Bragg, Melvyn 1939–
Bragg, Melvyn 1939–
PERSONAL: Born October 6, 1939, in Wigton, Cumberland, England; son of Stanley (a shopkeeper) and Mary Ethel Bragg; married Marie-Elisabeth Roche, June 26, 1961 (died September 1, 1971); married Catherine Mary Haste (a writer, television producer, and director), December 18, 1974; children: (first marriage) Marie-Elsa; (second marriage) one daughter, one son. Education: Wadham College, Oxford, M.A. (with honors), 1961. Hobbies and other interests: Walking, books.
ADDRESSES: Home—London, England; and Cumbria, England.
CAREER: British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC), London, England, producer, 1961–67 and 1974–77, including producer of series Monitor, 1963–68, episodes of The South Bank Show, 1982, 1992, and as executive producer of Johnny and the Dead, 1995, Clear Cool Crystal Stream, 1995, This Is Not an Exit: The Fictional World of Bret Easton Ellis, 2000, Broken Morning, 2003, and The Story of ITV: The People's Channel, 2005; series producer of The Adventure of English, 2002; presenter of Second House series, 1973–77, presenter and editor of Read All about It series, 1976–77, also presenter of The Routes of English radio series; BBC2, editor, New Release (first BBC2 arts program), beginning c. 1964, chair, The Darwin Debate, 1999; ITV, London Weekend Television, London, presenter and editor of South Bank Show, 1978–, head of arts, 1982–90, controller of arts, 1990–, presenter of Two Thousand Years series; Radio 4, writer and presenter of Start the Week, 1988–c. 1998, presenter of Giants' Shoulders, c. 1999; LWT Productions (television company), director and controller of arts; writer and presenter of In Our Time series. Coproducer with Gavin Miller, An Artist's Story, BBC Television/Time-Life films-coproduction. Cast member, Norbert Smith—A Life, Channel Four, 1989, WETA-TV, 1990; interviewer in the video recording Laurence Olivier: A Life, c. 1993. London School of Economics, governor, 1997–; University of Leeds, Leeds, England, chancellor, 1999–. Border Television, deputy chair, 1985–90, chair, 1990–. President, Cumbrians for Peace, 1982–90 amd 1996–98, Northern Arts, 1983–87, and National Campaign for the Arts, 1986–; Arts Council Literature Panel, member, 1969–76, chair, 1977–c. 1980; Reith Lectures, chair, c. 1999.
MEMBER: Royal Society of Literature (fellow), Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians, PEN, Garrick Club.
AWARDS, HONORS: Writers Guild Award, 1966, for screenplay; John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize, Mail on Sunday, 1968; prose award, Northern Arts Association, 1970; Time/Life Silver Pen Award, 1970, for The Hired Man; Ivor Novello Award for best British musical, 1984, for The Hired Man: A Musical; Broadcasting Press Guild award, 1984; D.Litt., Liverpool University, 1986, and University of Lancaster, 1990; Domus fellow, St. Catherine's College, Oxford, 1990; British Association of Film and Television Arts award, 1995, for An Interview with Dennis Potter; Life Peer, National Campaign for the Arts, 1998; named a Life Peer (Lord Bragg of Wigton), 1998; W.H. Smith Literary Award, 1999, for The Soldier's Return; Booker Prize nomination, 2001, for A Son of War; longlisted for Booker Prize, 2003, for Crossing the Lines; a drama school in Millom, Cumbria, England, was named in Bragg's honor in 2005; Richard Dimbleby Award for highest television achievement in the United Kingdom.
For Want of a Nail, Knopf (New York, NY), 1965.
The Second Inheritance, Secker & Warburg, 1966, Knopf (New York, NY), 1967.
Without a City Wall, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1968, Knopf (New York, NY), 1969.
The Hired Man (first book in the "Cumbrian" trilogy; also see below), Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1969, Knopf (New York, NY), 1970.
A Place in England (second book in the "Cumbrian" trilogy; also see below), Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1970, Knopf (New York, NY), 1971.
Josh Lawton, Knopf (New York, NY), 1972.
The Hunt, 1972.
The Nerve Knopf (New York, NY), 1972.
The Silken Net, Knopf (New York, NY), 1974.
Speak for England, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1976, Knopf (New York, NY), 1977.
Autumn Manoeuvres, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1978.
Kingdom Come (third book in the "Cumbrian" trilogy; also see below), Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1980.
Love and Glory, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1983.
The Cumbrian Trilogy (contains The Hired Man, A Place in England, and Kingdom Come), Coronet (London, England), 1984.
The Maid of Buttermere, Putnam (New York, NY), 1987.
A Time to Dance, Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1990, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1992.
Crystal Rooms, Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1992.
The Seventh Seal, BFI Publishing (London, England), 1993.
Credo, Sceptre (London, England), 1996.
The Sword and the Miracle, Random House (New York, NY), 1997.
The Soldier's Return (first novel in a trilogy), Sceptre (London, England), 1999.
