For decades Melvyn Bragg has persuaded the key artistic figures of the age to talk with extraordinary candour. Here he considers the influence of The South Bank Show, and relives his encounters with Paul McCartney, Alan Bennett, Martin Amis, Tracey Emin and Eric Clapton.
Photo: Rex Features
The first programme was in January 1978. I led with Paul McCartney because I wanted to show that I was serious. My aim on The South Bank Show was to include the “popular” arts and make them an accepted part of the arts world. There were critics who thought that by doing this we had fatally undermined any claim to be an arts programme – even though in that first season I also included Harold Pinter, Ingmar Bergman, the RSC, David Hockney, the ballet Mayerling.
The show brought together two aspects of my own life. The working-class background, which at that time had little access to ballet, opera, great galleries and classical concerts; and the traditional arts, to which I had access later at Oxford University. The arts establishment in 1978 had little truck with popular culture and even less inclination to treasure it. That’s changed substantially over the past 30 years and The South Bank Show has been part of that changing.
The process of selection was often little more than a stab in the dark. There are insights into the instincts, thoughts and craft of artists of immense and perhaps enduring talent – even, in a few cases, touching genius. These are spots in a time of their lives, like painted portraits — a few sittings. The honesty and the seriousness with which they talk about their work is, I think, impressive, often exhilarating.
Though far from all the South Bank shows were interview-based, many were. I think that a good way to discover what artists are up to is to ask them. A “talking head” can be the best of television. If there’s trust and if the preparation and research have been good, the results can reveal truths. What matters is not the personality of the interviewer nor the questions, much, but the quality of the reply. There are many ways to interview people, but for the sort of programmes our team set out to do, collaboration was the key. Now and then they were nervous. The objective was to help make the meeting a place where they felt they could talk to the best of themselves.
I began in television as a researcher, then a director, and thought then and now that in any portrait of an artist the interviewer’s job is to help gather material. I did not want to be a critic. There are plenty of those in print. Our job was to put together a portrait. I would be part of it but, as far as possible, outside it.
My conviction was and is that the viewers can make up their own minds about the subject. Our job is to provide the fullest evidence we can for them to come to their decision.
The interview took place at the Abbey Road Studios and was broadcast in 1978.
McCartney slipped in, open-necked shirt, open waistcoat and blue jeans. He’s not only a handsome man but also a bonny lad. He has a face that responds immediately to the sense he is expressing. Most constant, though, when I’ve seen him interviewed since, is the watchfulness. And there was that here at first.
He had been the villain in the epic end of the Beatles. He had been savaged by John. All the Lennon wannabes who generally held the critical arena had piled into him, showered his contribution with dismissive scorn. Linda faced even worse – she was the terrible temptress, the lure, the… on it went. McCartney had taken the sensible course and retreated. For some time.
This interview, his manager said, was his “get him out again”. He warmed to the encounter. I interviewed him a few years later and he was nothing like as open – nothing impolite, no “cooling” – just that he had moved on and the veil that is so often over him had come down once more.
“When did you make up your mind you would try to be a singer and song writer?”
“When I started to write my tunes I got together with John – we used to bag off school together and go back to my home where there wasn’t anybody in in the afternoon. We’d have a little bang on the piano and we had guitars. We wrote about 100 tunes before getting to Love Me Do.
“And later we were with George Martin and he says: 'If you want a really big hit – I mean, Love Me Do is all right, lads, but if you want a really big hit – you should do something like [Gerry and the Pacemakers’s] How Do You Do It?.’ We said: 'But we don’t like it.’ Then we got the heavy word from Brian Epstein: 'It doesn’t matter if you don’t like it. Do it.’ ”
“We made a demo. It still exists. But we still didn’t like it. We didn’t want to be like everybody else.”
“So you stuck out for that?”
“Not doing How Do You Do It? we ended up doing our own song Please, Please Me. A big hit.”
“That seemed to trigger what became a phenomenal run of success. Seventeen hits. Worldwide.”
