The broadcasting titan enters the Newswrap realm and talks South Bank Show, diversity and C4 privatisation

Below is a transcription for the hard of hearing of this week’s Broadcast Newswrap podcast, featuring Melvyn Bragg in conversation with Max Goldbart

Max [00:00:03] Hello and welcome to the Broadcast Newswrap - bringing you interviews with the biggest names in the world of TV. This week, we welcome a broadcasting titan, Melvyn Bragg, the much loved In Our Time and Southbank Show presenter who, in later years, has taken up a seat in the House of Lords. Melvyn talks through this rather special series of the Southbank Show, which has eschewed the A-listers of recent years to focus on the nation’s best up and coming talent. He also has some stern words for the government over the potential privatisation of Channel 4 and gives us a window into the Bragg household by taking part in everyone’s favourite What We’ve Been Watching segment. So welcome to a man who needs no introduction, it’s Melvyn Bragg, host of the South Bank Show, amongst other things, and a true broadcasting legend. Welcome, Melvyn. It’s lovely to have you on this week.

Melvyn [00:01:00] Good to be here. Thank you.

Max [00:01:02] No problem. So we’re here predominantly to talk about the South Bank Show, which is midway through the series at the moment. You’ve got some awards coming up next week. How has this series gone so far?

Melvyn [00:01:14] I think it’s going very well. It was just an idea that came out of the blue that instead of going for established figures on mega world global artists, which we’ve been doing for 43 years on the South Bank show, and for this reason, I thought, why not go to young people? What have they been doing in the pandemic? And we have this system for the awards, which is now in its 25th year, by getting the Times critics to spot the 20 most promising young people around, young being 20 to 30, they have to have done something amazing. Stormzy was one, Billie Piper when she was young. So there’s a big list they got. And we used to say, well, here they are. And they stood up at the awards and everybody said, Isn’t that good? Well then, why not devote the series to them? Make 15 minute films of each of these 10 people and just do it like the South Bank Show except shorter. And it’s been fantastically refreshing. Most of them have never been interviewed on television before. Most of them haven’t had their work displayed on television before. And it’s just been refreshing. And the audiences responded well, the critics have responded very well. And I think, you know, let’s see how the dust settles after the series is finished. But I think there might be something in it as a thing in itself alongside the South Bank Show, and I’d like to build on that before somebody else nicks the idea.

Max [00:02:41] So you’re thinking potentially like a spinoff or something like that, that continues?

Melvyn [00:02:45] I don’t know. Phil Edgar-Jones, who runs Sky Arts, is a very positive force and he’s been a big backer of our programme. I’d like to talk to him about it. I think it’s better than any of us could have thought it would. And partly because the young people concerned I keep saying young people I mean, we talking about a man who is a smash hit play, who came from a council estate, we’re talking about a pianist who’s played in America in the great venues in America. We’re talking about somebody who’s had an opera on and we’re talking about somebody who beat us to the punch by having a hit before we had the series. These are really clever, interesting, intelligent artists living in this country and doing all this last year despite everything else that was going on. I mean, they’re an impressive bunch. And, you know, I do hope England wins, but this England’s doing pretty well.

Max [00:03:34] Yeah, excellent. Excellent. And it really feels like you’re showcasing diversity almost in all of its forms.

Melvyn [00:03:42] Yeah, we do. I mean, we do that in the show. I mean, the South Bank Show from the beginning, I wanted diversity. I wanted to change the way arts programmes set out its stall. Usually before that, it had been a pyramid: at the top of classical music and then ballet and high opera. That’s fine, but what about popular music? What about television drama? What about stand up comedians? Often as good as. What about photography? So I wanted to bring all that it in, and we did bring it in. I mean, instead of starting with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, we started with Paul McCartney to show that we were serious. Our first play wasn’t a West End play. It was a television play, although we had something from the Royal Shakespeare Company lined up. And we’ve developed that and we just kept that going for the awards. And The Times critics picked up that idea. And there’s ten categories that they pick people from for this new series.

Max [00:04:42] And the TV industry at the moment is very focussed on on diversity and and promoting voices that maybe have been underrepresented. So do you feel like you’re going some way to kind of aiding with that wider push?

Melvyn [00:04:54] Very much so. But the important thing is that we’re doing it effortlessly. We’re not saying, oh, we must go for diversity. We’re trying to say, who’s the best player, turns out to be a diverse collection of someone who was born in Columbia, somebody half Nigerian. It’s all over the place, which is great. But we won’t sit down and say we are going to do it like this. It just turns out they’re very good.

Max [00:05:21] Excellent. No, that’s really, really good to hear. And it’s been such a difficult year for the arts, hasn’t it? You would say that the arts is one of the industries that has been most impacted by the pandemic. So did you in part want to be able to showcase this younger talent in order to kind of elevate people at what’s been a very difficult time?