A Son of War (second novel in a trilogy), Secker & Warburg (London, England), 2001.
Crossing the Lines (third novel in a trilogy), Sceptre (London, England), 2003.
Monitor (television series), 1958.
(With Ken Russell) The Debussy File (for television), 1965.
(With Clive Exton and Margaret Drabble) Isadora, Universal, 1968.
Play Dirty, United Artists, 1970.
The Music Lovers, United Artists, 1970.
Charity Begins at Home (for television), British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC), 1970.
Zinotchka (for television), BBC, 1972.
(With Norman Jewison) Jesus Christ Superstar, Universal, 1973.
(With Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley) Orion (for television), 1977.
Clouds of Glory (for television), ITV, 1978.
Land of the Lakes (for television; first broadcast 1983), Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1983, Norton (New York, NY), 1984, 2nd edition, Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1990.
The Story of ITV: The People's Channel (television miniseries), 2005.
Robin Hood (radio play), 1971.
(Author of introduction and contributor) John Peel: The Man, the Myth, and the Song: A Book to Celebrate His Bi-Centenary, Cumbria Weekly Digest (Carlisle, England), 1976.
Mardi Gras (play), produced in London, England, 1976.
A Christmas Child (short story; for children), illustrated by Hugo va der Goes, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1976.
Prince of Wales (play), 1976.
Speak for England: An Essay on England, 1900–1975, Based on Interviews with Inhabitants of Wigton, Cumberland, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1976, revised edition, Coronet (London, England), 1978, published as Speak for England: An Oral History of England, 1900–1975, Based on Interviews with Inhabitants of Wigton, Cumberland, Knopf (New York, NY), 1976.
(Editor) My Favorite Stories of Lakeland (anthology; for children), Lutterworth Press (Cambridge, England), 1981.
Laurence Olivier (biography), Hutchinson (London, England), 1984, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1985.
(Editor) Cumbria in Verse, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1984.
(With Howard Goodall) The Hired Man: A Musical (libretto; produced in London, England, 1984; also see below), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1986.
King Lear in New York (play), 1992.
(With Ruth Gardiner) On Giants' Shoulders: Great Scientists and Their Discoveries: From Archimedes to DNA (based on the television program), Wiley (New York, NY), 1998.
The Routes of English (based on the television series), BBC Education, 2001.
The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language (based on the television series), Arcade (New York, NY), 2004.
12 Books that Changed the World, Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 2006.
Author of introduction to Enid J. Wilson's Country Diary, Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1989; contributor to Winter's Tales 18, edited by A.D. Maclean, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1972, and Vision: 50 Years of British Creativity, Thames & Hudson (New York, NY), 1999. Contributor to periodicals, including Listener and New Review.
ADAPTATIONS: A Time to Dance was televised in 1992.
SIDELIGHTS: Melvyn Bragg is widely known throughout England as both a novelist and television personality. In the United States, he is most often recognized as the author of the biography Richard Burton: A Life and for his work on television's South Bank Show.
Bragg brings his varied interests together in his writing. He pens novels of traditional life in the English countryside as well as biographies of international film stars. His roots in the northern England area of Cumberland and the Lake District often are reflected in his work, from his tales of regional historical fiction, such as The Hired Man and The Maid of Buttermere, to his treatises on both his hometown of Wigton, Cumberland, and the Lake District in general. Additionally, his experience and background in the television and entertainment industry aided the research for his biographies of Laurence Olivier and Richard Burton. Of Bragg's historical fiction writing, critics have noted the author's strong interest in the English working class. Saturday Review contributor Clancy Sigal found that Bragg's characters express an "undercurrent of anger, even bitterness, against the centuries-old class system."
About The Hired Man, a novel exploring class and expectations set in Victorian Cumberland, a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement commented that the work is "largely concerned with the changing attitudes among working men during this century towards being 'hired'—or employed, exploited, used." The reviewer felt that "Bragg is a good novelist but his narrative is clogged by heavy phrasing, especially when trying to report the self-communication of his characters. When he tells us what they said, what they did, how they and their environment appear to the author, he is consistently successful."
Another of Bragg's historical novels, The Maid of Buttermere, addresses a real-life event that occurred in 1802: a young Lake District girl—Mary Robinson, the "beauty of Buttermere"—became the bride of a titled newcomer, who in fact was actually an impoverished impostor who fooled the whole town with his pretensions. The novel examines the social and emotional repercussions of such a betrayal of trust. Anna Vaux noted in the Times Literary Supplement that "Bragg makes use of documentary detail both to heighten the tale and to reclaim 'the real' from what has been invented." Mary Lide suggested in the Washington Post: "For readers of historical fiction this novel will have a certain appeal. Basically, however, it is a psychological study, and the historical setting and natural environment are subservient to that goal."