And the film cut to the four of them, tiny figures, still neatly moptopped and uniformed, going out to a stage in the middle of Shea Stadium, welcomed hysterically by tens of thousands of screaming, weeping, applauding fans in a mass orgy of adoration.
Yet McCartney kept a steady head. There was Eleanor Rigby, for instance.
“I had that song…” – he played the opening on the piano – “I just sat down and got the first line. It came out of the blue. But I didn’t have a name. I think it was 'Daisy McKenzie picks up the rice in a church where the wedding had been.’ So then I had to think: What’s it about? Picks up the rice – oh, she’s a lonely old lady type, and continue from there. I remember walking around Bristol one night looking for a name because I wanted a really nice name, that didn’t sound wrong, sounded like somebody’s name but different, wasn’t just, 'Valerie Higgins’. Was a little bit more 'evocative’.”
He sent up that word.
“Then I saw a shop. Rigby. Normal, but just that little bit extra thing to it. Then I got Eleanor. And it just flowed from there.”
“What’s the longest you’ve worked on a song?”
“It comes out of the blue – it comes at you. I’m sure the funnel it comes through has a lot to do with it – the Billy Cotton Band Show here, Cole Porter there, millions of influences through to Chuck Berry, and I’ll filter out a lot of stuff I don’t like. But I’ve always felt it was not me doing it, really… ’’
Paul is fluent but in this passage he hesitated, paused, was clearly digging deep, “just that it sort of just comes…
“I mean, all the best little bits of melody… I just fell out of bed one morning and had the tune for Yesterday. I don’t know how I got that. I just got it. And I thought, I like that one. That’s a nice one. I didn’t have any words, so for weeks it was 'scrambled eggs… oh how I love your legs… ’ It’s kind of magic. You’re just plonking along…” – he plays air guitar – “and you decide to reach out and see what you can pull down. It’ll probably be crummy but… ”
He turned to the piano and sang: “Melvyn Bragg… was in the parlour… and he said he was going to have some tea… Now that’s not very good but you could work on that.” He repeated it and added: “Come and have some tea with me, Melvyn Bragg. It’s the name. That’s the problem.”
“You’ll have to go around Bristol again.”
“Now Melvyn Rigby… that’s not good. I shouldn’t have dared to do that. I’m showing what a lousy writer I can be, but that’s what it all comes out of.
“It’ll be bad three times, but the fourth time a little bit of inspiration will come and that one little thing will make it good. You try another chord. It’s pulling it all in. I think it’s great if you can get a good song. You’re feeling lousy and you hear a good song and it lights you up.”
The interview took place at Amis’s flat in west London. It was broadcast in 1995.
“One of the subliminal reasons I wrote this book [The Information] was I’d done a lot of interviews over 20 years and I felt all the interest directed at me. The truth is we are more interested in writers than we are in writing. So I thought, if you’re interested, here’s a book about writers. It’s a serious enquiry into the plain fact that there’s no way of distinguishing good writing from bad. We all know bad writing when we see it. But there’s no way of pinning it down. Take two lines of Wordsworth: 'When all at once I saw a crowd’ – that’s obviously a weak line. He just put in 'crowd’ to rhyme with 'cloud’. Then there’s a great line like 'thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears’. Even though he puts in 'do’ to make up the numbers.”
“It’s a great line.”
“It’s a great line. Richards, Leavis, the big critics, they all killed themselves trying to find out why good lines were better than bad lines, good books better than bad books, but it can’t be demonstrated. You can’t actually clinch it. So it’s time that decides these things, time sorts these things out but you’re not going to be around for that, so it’s all up in the air; we can’t tell and we’re at the mercy of contemporary taste.”
“One of the ways people value books is through the money earned,” I said. “The American phrase: if you’re so smart why aren’t you rich? So – this advance of £500,000 for the novel. To a few writers – not huge. To the majority – very large indeed. Why do you think so much fuss gathered around it?” Martin, for the first time in the interview took his time, rolled a cigarette. Maybe he didn’t want to answer. “Did it surprise you?” I asked.