Melvyn [00:05:43] Yes, certainly to encourage yes. And to show that it was still going on. And it’s been a very difficult time for the arts. What do you do if you’re an actor and all the theatres are closed? What do you do when you can’t sing in any operas as well because they’re closed? What do you do if you’re a musician, if people are not allowed to come to listen to orchestras? It’s been very, very difficult. But the one thing I would say about the arts, two things I would say is that they’re massively underestimated. Massively. Why doesn’t this country turn into the arts country? I mean, Italy makes its living really out of wine. That’s OK. Why don’t we make it out of the arts? We’re already one of the leading countries in the world per capita. It brings billions to this country from a small investment. Just keep going on investing. Lots of other things are failing and collapsing. Put more money into the arts, make us the country of the arts. Why not? The arts is now, as well as being a great pleasure and a repository of the imagination. The arts is a great driving economic force. What do you do when you’ve got a rundown town? You put an arts centre there, what happens? It starts to come together. It’s a driver of cities. It’s a driver of people culture. It brings schools together. What do you do if the school’s in a bad way, you have a school choir, you try to get to school orchestra; the school is transformed and moves forward, we haven’t realised the gold plate we’ve got in the arts. We just haven’t got it. The penny hasn’t dropped because these blundering people in Westminster plot around and then their heads are in the clouds of the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s. They’re not with what’s happening now. So that’s the first thing I’d say about the arts. The second thing is, the extraordinary thing is how flexible are. They’re used to being out of work a lot of these people, when they get back and work again, they’re used to not being consistent. They’re not being cast in that play so they’re looking for another play? There’s still this sort of vagabond part of the arts, which is: they take chances. So that’s very encouraging for the flexible economy we’ve got to be. So for these two reasons. I think the arts is massively underappreciated by by the politicians, of course. If they want to make this country a rich country again, a really rich, in every sense, put money in the arts. It has never failed since 1945. It’s taken not one backward step. That penny doesn’t seem to have dropped in the Westminster region.

Max [00:08:21] Completely, completely. It’s good to hear you speaking out so passionately about what is such an important topic. Can you name a couple of your highlights of this series, like maybe who have been your favourite people to have spoken to of these rising stars?

Melvyn [00:08:45] There is one winner will be announced when the South Bank Show awards happens in a couple of weeks time. But no, it’s not fair. And even the winner, they were so close. I’m not going to answer.

Max [00:09:00] That’s fine. That’s fine. I thought that might be the case. Sky Arts has of course gone free to air. So being able to appeal to a wider audience, do you do you feel like this series in particular has maybe attracted a younger demographic or a more underserved demographic? Are you getting new audiences watching?

Melvyn [00:09:20] I hope so. I have not time to examine it yet. And in a way, going free to air, it might have been clever for us to go for Helen Mirren and people like that, but we went the other way. We’ll see what happens. We’ll see how it’s gone. In a sense, I don’t think this is going to build up audiences as big as if we had had Helen Mirren and so on. But on the other hand, it might be planting a seed, which would grow much bigger than anything we dreamt it could, because there’s those people at that age, which advertisers and executives want to watch television, people under 30 who are doing these things. And one of the things people like to see on television is people like themselves. And these people are doing the sort of thing they’re doing and starting very often from scratch. I mean, you’d be surprised at some of the backstories of these 10 people, you really would. They came out of thin air. They came out of nowhere, they scrambled up. It was luck. But above all, it was a persistence and talent turning into tremendous talent. These are really talented people.

Max [00:10:21] Mm hmm. Completely. Completely. And what can we expect from the awards shows? Is it going to be one of your one of your favourites for a while?

Melvyn [00:10:31] Well, it’s a 25th. South Bank Show has been going for over 43 years. This is the 25th award. Well, there’s nothing like it in the world. I mean, for once, the Boris Johnson thing, there’s nothing like it in the world, is true. This is true. It’s entirely due to the arts and the British arts. And I think, I hope because of the restrictions being lifted, we can do it how we usually do it. So it’s a lavish event because it’s a lavish celebration. Trumpeters from the royal cavalry. We have awards given by people who themselves have won enormous awards and their performances, live performances, but also some eminent people giving live performances, top opera singers, top pianists and so it’s a terrific event. And if we can get back to the celebratory nature of it and to the idea of in this one room, there are three or four hundred people who themselves represent the best of the arts. And some of these are winners and some of these have been winners. And some of these will be winners. We get back to that feeling then that’s good.

Max [00:11:33] Great stuff, great stuff, so that airs on the 22nd of July. Yeah, I’m sure multiple people will be tuning in. That sounds fantastic. And you’ve been speaking so passionately about this. And something else that you’ve recently been speaking quite passionately about that’s appeared in various newspapers is more general talk on the public service broadcasting landscape. Obviously, this is a really challenging time. We’ve got a consultation into the privatisation of Channel 4. There’s a lot of talk around the BBC’s funding model and how that could be reshaped over time. What do you think of the current landscape in public service broadcasting?

