The South Bank Show: The final cut by Melvyn Bragg

by John Boland

ITV’s flagship arts programme, The South Bank Show, has just begun a new series — its very last, as it happens. After 32 years in existence, it was effectively axed last summer when its creator, the novelist and cultural apostle Melvyn Bragg, felt unable to comply with the stringent budgetary cuts demanded of him by the network.

From its conception, The South Bank Show had been a genuine innovation — an attempt by Bragg to democratise the arts by refusing to accept time-worn distinctions between high and low culture. Thus, Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger were deemed no less worthy of serious consideration than Pierre Boulez or Luciano Pavarotti; indeed, among the 800 artists interviewed during the series’ three-and-a-half decade run, pop idols were as common as aesthetes.

This had its downside. In his eagerness to keep abreast of the ever-shifting fads of the age, Bragg profiled a lot of people to whom time has not been kind — one-hit wonders, vogueish charlatans and the like. But that’s in the nature of such an enterprise and the show must be commended for its overall achievement in introducing viewers to a wide range of the arts and for doing so in hour-long films that aimed to be substantial and accessible — qualities that were often attained.

I wish I could say the same for this book in which Bragg takes 25 of these profiles and attempts to adapt them as interviews to be read on the page. Mostly, I’m afraid, they fall flat — partly because, when stripped of their original context and of TV’s visual distractions, most of what the interviewees say isn’t terribly interesting, and partly because Bragg’s observations seldom rise above the lazy and/or cliched.

And so we’re informed that Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser were “a princely couple in London intellectual life”, that Andrew Lloyd Webber is “a phenomenon with a streak of genius” and that Pavarotti was “the voice and face of opera” and “undeniably in the Premier League”.

That there’s far too much of this guff isn’t surprising, given that Bragg has always been an enthusiast rather than an analyst — not for him the dissenting voice or the sceptical inquiry. Such enthusiasm, allied to his boyishly eager demeanour, suited his television role, but it’s deadening on the page, especially if it shades into excessive reverence, when it makes for very dull reading — as in the chapters on David Lean, Ingmar Bergman and Seamus Heaney, though I liked his phrase about the Irish poet’s “modest grandness”.

In fact, almost all of these people have been more engagingly and absorbingly interviewed elsewhere (if you want serious insights into literary figures Canongate has published four volumes of the famous Paris Review interviews with 20th-century writers), and I honestly can’t imagine who would want to read a ragbag of encounters with the people mentioned above, along with such much-publicised luminaries as Eric Clapton, Judi Dench, Barry Humphries, Victoria Wood, Tracey Emin and Iggy Pop.

But I’ll miss The South Bank Show itself when it comes to the end of its current valedictory run.

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