“Let me just say that the book is 500 pages long, took five years to write, and that advance is for two books. As for the fuss, it surprised me. I think what it did tell us… no American and no European I spoke to at that time could tell what it was about. It couldn’t be explained to them.
“We’re talking about English stuff here, an English phenomenon. English people basically don’t trust writers. Nobody minds anybody getting £500,000 for crap because that fulfils a need, but when they start getting well paid for stuff that’s supposed to be serious, fabulistic things happen. They think that publishers are nice old boys who love literature and just want to run their little businesses and here come the greedy bigheads who are trying to destroy the whole thing.
“They haven’t realised that most publishers are owned by Andrex Toilet Paper and that they are businesses in the modern world just like any other business. We both know that if publishers pay a lot of money they will try harder and sell more books and get more readers and that’s what we want, readers.”
“AS Byatt went for you. She wrote of 'turkey-cocking’, she said you’d never earn the money back, therefore there’ll be less for other literary novelists; advances should be earned out, like hers. She presumed, or it was assumed, she spoke for others.”
“She’s got an absolute right to say that. I would say she spoke for no other writers. Every other writer in England, as far as I could tell, was behind me. It happens, in this book, I say every writer in England votes Labour. A journalist checked up on this and said I was right. Every writer in England does vote Labour. Except AS Byatt who has an admiration for Mrs Thatcher, which traps her in a contradiction. Anyway, the fuss is England’s problem. Her remarks are her problem.”
The interview was conducted in London and Yorkshire, and was shown in 2005.
“We’re in Primrose Hill, in Camden Town. You’ve been here for 35 years or so. But you also have a place in Yorkshire near Leeds, where you were born and educated. Is there a north-south divide in your work?”
“Some stuff I write is metropolitan and hasn’t really got a lot to do with the north. What I like about the north and what you don’t find in London is the pleasure in language they still have.” And he segues comfortably into performance as the story comes out. “I went into a supermarket in Settle to get some Parmesan. Parmesan I think is a relatively recent arrival in Settle, but I went to the cheese counter and said: 'Have you any Parmesan?’ and he said: 'Oh yes.’ Then he reeled off a list of Parmesan and finally he said: 'And this is the Reggiani, the Rolls-Royce of Parmesans!’”
Alan is delighted with the story, as am I. “Now, you’d never get anybody in Camden Town saying: 'The Rolls-Royce of Parmesans!’ My father never said, 'I’ll find out’, he said, 'I’ll ascertain’. It’s a slightly piss-taking way of talking, but it’s got a lot of flavour still that language down here doesn’t have.”
We went north with Alan and filmed him on the train on the same theme, and again he went into the comfort of performance: a much loved anecdote.
“Despite being called Customer Operations Leader and other such absurdities, the conductor still retains a degree of individuality. The train was coming into Leeds station and the conductor announced: 'We are now arriving at Leeds station, may God go with you, if you’ll only allow Him to.’”
“You’ve written about your mother in Untold Stories.”
“With difficulty. It’s part of a longer story. When my mother became depressed in 1966, it was very sudden; over a few weeks, she lost her sense of humour. It was an utterly mystifying condition.”
It was at this stage that a No Entry sign loomed up, but by that time we were well into it. Even so…
“Is there any aspect of your life you didn’t want to write about in your diaries or would write about but not talk about?”
There was not much of a pause, perhaps a momentary steeling.
“I now live with my partner as I have done for 14 years.”
I think this was the first time he had said that in a public place. Subsequently, he spoke more easily about it and more often in public interviews.
He had recently written about a terrible attack made on Rupert and himself by some men on a beach in Italy. The assumption was that they had been “cruising”: the “law” concluded they were not only homosexuals but by being so disparate in age, doubly to be damned for that.
