Melvyn Bragg: The Government is making a ‘real mess’ of the arts

Melvyn Bragg

Melvyn Bragg - Credit: Archant

Ahead of his appearance at the Ham&High Literary Festival, arts broadcaster Melvyn Bragg tells Alex Bellotti about his new novel, Now Is The Time, and about why Britain needs to continue supporting the arts.

For the arts broadcaster and Labour peer Melvyn Bragg, the rise of Jeremy Corbyn is a phenomenon easy enough to trace. “It’s the same drift that’s been going on for 800 years,” he says. “A case of saying, ‘We don’t want that, we want this’.”

Such an attitude in Britain, Bragg argues, stems back to the famous insurrection of 1381, the Peasants’ Revolt. Although ultimately doomed to fail, the three week march – led by Watt Tyler and the rebel priest John Ball – marked the first instance in which the lower classes marched en masse against the establishment, originally in response to a poll tax.

In Bragg’s latest novel, Now Is The Time, fact meets fiction as he brings the revolt to life. The book – his third historical novel, and his 21st novel in total – will also be the focus of the 76-year-old’s talk at the Ham & High Literary Festival on Sunday November 15.

“It wasn’t a peasants’ revolt at all,” Bragg grumbles when we sit down to talk at his London office. “We didn’t have peasants in England, it’s a French word. We had labourers and bondmen and villeins and so on, but the French chroniclers called it the Peasants’ Revolt and it still sticks – sticks in my craw, I should say.”


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Having discussed this period of history on radio and television for over a decade, the revolt has long been a source of fascination for the writer. “The event itself is the biggest insurrection that there’s ever been in this country. And although it was a failure, and ended in disaster for those involved in the rebellion, it was the first mass expression of what has happened in England ever since, right up to the Suffragettes. People demanding that they take power from people who they think are oppressing them.”

Until the release of Now Is The Time earlier this month, Bragg had not published a historical novel for 12 years. During that time, the multi award-winning author and three-time longlisted nominee for the Man Booker Prize had instead favoured an autobiographical approach, inspired by some of his best-loved writers.

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“You’re not comparing yourself by mentioning them, but with people like Tolstoy or Proust, or nowadays Philip Roth and so on, it’s autobiographical fiction all the way, though they pretend not. Or they admit it quietly, or let their biographers reveal it for them.

“But [historical fiction] is a completely different thing because you have to discover the interiority of the characters while you’re dealing with external events which are fairly rigid.”

Did looking back in time provide a break from the self-reflection? “I thought it would, but it was harder!” he laughs. “I remember Robert Graves when he was challenged about his style for I, Claudius [a fictional autobiography of the Roman Emperor]. They said, ‘Your style of prose is easy to read, perhaps too easy to read’. And he said, ‘Well that’s because it was extremely difficult to write’.”

Known best as the presenter of The South Bank show – first on ITV from 1978-2010, then from 2012 onwards on Sky Arts – Bragg is naturally one of television’s go-to authorities in the field of arts and culture.

That hasn’t always prevented him from criticism: back in 2012, he admits he got “a lot of stick from my friends on the left” for a three-part BBC series suggesting that British people now identify themselves more through culture than they do class.

Nonetheless, he sticks by his assertion that our tastes in books, music and film can define us, and as such is vocal on the dangers of the Government stripping back arts funding across the country.

“It’s ludicrous,” he argues. “Nearly two million people are employed; we’re the leading arts country in the world, and in the round per capita we produce more than any other country in the world by a long way. It’s got through to [the Government] that in science, they’ve got to put money into science at universities to keep the high position that we’ve got.

“Similarly with the arts, it’s quite expensive to set up a place, a theatre, a company, an orchestra. And they’re making a real mess of it, but along the way in television it was the Tories who put through Channel 4, it was the Tories who decided that some of the lottery money should go to the arts, and you can’t deny that those two things have been a big help.”

He admits that for those in power, it unfortunately remains as difficult as ever to see culture as a priority.

“Around the table in government there’ll be very few people who carry a flag for the arts. It’s easy to say, ‘Your arts are very well, but I’ve got people on the poverty line, I’ve got hospitals that are failing, I’ve got mental institutions and schools that are failing. What does it matter if we have a theatre in the town or not?’

“It’s a saloon bar argument that is easily put, and unless you’ve got someone putting a rather complicated case against it, you’re lost. They don’t take the arts into account at all, but when they do, things flourish.”

Melvyn Bragg will be discussing Now Is The Time at the Ham & High Literary Festival on Sunday November 15. Visit handhlitfest.com

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