Melvyn Bragg: ‘My daughter conducted my marriage service’ | Life and style


My grandmother wasn’t actually my grandmother. My mother and I moved in with her in Wigton, Cumbria, when my father was off in the war. I later learned that she was my mother’s foster mother, Mrs Gilbertson, and that my mother had been illegitimate. The people I thought were aunts and uncles were mostly foster children. My mother and I never discussed it. What impact it may have had on me I don’t know.

I never noticed I was an only child. We were working-class and surrounded by interesting people of ingenuity. There was so much going on in Wigton – choirs, sports clubs, youth clubs. People had hobbies. You could never be bored.

It was my aim to become a writer, but it became quite clear that the idea of making a living from it was no good. I wrote two novels that were useless, so I had to get a job. I was lucky enough to get a traineeship at the BBC. It was a bigger stroke of luck than getting into Oxford – I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to do the sort of work I was asked to do.

Everybody warned me when I left the BBC for ITV. The BBC heads said, “ITV make terrible programmes!” But I had an idea for a general arts programme: The South Bank Show [launched in 1978]. Culture in the UK was viewed as a pyramid: classical music at the top, pop and comedy at the bottom. I saw it as an arc, with good stuff in all realms. I got Paul McCartney on my first programme. I mixed it all up and got away with it.

I bumped into Dennis Potter when we were both at Oxford. He was already a great man; he’d had a television play on. He said to me, ‘They tell me there are three people at Oxford from the real working classes. There’s you and there’s me. Shall we see if we can find the other bugger?”

A great thing about television is the scatter effect – you never know who’s watching. I was doing some filming in New York and I heard my name called from across the street. It was Lauren Bacall. I’d never met her. She went on about an interview I’d done and said, “Let’s go have a drink.” It was wonderful.

I turned down the House of Lords at first. [In 1998 Bragg was made a life peer]. It’s not supposed to be for writers, TV people, the working classes. I thought maybe I wasn’t good enough. But as an institution it’s got good and clever people, and it’s more democratic than you might imagine. I do think it should be radically changed, but nobody’s come up with a good enough plan.

It was marvellous having my daughter conduct my marriage service. [He married third wife Gabriel Clare-Hunt in 2019.] It gave her a good line for the reception: “This morning I married my father.” I was surprised when Marie-Elsa became a priest, but she always had a spiritual side to her character. She went through a very, very difficult life indeed [her mother, Lise, killed herself in 1971].

My first wife’s suicide was a terrible thing. It’s difficult to talk about. I wish I’d known earlier that her analyst had killed herself while taking the same drug that she was prescribing to Lise. You can’t take it now; it’s forbidden. You think it’s your fault and you get into a muddle. It’s more than a muddle – it’s a trauma. And you never get over it. And there’s no closure.

I’ve always done two jobs. I write alongside broadcasting, and I’ve never stopped. It’s been 62 years now. But I do have some regret: why didn’t I have the guts just to get up there on the mountain and write and write? It rankles with me sometimes.

Melvyn Bragg’s memoir, Back in the Day, is out now: £21.75 at Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 (UK/Ireland) or email