suicide.[12] 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.[7]

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."[29]

In August 2016 Bragg publicly accused the National Trust of "bullying" in its "disgraceful purchase" of land in the Lake District, which could threaten the Herdwick rare breed of sheep.[30]

He lives in Hampstead, London,[12] but still owns a house near his home town of Wigton.[7] He is a member of the Garrick Club[12] and a supporter of Arsenal F.C.[31] and Carlisle United (London Branch Hon. President).

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.

Positions and memberships

Awards and honours

Literary prizes
Film & television awards
Other awards


Non-fiction books
Children's books


  1. 1 2 "Lord Bragg of Wigton FRS FRSL FRTS". British Academy. Retrieved 4 October 2011. Public understanding of the arts, literature and sciences. Broadcaster, presenter, interviewer, commentator, novelist, scriptwriter.
  2. Sherwin, Adam (25 March 2013). "Melvyn Bragg calls on new BBC boss to reverse 'shrinking arts coverage'". The Independent. London. Retrieved 25 April 2013.
  3. Hepworth, David (2 March 2013). "In Our Time: Melvyn Bragg's superior radio masterclass". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 25 April 2013.
  4. Profile,; retrieved 8 April 2013
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Quicke, Andrew. "Melvyn Bragg". Encyclopedia of Television. Museum of Broadcast Communications. Retrieved 4 October 2011.
  6. 1 2 Barratt, Nick (11 August 2007). "Family detective: Melvyn Bragg". The Telegraph. London. Retrieved 8 April 2013.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 Melvyn Bragg: Wigton to Westminster, BBC Two, 18 July 2015
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 The Guardian profile: Melvyn Bragg, The Guardian, Steven Morris, 17 September 2004
  9. 1 2 Article by Melvyn Bragg in British Mensa Magazine, January 2002, p. 7.
  10. Bignell, Jonathan (2012). Beckett on Screen: The Television Plays. Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-0719064210.
  11. "ITV Fact File on The South Bank Show". Retrieved 29 September 2014.
  12. 1 2 3 4 5 Melvyn Bragg: A Northern hero in our time, The Independent (London), 13 June 2014
  13. Simon Elmes, And Now on Radio 4: A Celebration of the World's Best Radio Station, London: Random House Books, 2007, pp. 72-73.
  14. Melvyn Bragg, last of the ITV grandees, The Guardian, Ben Dowell, 6 May 2009
  15. "Melvyn Bragg on Class and Culture", Retrieved 3 April 2014.
  16. Dowell, Ben (25 March 2013). "Melvyn Bragg expected to stay with Sky Arts for two more years". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 25 April 2013.
  17. "The Value of Culture". Folksonomy. 4 January 2013. Retrieved 4 January 2013.
  18. "Images for Melvyn Bragg's Cultural Exchange". BBC. Retrieved 12 June 2013.
  19. Profile: A time to dance back to Cumbria?: Melvyn Bragg, cultural supremo in a crisis, The Independent (London), 27 November 1993
  20. 1 2 ""Luvvies" for Labour". BBC News. 30 August 1998.
  21. Minutes and Order Paper - Minutes of Proceedings from the House of Lords, 28 October 1998.
  22. The London Gazette: no. 55222. p. 8731. 11 August 1998.
  23. "Bragg battles for hunting reprieve". BBC News. 11 January 2001. Retrieved 17 July 2015.
  24. "Celebrities' open letter to Scotland – full text and list of signatories". The Guardian. London. 7 August 2014. Retrieved 26 August 2014.
  25. Guinness, Daphne (14 July 2008). "Melvyn in the Middle". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 14 July 2008. first wife was an aristocrat. I didn't know that for a year.
  26. Burkeman, Oliver (6 June 2005). "Plato or Nietzsche? You choose". The Guardian. Manchester. Archived from the original on 9 November 2012.
  27. "Melvyn Bragg 'leaves wife to move in with woman 16 years his junior'". The Telegraph. London. 20 June 2016.
  28. Daphne Guinness (14 June 2008). "Melvyn in the middle". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 4 October 2011.
  29. Melvyn Bragg (11 June 2011). "Melvyn Bragg: My first steps back on the road to faith". The Daily Telegraph. London.
  30. Association, Press (30 August 2016). "Melvyn Bragg accuses National Trust of bullying in farm row". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 September 2016 via The Guardian.
  31. "Melvyn Bragg on becoming a fan – Arsenal, 1989". The Guardian. London. 17 May 2009.
  32. "Honorary Fellows of the Royal Society". Retrieved 29 September 2014.
  33. "Friends of the British Library Annual Report 2006/07" (PDF). Retrieved 7 September 2009.
  34. "Melvyn Bragg to receive BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award". BBC News. 1 June 2010.
  35. "Bragg opens namesake drama suite". BBC News. 17 October 2005. Retrieved 4 October 2011.

External links

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Preceded by
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Chancellor of the University of Leeds
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