I asked why he had published his piece about it. When you freeze-frame, you see a hard look. He threw back his head, just as he does when he laughs, but this time he was forcing himself to a public revelation. First he addressed the ceiling.
“It’s because, I suppose, a few years ago I had cancer. I’m in remission now and I’m fine. But the prognosis wasn’t good and the prospect of death is a great diuretic – out it all comes – and I wanted to write it down because nobody else could tell the story, but I thought it would all be posthumous. Then I survived and I’ve got the book. I’m afraid I didn’t have the moral strength to sit on it,” and he thawed into a warm smile.
“Are you concerned what people say about what you write?”
“No. That’s a lesson of my parents’ life. They were bothered all their lives by what people might say about them. And it was terrible. They aspired to be like everybody else, to be ordinary people, but they weren’t ordinary people.”
It was over. “Thanks.”
“All right, love.”
The interview was filmed at Emin’s studio and various bars. It was shown in 2005.
Tracey Emin came to the stage at the South Bank Show Awards in 2000. She was already known as the bad girl of the Young British Artists. She said, “I have an ulterior motive for coming here today. When I was about 10 years old, when most of the other kids were playing, I would sit in front of the mirror and imagine I was being interviewed by Melvyn Bragg.” She looked at me. I was confused by the unexpected compliment.
Afterwards, in good company, she got drunk in The American Bar and was asked to leave. Earlier, on a television discussion show she had asked: “How many artists are here? I’m here. I’m drunk. I’m leaving now.” Which she did.
“I don’t set out to be controversial. I do what I want to do.”
She wears gorgeous dresses, she is aware of the splendour of what she calls “my tits” and often displays them with bold old-Hollywood brio, and after a tortuous route through alcoholism she has emerged as a brand artist of her generation. There is her extreme self-awareness and interest in the media. There’s the early and inflexible rule, “I do what I want to do”, and the use of her body and her life as the raw material for her art. How unfashionable to write this, but there’s the gipsy in her and in her soul.
Tracey Emin was brought up in Margate. “I dream sometimes of Margate. It’s a real Margate, the smell of the sea, the fish and chips, the neon – its heyday. Now it’s derelict.”
Margate made her. But only after it had all but unmade her. She hated school and played truant from the age of 13 – “exploring Margate’s Golden Mile”, the lunchtime discos, the cider on the beach, the sex.
“You’d go to a pub, you’d walk home, you’d have fish and chips, then sex, on a beach, down an alley, on the green.”
“Drinking and sex are important in your work.”
“Sex is really important. I like sexy things. There’s sex and there’s making love to someone. Nothing in the whole world can beat that.”
There are many nude drawings by Tracey of Tracey, legs apart, head thrown back. Recently she had an exhibition that featured a film of her masturbating.
“Most time when I’ve made work about sex I’ve gone for two years without sex and of course you’re frustrated. Men think about sex every two seconds, whatever it is, but I think I’m up there with any man. And to not have sex for two years – you put that energy into being creative.”
Tracey wanted to be filmed having tea with her mother, a handsome woman, as well dressed as Tracey, and though conservative, still that dash, her daughter’s mother.
Tracey: “Do you think you’ve been a good mother?”
Pam: “Yes I have.”
Tracey: “What about the vast amount of freedom Paul [her twin] and I had compared to other children?”
Pam: “Maybe. But remember me telling you I’m always your friend and if you get pregnant tell me…”
Pam and Tracey (chorus): “in time to get an abortion.”
Tracey: “When Dad went to Turkey you had an affair with someone half your age, didn’t you?”
Pam: “Stop telling your mother’s secrets, Tracey.”
Tracey: “You set up all those rules for me based on yourself, ever since I was young.”
Pam (interrupts): “I just couldn’t imagine you, as you were, having a child, or two.”
Had she ever asked her mother those questions before? “No…”
“I don’t know what to say. You chose to ask her on television?”
