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How the women in Melvyn Bragg's life have haunted his conscience but helped him with the dark times

In a new documentary about his life, the celebrated interviewer answers the questions for a change... and reveals how he never recovered from his first wife's suicide.

By Jeananne Craig

Published 16/07/2015

Happy marriage: Melvyn Bragg pictured recently with his wife Cate Haste, with whom he has two children
Happy marriage: Melvyn Bragg pictured recently with his wife Cate Haste, with whom he has two children
Melvyn Bragg and Joan Martos
Melvyn Bragg as a younger man
Melvyn Bragg and his wife Cate in 1988
Mary Ethel and her son Melvyn

He's interviewed the great and the good of the arts world over the years, from Dame Judi Dench to Dolly Parton, but Melvyn Bragg's latest project sees the focus set firmly on him - and the women who have helped shape his life.

Wigton To Westminster charts The South Bank Show presenter's journey from a working-class Cumbrian schoolboy to one of the nation's most recognisable broadcasters and authors.

And while the 75-year-old has previously confessed that he "hates" being interviewed about himself, he openly discusses topics including his early romance, an adolescent breakdown and dealing with the suicide of his first wife, Lisa, in 1971, following a decade of marriage.

The BBC Two documentary, by Bafta-winning producer and director Olivia Lichtenstein, sees Bragg's childhood friends recall him as a diligent, high-achieving boy - the only son of factory worker parents in the market town of Wigton.

Despite his happy early years, he suffered a nervous breakdown in his teenage years, and another one after Lisa's death.

He had married the French aristocratic art student aged just 21 after meeting her at an Oxford party. But he was unaware that she had a history of suicide attempts - and after the pair had separated, Lisa killed herself by jumping out of a window. Bragg went on to marry Cate Haste, with whom he has two children, but he has previously spoken of the toll his first wife's suicide took on him.

In 1998 he said: "'I could have done things which helped, and I did things which harmed. So yes, I feel guilt, I feel remorse."

Some seven years ago, he recounted the story of the relationship in fictional form in the novel Remember Me, but recently told The Sunday Times: "It's supposed to be therapy, but it was not. It made things far, far worse.

"It stirred the whole thing up again and it has been stirred up ever since. I don't want sympathy as I don't deserve it, but the fact is that I cannot get over her death."

After both nervous breakdowns, Bragg - a former president of mental health charity Mind - managed to cope by throwing himself into his work.

"I really love doing both of them (writing and broadcasting)," he says of his commitment work ethic.

"If I didn't, I don't know what I would do. I think if you do something you like, it gives you energy to do the next thing. People in jobs that they hate must be worn out."

The documentary also reveals the name of the real-life love behind the failed romance in his novel Crossing The Lines.

A farmer's daughter, Joan Martos, who was the inspiration for the character of Rachel, gives an interview during the programme about their relationship, saying it was young Bragg's dancing that won her heart at the tender age of 15.

"We had dances in the lunch hour once a week at school, I don't know why, probably to teach us to dance, although I don't remember being taught," says the 74-year-old.

"And I used to dance with Melvyn, he was a good dancer. He was good-looking. I just liked him. I never thought of him because he was clever or anything like that. He was just my boyfriend."

The pair continued the relationship throughout their teenage years and after Bragg won a scholarship to Oxford University. Then, when Joan was 19, Bragg told her father that he wanted to marry her, but was advised to wait until she was 21. However, Joan got cold feet and the couple broke up. On leaving Oxford, where he read modern history, Bragg joined the BBC as a trainee. In 1965, his debut novel, For Want Of A Nail, was published, and the author now has more than 20 novels to his name.

Presenting roles followed in BBC books show Read All About It and The South Bank Show, which has now run for almost 800 episodes. South Bank Show interviewees have included the aforementioned actress Dench (who describes Bragg in the new documentary as a "polymath"), artist David Hockney and playwright Harold Pinter.

There was also an infamous encounter in 1985 with artist Francis Bacon over champagne in the artist's London home, followed by a red wine-fuelled lunch - a classic of an interview that Bragg admits will probably "follow me to my grave".

One of his most emotional interviews came in 1994, with the terminally-ill dramatist Dennis Potter, shortly before his death from pancreatic cancer. The moving encounter, filmed for Channel 4's Without Walls, earned its presenter a Bafta.

"It was quite hard to keep calm in that," says Bragg, who also has one daughter from his first marriage.

"Sometimes, you're just moved by people's journeys. The film that I did with Angel Blue (the US opera singer Bragg interviewed for the 2014 series of The South Bank Show on Sky Arts) was talking about her early days, and they were really tough - when her father died, it was terrible for her. She couldn't contain herself, and you just thought, 'This kid really went through it, what a journey'."

Does he have a wishlist of dream interviewees? "Not really," he says. "If people don't want to do it, they don't want to do it; that's their business. I wanted to do a film with Samuel Beckett. I met him, we spent an afternoon together, which was lovely. It started in a pub and went on. He didn't want to do (an interview), but he wanted to chat, and that was fine. I loved his work; he was charming, calm, softly spoken, witty."

When it comes to his interviewing style, Bragg says preparation is key, along with establishing a decent line of questioning.

"If you've worked out a strong line, you can get a structure going," he adds. "A structure is a bit like a story. People will go along with you - they see where you're going. I don't get nervous when I'm interviewing someone on film - it can be cut, and we can do it again. It is quite nerve-racking doing things live."

In the documentary, Bragg - or Lord Bragg of Wigton, having been made a Labour life peer in 1998 - receives glowing tributes from well-known art and politics names, including Tracey Emin, Tony Blair and Joan Bakewell.

But despite his glittering, multi award-winning career, he admits that his mother, while proud of his success, may have preferred it if he'd stayed in Wigton, got married and lived a couple of streets away."Who knows?" he asks. "She may have been right..."

Bragg admits, however, that while he could picture a different life, it's "with no great enthusiasm". "I think I might have been a lecturer," he muses. "I couldn't do without writing, so I'd have been a writer who didn't have a job."

  • Melvyn Bragg - Wigton To Westminster will be broadcast on BBC2 on Saturday

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