Interview: Melvyn Bragg on his new book

Interview: Melvyn Bragg on his new book

The broadcaster and author talks to Tina Lofthouse about his life, career and coming to Clapham Book Festival…

One of television and radio’s most prolific and respected broadcasters, Melvyn Bragg’s career is one in which the word illustrious could be readily applied. He created The South Bank Show back in 1978 to challenge what a series on the arts could be, he has written novels, non-fiction, and even the screenplay for Jesus Christ Superstar and is a popular radio presenter with the likes of BBC Radio 4 history programme In Our Time.

He’s also a familiar face at book festivals. It’s Clapham’s turn this month. He likes a festival. “Writing is a long stretch of lonely time but meeting people who are interested in books is enjoyable – even if they are not necessarily interested in yours!”

He shouldn’t worry too much. He has legions of fans. His latest book is a memoir and it is being praised by critics and readers alike. Back in the Day starts in 1945 when Melvyn, an only child in a working-class family in Cumbria, is six and ends when he is 18 and off to Oxford University, having won a scholarship.

Not only is it a personal account of his childhood in the town of Wigton but it also brings to life the post-war years in Cumbria and how the country was building back. He has wanted to write such a book for a while. “It was an interesting time. And also there are people from Wigton that are branded on my mind.

He and his friends would treat the town as a huge playground, raiding orchards and making hideouts on the riverbank. It was a very religious town with 12 places of worship, a swimming pool, and of course, there was the local pub, which his parents, Stan and Ethel, took over. Before that, they had worked in factories. It meant that Melvyn pretty much knew everyone in Wigton. I ask how his upbringing shaped him. “I came from a straightforward working-class family, and I had a very rich life in everything that mattered. I had very good parents. They were hardworking and at the heart of everything. They shaped me completely. We treated people as we found them. There was no snobbery and also we didn’t see anyone as superior.

Some of his fondest memories are of his friendship group of Eric, William and George, who he’d known since he was five. “We were in the Cubs and the Scouts together, we played rugby together. We even went youth hostelling around the Lake District. Sadly, they are all dead now. I’m the only one left.”

It was a very traditional childhood with great freedom so what does Melvyn think about how children grow up today? Are they missing out? “I don’t know. I hate  to generalise. The children I meet are doing fine. They get a bad press. They are intelligent and try their best. They have a different life. We didn’t have computer games but we would have played them – we played Ludo and dominoes.”

As he looks back on his life, what would he say to his younger self? “Like anybody I made a lot of mistakes which I wish I hadn’t made. If I had my life again, I would make other mistakes. But life is about doing the best with what you’ve got.”

Melvyn, at 83, reflects that he has been very lucky in his career. “I got to grammar school for free, to Oxford with government grants and landed on my feet at the BBC when I was 21 as a trainee. I was then making films for TV. I thought this is the life. I have no complaints, none at all.”

He has had cancer and admits he doesn’t look after himself as well as he should. He does enjoy walking though and has a house in the Lake District. “We have a cottage. It’s a nightmare for people who come to see us to find but we like it,” he laughs.

His wife has a house in Clapham, so he knows the area well and says he enjoys Wandsworth Common and a wander along Northcote Road. He also has a house in Hampstead: “Between heath and hospital which is the perfect place to be at my age.” On his health, he says: “I have got through the worst so I hope for the best now.”

Melvyn Bragg will be interviewed by Tom Sutcliffe at Clapham Book Festival on 14th October. Get your tickets here: