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INTERVIEW WITH MELVYN BRAGG

WHEN LWT approached Melvyn Bragg about creating a new arts programme in 1978, Melvyn was working at the BBC:

'At the time I was very happily settled at the BBC. I was doing a television programme called Read All About It on paperbacks on BBC1 and another programme of big interviews and documentaries on BBC2.

What I wanted to do was to run an all-arts programme, which was not only about books, but covered the waterfront of the arts. And do it in a way that reflected my interests and those of a group of people that I could gather around me. But I knew that it needed various resources to make it work.

It needed to be on air all over the country at the same time, it needed to have an hour slot, it needed to have its own production team and, if possible, its own technical team - those were the conditions. Michael Grade and Nick Elliott (now Controller of Drama at ITV) fought for and got all those conditions. So I had to accept!'

In the beginning, there was a huge amount of work involved in launching the first series:

'The first two to three seasons of The South Bank Show were such hard work, I didn't do anything else. I didn't do any radio, I did scarcely any journalism, and my books suffered at the time - because I didn't have the time for them.

This is a big show to get on the air; it's a big operation. I hope it looks easy now, but it's a bit like a swan: on top of the water looking very calm, but paddling like hell underneath! I was greatly helped by Nick Elliott throughout all of this, and gradually put together a team which turned out to be totally first-rate. Also, from the start, I left a loose box for freelancers - and they came up trumps. James Ivory and Ismail Merchant did three films for me, then Ken Loach, Ken Russell, Tony Palmer, Derek Bailey - we've had a very good run with freelance filmmakers and we've got an immensely talented team on the show'.

Keeping the show fresh is a constant challenge:

'I like reading books, going to movies, going to the theatre, listening to music. So I'm already halfway to turning that interest into television programmes. I don't have to go to my office and do a different job - and I get to pursue these passions with a group of people who are also passionate about the arts.

'There are two things that keep the programme fresh. Firstly, the subjects are always new. New people are coming on track all the time. We did a film with Francis Bacon in his heyday and now 20 years on we're doing films with Rachel Whiteread and Tracey Emin. Art is always renewing itself, so fresh material is always there.

'And secondly, the producers and researchers are fresh and they bring different views to bear on the programme, because each programme is handmade. There are different styles from different producers. So it is very interesting and very exciting to see what you can make of each particular subject.

'The South Bank Show renews itself every season. It's great that artists who were influenced by watching the show when they were young are now participating in it. For example, we've recently made a programme on Tracey Emin and it started with her saying that when she was ten she used to watch The South Bank Show, hoping that one day she'd be on it! Similarly, during last year's profile on Blur, Damon Albarn said that he saw Morrissey on the show, and that something Morrissey said about popular music being a dying art (and the Smiths being the last great pop band) challenged Damon to start writing music and prove him wrong'.

Over the last 25 series, Melvyn has interviewed over 700 artists - is there anyone that he would have loved to have interviewed, but hasn't?

'I wish that I could have had a proper interview with Graham Greene. He ducked and dodged me. I saw an interview that he did do once to promote a series of his short stories, but it didn't work very well because he insisted on sitting in the half dark as I rememberů I'm drawn to writers, maybe because as an author I'm sympathetic to them. I also regret that I never interviewed Samuel Beckett for The South Bank Show.'

Does Melvyn have any personal favourites?

'There are so many good moments; its incredibly difficult to pick out any favourites. For example, everyone loved the programme on Francis Bacon, because we both got really drunk! Actually despite that entertaining aspect of it he said a lot of very good stuff. I'm glad that he and I both had the guts to keep it in'

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