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'TV changes how we see our lives'

He's been in the industry for six decades so, asks Gemma Dunn, who better to dissect the impact of television than Melvyn Bragg?


Melvyn Bragg, Ken Loach, Abi Morgan and Trevor Phillips on The Box That Changed the World

Melvyn Bragg, Ken Loach, Abi Morgan and Trevor Phillips on The Box That Changed the World

Melvyn Bragg, Ken Loach, Abi Morgan and Trevor Phillips on The Box That Changed the World

Lord Melvyn Bragg is sharing his earliest memory of TV. "It was the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II," he recalls fondly. "We didn't have a television, but a friend of mine did and a lot of us went to his house.

"It was rather like going to the cinema; there was just one television set in the corner, and it was amazing to see it happen. On this little box, a part of history before our very eyes.

"And that was a take-off point for the sale of television sets in this country. For people's affection for, and addiction to, television." Sixty-four years on - 75 since its inception - and the small screen, purportedly deemed a "craze" in the fabulous Fifties, has had an impact like no other.

For one, it has made the world an open place, says Bragg (77).

"We don't realise that, 75 years ago, the world was closed to most people," explains the Cumbria-born star.

"They knew their village, they knew their town, they knew a little bit about this and that from geography books, but in terms of seeing - and seeing is believing and believing is seeing - little went on.

"Today we're part of the world in a way that we never have been before - we can be present at a State opening of Parliament, we can be present when bombs are going off in Iraq. We're at these things and we're not participants - we are viewers who are there when it's happening.

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"And that again, I think, has an extraordinary effect on people. I haven't quite worked out what it is, but it is extraordinary." Perhaps hosting his latest BBC Two show, Melvyn Bragg on TV: The Box That Changed the World, will provide the answers.

In tonight's two-hour special, which was filmed at Bafta, Bragg is joined by some of the industry's most important figures to look at the pivotal impact that British television - from social change to breaking down reserve - has had in the last 60 years.

"It's a sort of revolution of the senses, really... a revolution of the mind," says the former editor and presenter of The South Bank Show. "It's really changed the way we see our lives." One such switch is the surge in reality TV and, within that, the redefined status of 'celebrity'.

"I think talent helps," Bragg jokes, when the subject is broached. "But I think what television has done in a few areas is amplified what was already there.

"Years ago, there was a programme called Opportunity Knocks, which was basically the same thing.

"Young hopefuls came and sang a song or did a dance or whatever, and they went to the final and they won and they became celebrities. It's now on a bigger scale, but the idea of plucking talent out of the population, out of the mass of people, has been there for a long time."

Yet with one-time taboos, such as sex, making the jump from drama into reality TV, as seen on shows like ITV2's Love Island, are the boundaries becoming too blurred?

"Search me!" replies Bragg, suddenly coy. "There doesn't seem to be much that can't be covered, does there?

"On the big television channels, there should be rules, but otherwise we'll just see how far it goes without breaking the law. If it breaks the law and if it affects, for the worse, other people, then of course it should be stopped."

In the Bragg household, it's simply finding the time to sit down and enjoy the telly that's the real problem. "There's an awful lot of good stuff, but my complaint to myself is I don't watch enough good television - I wish I had time to watch more," the broadcaster says.

"But the older you get, the more selective you get. I listen to quite a lot of radio news and television. I love some of the drama, some of the sport, some of the documentaries. I roam across the screen like I used to do, except perhaps not in as great a quantity as I used to."

Does he have any guilty pleasures?

"Somebody's guilty pleasure is somebody else's obvious viewing," retorts the twice-married father-of-three. "I'm a bit addicted to watching certain sports, but I don't think that's a guilty pleasure."

Confessing he sometimes tunes into reality shows "to see what they're like", he adds: "I think I feel good about all my pleasures - I don't think any of them are guilty."

As for the global success of such streaming sites as Netflix and Amazon, Bragg, a long-standing employee of the BBC, is an advocate for the changing landscape of TV.

"Its good material, good productions, so good for them," he says, quick to quash tensions between platforms old and new.

"There's always snobbery in this country. It's a waste of time bothering about it. Everybody settles down and people are snobbish until the next thing comes along and then they're snobbish about the last thing. People were snobbish about television when television came in. They didn't realise what they were missing out on. They said, 'I don't watch television' and I used to think, 'Well, it shows', or 'I feel rather sorry for you'."

  • Melvyn Bragg on TV: The Box That Changed the World, BBC Two, today, 9pm

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