If South Bank Show presenter Melvyn Bragg is just the distant drone of an adenoidal Spitting Image puppet to you, I urge you to iPlayer Melvyn Bragg: Wigton to Westminster (BBC2), an unexpectedly touching film by Olivia Lichtenstein about the 75-year-old curator of the nation’s cultural treasures.
A willing queue of authors, actors, artists and old schoolfriends forms to talk about their comrade and champion, complimenting everything from his dancing to his Exocet-like need to get where he is going, whether it’s the top of Helvellyn or his radio studio in time for the start of his weekly history show, In Our Time.
Lichtenstein judges Bragg’s entrance skilfully. Filming his arrival at Broadcasting House, we’re in his wake, sweeping through the front doors and settling into his studio chair, good naturedly effing and jeffing about the taxi driver who refused to take his direction and nearly made him late. He still has the vim and enthusiasm of an exasperated head boy explaining his late arrival to the debating society.
But his formative years weren’t the bookish idyll I’d imagined when I sat down to watch. On a visit to his childhood home of Wigton in Cumbria, he recalls his early life with his mother while his father was away at war. Mother and son both fell victim to TB and then his dad’s return after four years caused tension, deposing him as his mother’s favourite. Walking up the aisle of his local church, he recalls his first Sunday morning reading as a terrified six-year-old, climbing up behind the carved wooden eagle on the lectern, barely able to see over the top. Belying that outward confidence, he admits that he still shakes with fear before public speaking engagements.
Most striking of all is Bragg’s honesty and willingness to be transparent about the more difficult periods in his life. He follows a frank discussion about his teenage nervous breakdown with the admission that he will always feel the darkness of his first wife’s suicide in the 1970s “like a tumour”.
The way he describes his 13-year-old self, suffering out-of-body visions where his very essence seemed to leave him and float just beyond the corner of his eye, quite floored me. He admits they frightened the life out of him and led to a mental collapse. But then he discovered The Maid of Buttermere by Wordsworth from The Prelude and it seemed to describe what he was experiencing almost exactly. He took great comfort from seeing himself in the work and, because Wordsworth was Cumbrian-born too, began to visit the places in the poems to soothe his mind. How many of us could talk so lucidly and plainly about the crazy and often terrifying stuff that preoccupied our teenage minds? It’s disarming to say the least and left me with a deeper respect for one of our finest broadcasters.
London’s Lost Graveyard: The Crossrail Discovery (Channel 4) goes beneath the surface too, but in a much noisier fashion. It examines the archaeological findings unearthed during the excavation of new train tunnels under London. But it suffers from a glut of hyperbole, from the ridiculously overblown music to Robert Lindsay’s almost hysterical (in both senses) narration. For a documentary about the uncovering of some 300-year-old bones (lots of them, admittedly) everyone involved seems to have snorted coffee grounds straight from the bag. The old Bethlehem burying ground unearthed near Liverpool Street station is fascinating in itself and doesn’t need the bang-crash-crikey treatment given here.
Every narrative titbit is laced with “London’s biggest” this or the “world’s most exciting” that. Despite the heavy window-dressing, the information is in there somewhere. The burial ground opened in 1569 and provided an overflow for London’s full churchyards. Those found underneath were ordinary folk, buried at close quarters one on top of another, and much information is being gleaned about 17th-century city life from their remains.
It reminded me of that Aesop story about the sun and the north wind having a contest to see which of them can get a man to take his coat off. The wind blows noisily with all its might and the man pulls his coat tighter about him. But then the sun gently shines, warming him until he wants to take his coat off voluntarily. Documentary-making, the conveying of information, could do with less of the north wind.