Creator Melvyn Bragg on why The South Bank Show must go on…


Why my show MUST go on Canned by ITV two years ago, The South Bank Show has been revived. Why Because it's simply the best arts programme on TV, says its creator Melvyn Bragg

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UPDATED:

21:31 GMT, 8 June 2012

When John Lennon and Paul McCartney fell out many years ago, Lennon lashed out at his former friend and collaborator. ‘The only thing you did was Yesterday!’ he jeered – which was grossly unfair.

I remember the first South Bank Show I made, 34 years ago, in which we led with an interview with McCartney after some years of wounded silence. He confessed how much Lennon had hurt him but revealed how he fought back with what he did best – composing and singing songs which were, and still are, as good as any around.

I felt rather like that when ITV shrugged off The South Bank Show a couple of years ago after 32 years of programmes, more than 730 editions and 120 awards, the consistently highest audience for an arts programme in the UK and an almost unrivalled cast list. Funny thing to do. It was one of ITV’s unique home-grown programmes.

Historic show: Melvyn Bragg with Paul McCartney when he appeared on the South Bank Show in 1978 and revealed his hurt over his spat with John Lennon

Historic show: Melvyn Bragg with Paul McCartney when he appeared on the South Bank Show in 1978 and revealed his hurt over his spat with John Lennon

An advertising slump pressed the panic button. No matter. Their loss. No bones broken. Now Sky Arts has seized the opportunity and thanks to them we’re back on the beat with a new series.

Some people have asked, ‘Why come back’ My response has been, ‘Why ever not Would you leave a job you loved, making programmes about some of the greatest artists of our time’

To me it’s not so much a programme, more a way of life. I’ve been making arts programmes for almost 50 years, and every day I can’t believe my luck. Too old at 72 Careful. Ageism is out. We’ll have the law on you!

I’ll never forget my interview with Barry Humphries – one of the oddest I’ve ever done. He insisted that for half the time he appeared as Dame Edna. So I interviewed the real Barry Humphries in a suit and tie, and then I interviewed Edna in full fig in her dressing room, where she criticised Barry mercilessly.

Perhaps my most memorable moment in the show’s history was at the end of many months of film-making with Laurence Olivier in the 1980s. We’d had to stop for a long time because of his cancer, but he battled on most movingly and cheerfully. All very English. We went into the garden outside his Sussex house. The weather was beautiful. We chatted a little more, then he said, ‘You’ve caught me on a good day.’ It was a wonderful end to the film. He died soon afterwards.

Oddest interview: Melvyn once interviewed Barry Humphries one minute and then his alter ego Dame Edna the next

Oddest interview: Melvyn once interviewed Barry Humphries one minute and then his alter ego Dame Edna the next

Then there was an interview I did with
the artist Francis Bacon. We breakfasted on champagne, then moved to his
favourite restaurant for a seriously liquid lunch. The restaurant was
then cleared so the interview could be shot and we had another lunch
just to make it seem real. Unfortunately, the inevitable consequence was
two plastered people on screen. I rang him up and explained that I
nevertheless thought he was terrific, and could I run it ‘Do what you
want, darling,’ he said, ‘I don’t care.’

The current crop of South Bank Shows will stand with any I’ve made since 1978. So, as Paul McCartney sings, ‘Here we go again’. McCartney was important to the South Bank Show project from the start. I was always determined to pay as much respect to the popular arts as to the traditional ones – not an idea given much house room by the Arts Establishment of the time.

A major reviewer once wrote, ‘I draw the line at Lennon/McCartney in an arts programme.’ Well, old chum, you were wrong. What other music from that time has survived so well The best of pop in our country is among the best of the arts that we do. And Britain does the arts as well as, and sometimes better than, anybody else on the planet.

Meeting an art icon: With Laurence Olivier at his Sussex home shortly before he died

Meeting an art icon: With Laurence Olivier at his Sussex home shortly before he died

The South Bank Show has put the classical music of William Walton alongside Eric Clapton, the work of Laurence Olivier alongside that of Billy Connolly, the stage plays of Harold Pinter alongside the television plays of Dennis Potter, the writing of William Golding alongside that of Victoria Wood, and the brilliance of Margot Fonteyn alongside the originality of experimental dance group DV8.

And we’re doing it again now. It’s been fun trying to display the range of the show in six episodes.

We’ve featured Nicholas Hytner, Director of the National Theatre, and Pat Barker, Booker Prize winner for her unmatched fiction on the First World War, both of whom have never before been fully profiled on British TV.

Diverse subjects: The new series will include profiles on Nicholas Hytner, director of London's National Theatre, left, and rapper Dizzee Rascal

Diverse subjects: The new series will include profiles on Nicholas Hytner, director of London's National Theatre, left, and rapper Dizzee Rascal

Diverse subjects: The new series will include profiles on Nicholas Hytner, director of London's National Theatre, left, and rapper Dizzee Rascal

Then there’s Nicola Benedetti, from adolescent triumphs to supreme violinist; a programme on the male dancer, featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Carlos Acosta; and one on female singer-songwriters with Joan Armatrading, Annie Lennox and Suzanne Vega.

Tomorrow night it’s British urban music phenomenon Grime. These young singer/songwriters from the depressed area of Bow in east London found their own music and became as obsessed with it as McCartney and Lennon did.

We profile Dizzee Rascal, who has had four UK Number One singles yet could have followed, as he says, ‘a path of crime and drugs and violence’. But he won the Mercury Music Prize aged 19 and is now the UK’s biggest male vocal star.

That’s what The South Bank Show is still about, making films about the best of what’s out there in the arts to reach out to as many of you as possible.

The South Bank Show, tomorrow, 10pm, Sky Arts 1