“I was always brought up, the honesty thing, it didn’t matter what I did as long as I told them what I was doing. Now with my parents I want the straight answers.”
We ended the interview and then Tracey turned to the camera and smiled directly at her public.
The interview was recorded at Clapton’s house in Chelsea. It was broadcast in 2007.
This is based around two interviews: one in 1987, the other in 2007. The Assyrians recommended two meetings on a serious matter, once when drunk and once when sober. Eric Clapton had been drunk and on drugs for the 20 years before that first interview; soon after it, no connection, he had gone dry and clean and stayed sober since, 20 years on.
Unfairly, in 1987 he looked blooming with health, even fresh faced, bright eyed; in 2007 there was a lean and grizzled look, still a handsome man, but much calmer, little of the loose-cannon vivacity that had characterised him in the first interview. We met in his London house in Chelsea, the place impeccable, Clapton in black T-shirt, dark jeans; bespectacled. When we transmitted the film we intercut between the two interviews.
2007 “We did an interview about 20 years ago. What was happening to you then?”
“I can’t remember, to tell you the truth. I think that was at the end of my drinking career.”
1987 “But when it gets to two bottles of brandy a day, it’s beyond having a good time. That’s punishment,” said Clapton.
“I did one gig lying flat on my back with the microphone lying down beside me.”
“Because you couldn’t stand up?”
“’Cos I could stand up. I tried to stand up to begin with and then lay down and I thought, 'Well, they don’t care so why should I care.’ They had a good time.”
2007 “I remember you and I drank,” said Clapton. “That’s probably the only way you’d have been able to stay with me. Shortly after that, during a tour to Australia, I came to the conclusion that I had to pack it all in and try again to get sober. I thought that last year I’d had a lot of fun, going to the cricket and going out with Beefy [Ian Botham]. But when everyone else went to bed I’d just carry on and get blitzed until I passed out and have really dark thoughts about myself, suicidal thoughts. It got pretty grim.”
“Do you look back and see your life in two parts?”
“Three parts. Until my twenties I was skating on thin ice now and then but it wasn’t really an issue. Then there’s this long period until my early forties when I was in the grip of all kinds of compulsions and powerless. Then the last 20 years – sober.”
“Powerless? Helpless to resist?”
“Helpless. And hopeless. And compelled to do whatever my instincts drove me to do.” (He ticked them off on his fingers.) “Sex, drugs, drink, relationships, with absolutely no inclination to disengage – just” – he threw up his arms – “go for it.
“When I came back from treatment the first time, I couldn’t sleep with my wife. I just couldn’t perform. I didn’t understand it. Then it occurred to me I’d never had sex without being stoned. Ever. In my life. If I thought about having sex with somebody, I’d get drunk first.” (He threw back an imaginary drink.) “Usually I’d be guided through it. And when the drink was removed, all of those things which are normal things to most people, become impossible.”
One of the key ways in which he fights against a recurrence of the addiction, he said, is to get down on his knees every morning and pray.
“Why decide to publish your autobiography now?”
“If I didn’t do it now I won’t remember it. I experience memory lapses, you know… the middle period of my life is plagued with black patches. I needed a great deal of help.”
His four-year-old son, Conor, fell out of the window of a New York apartment block. Clapton found some relief in dealing with the practical side of things and then he wrote Tears in Heaven.
“I couldn’t do the public grieving thing. It’s not English, is it? I was trying to console myself by writing these songs and they got me right inside myself and started some sort of healing. 'Would you know my name, would it be the same, if I saw you in heaven?’ The thing of an afterlife is a mystery to me. I live in the moment as much as I can, but I do half believe we’ve got to be moving around in some other area, that all this energy just doesn’t stop.”
- 'The South Bank Show: Final Cut’ is published next month by Hodder at £20. T £18 (plus £1.25 p&p) 0844 871 1515. 'The South Bank Show Revisited’, a season of classic interviews, starts next Sunday March 28 on ITV1
Last Updated: 03/18/10 14:31