Melvyn [00:12:12] Well, checking one at a time, I think the attacks on Channel 4 are entirely political and they’re nothing whatsoever to do with broadcasting and we are broadcasters and that was set up as a broadcasting channel for the broadcasters to make and it exploded the English scene, the independence and the place, a bigger place, to make and show their films. And it was tremendous. Look at the track record of Channel 4: Oscars they’ve won with films they’ve done. Their news projections and documentaries. It is ridiculous to sell it for million, a billion or whatever they’re going to sell it for. It’s got nothing to do with anything. What’s a billion going to help when they waste money on taxing? When you every time you open a newspaper, they’re wasting more money on something. This is an efficient part of a complex and successful broadcasting ecology. That’s what it is. And it’s and it’s on terrific form, despite a lot of competition and not a very big budget. What are they doing it for? It’s political. That’s political. They want to control broadcasting. And as soon as they let them control broadcasting, broadcasting will die. Now, how is it going to be kept off it, it’s bad enough that they bullied the BBC into becoming part of social services by having old age pensionerslet off, don’t pay the fee? I’m all in favour of that. But the government should pay for that, not you, as a licence fee payer. You pay for programmes. That’s what you pay for. That’s what your licence fee is for. So I keep them off. As for the greater picture, I think the BBC has got a tough fight on its hands because of all the other networks piling in now far more money. But look at it, they’re doing very well. The some of the dramas, the Mercurio, McGovern, lots of dramatists are thriving. The series are doing well, the news is still very, very sound. And the radio is unparalleled in the world. The radio network, one, two, three, four, five and six. There’s no else in the world as diverse as niche rich, and these tiny programmes: Gardeners’ World, philosophy programmes, this programme, that programme… They’re a tremendous force gathered together. And if we lose that, we’re out of our minds. One of the things that this country is is admired for still, despite the best efforts of some of our politicians to ruin our reputation, one of the things this country’s most admired for is its broadcasting. And the bedrock of the broadcasting is the BBC. The BBC sets the gold standard. Sometimes it fails of course, sometimes it fails. Everybody sometimes fails. That’s not the point. The point is that it’s there, the point is that it belongs to this country. The point is that it’s unique. The point is that it works. And if we get rid of it we’ll never resurrect it. And if we chip away at it we’ll weaken it so that it’s beyond resurrection. I think we should march for the BBC.

Max [00:15:39] Mm mm. Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And you’ve been a huge defender of the public service broadcasting landscape for a while. What can people such as yourself and and other people in the public eye do to to help argue for the likes of Channel 4 to to avoid what you’re describing happening?

Melvyn [00:15:59] I’ll do what I’m doing now. I mean, talk publicly about it, sign things about it. Lobby about it, talk about it in parliament, get a constituency behind it that tells people to stop doing this. Can you tell me the gain of a government that get billions and billions and billions in pounds in our taxes to perhaps get one more billion pounds out of selling Channel 4? What’s the gain? It’s a billion pounds, which they’ll probably chuck away over some dumb fool thing. And what you’re going to sacrifice is a tremendously powerful… They’ll pretend that Channel 4 will be the same. Of course it won’t. It will be a different channel and the channel that Channel 4 has turned out to be is a remarkable, effective channel in doing high quality television, developing independence, as I said earlier in this conversation, which helps this country to be so rich in doing the arts, and one of the reasons is because we’ve got a lot of filmmakers. We didn’t have that, those independent filmmakers, we haven’t had that for years. That isn’t part of our tradition. Drama is, but filmmaking isn’t. But the independent film industry in this country, which is extremely powerful, grew, or was given a boost, by Channel 4. What are we throwing that away for? It’s madness, and its political. Let’s call a spade a spade: they don’t like its independence. So if they get rid of Channel 4, what are they going to try to get rid of next? We’ve got to stop them doing that. They don’t know what’s really good. That’s my view. They don’t know what’s really good about this country. What’s working about this country are the universities and broadcasting and the city of London, these three. But those three are working. Look after them, develop them, make them bigger and better. And then we’ll be OK.

Max [00:17:55] Hmm hmm, yeah, certainly, certainly, and I think I completely agree with you in that, it’s a drop in the ocean, isn’t it? Like the argument for the government making money out of Channel 4 is moot almost for that reason.

Melvyn [00:18:09] And when you look at what Channel 4 has bred, the spinoffs, the films that have won prizes - everybody pays taxes. They’ve probably made more than a billion pounds in the last few years, raising taxes and returns.

Max [00:18:25] Before you go, Melvyn, we love to ask our guests what they’ve been watching on TV, we are predominantly a TV podcast. So, what have you been watching recently?

Melvyn [00:18:36] Well, I have watched a bit of football. I think the best thing I’ve seen recently is Time, Jimmy McGovern’s Time. I mean, he is one of the best playwrights in the country. Full stop. And television is part of the playwriting in this country. It doesn’t just happen on the stage. It happens on television and on radio. Time - what a chance he took with that. It was very bleak, brilliant, relentless. And you felt he got there, like you did with Cracker, like did with Hillsborough. So that’s the best thing I’ve seen. That’s the best thing.

Max [00:19:16] Yeah. I love Time. I said that last week for my What We’ve Been Watching, it’s fantastic. Really enjoyed Sean Bean, he was excellent. Look Melvyn, it’s been so nice having you on. Thank you for talking us through the South Bank Show. Thank you for talking about wider issues. It’s been a pleasure.

Melvyn [00:19:31] My pleasure. Thank you very much.