In A Time to Dance, Bragg again sets his story in a small Cumbrian town in the Lake District, although the action occurs in the present. The novel, essentially a series of graphic, sexually explicit love letters written by a staid, middle-aged married man to his teenaged mistress, "makes wild lurches," according to Richard Eder in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. "When the narrator gathers his wits, to recount the beginning of the affair, it is taut and absorbing." Jane O'Grady asserted in the Times Literary Supplement that the book "clearly purports to deliver a message for our time—that sex can provide a meaning to everything, but only when it is 'twinned' with love." Victoria Glendinning observed in the London Times that A Time to Dance "is the classic male-menopausal wish-fulfillment novel (greying, older man transformed by sensational sex with adoring bimbo), and as such [is] a recipe for embarrassing disaster. No one can know that better than the author, so it is a brave undertaking." Glendinning added that "Melvyn Bragg has proved that he can write about sexual love, not as dirty bits, but as world-shatteringly pleasurable. His novel is not world-shattering, but it's pleasurable."
Bragg presented readers with his historical novel The Sword and the Miracle in 1997. The book explores "an obscure period of early English history … a time when Christianity has barely begun to take root in British soil," reported Mary Ellen Quinn in Booklist. Set in the seventh century, the long novel follows Bega, a Celtic princess with a spiritual calling, and Padric, an English prince. By arrangement, Bega is to marry an aggressive man, but she shares a mutual love for Padric. Her marriage plans are avoided and Bega and Padric leave Ireland, moving to Britain where they follow different paths, one toward religion, the other into battle. According to Barbara Hoffert in the Library Journal, Bragg's "prose is at best unremarkable and at times heavy-handed" but The Sword and the Miracle's "exacting detail … draws in the reader." Ultimately, judged Hoffert, this "solid novel" proves to be a "satisfying" read. "Bragg's superb portrait of a heroic woman torn between marriage and religion distinguishes this book in the crowded field of early medieval chronicles," concluded a Publishers Weekly reviewer.
With his trilogy consisting of The Soldier's Return, A Son of War, and Crossing the Lines, Bragg created a lengthy tale that draws heavily on his early life. Set in post-war England in the author's own home town of Wigton, Cumberland, it is about the difficulties of adjusting to changes in life. In the first book of the trilogy, Sam Richardson returns home after serving in Burma during World War II. While it may have been hard for Sam to go to war and travel abroad for the first time in his life, coming home proves to be just as difficult. Though not highly educated, his relationship with his soldier comrades had exposed him to stimulating intellectual conversation, something he does not find back home or in his factory job. He also finds his job demeaning and longs for more. Meanwhile, his wife wants to keep her two jobs rather than return to housework, and Sam finds his son, Joe, has become too interested in music and dance for his taste, so he tries to teach the boy boxing. Sam's time away from his family makes it an ordeal for him to become reacquainted with them, and when he becomes tempted to take a job in Australia, his family resists until he gives in. As a consolation, he becomes the landlord of a pub so he can be his own boss, but he worries that it means non-stop work for him and his wife. Critics of The Soldier's Return found it to be a powerful tale of small-town life and ordinary people vying against limited opportunities. For example, Library Journal contributor Susan Clifford Braun praised the novel as "thoughtful, sensitive, and alive to the raw edges of relationships under repair." A Kirkus Reviews critic described it as "powerful in an understated way: a splendid portrait of a world on the verge of a new era."
Continuing the story of the Richardsons in A Son of War, Bragg focuses more on young Joe's coming of age years. His mother sees in her son a bright boy who could do much greater things than stay in Wigton, while his father still suffers from depression and his inability to reconnect with Joe. One reviewer, Francis Gilbert in the New Statesman, felt that Bragg makes a mistake by not telling this second installment from Joe's point of view, rather than continuing the third-person voice of the first novel. Gilbert added that the second novel is also "much less dramatic" because the situations are too familiar from the first book. "The most interesting sections of the book are at the end," asserted Gilbert, referring to the passages that focus on Joe. On the other hand, Mary Whipple, writing for the Mostly Fiction Web site, had praise for A Son of War, commenting on Bragg's effective use of simple language: "Bragg's interest is not in creating a 'literary' novel as much as it is in recreating real (ordinary) lives. In this he is completely successful, creating a broad picture of the postwar era through the details of one family's struggle." Braun, in another Library Journal article, asserted that A Son of War shows that "Bragg is a marvelous writer with a light and understated style that easily evokes memory of postwar England."
Set in the late 1950s, Crossing the Lines pays full attention to Joe, as he becomes a young man, works at his parents' pub, gains an opportunity to attend Oxford University, and falls in love. It is, again, a tale of adjustment as Joe finds himself at one of the world's most prestigious universities, where he is extremely intimidated by the intellectual muscle and social traditions of his new environment. A Kirkus Reviews writer described the closing book of the trilogy as "an intelligent tribute to a heroic era and its aftermath, short on poetry but not on gravitas." "Devoted Anglophiles in particular," reported a Publishers Weekly critic, "will find much to appreciate in this unhurried examination of postwar English life."
For his nonfiction book Speak for England: An Essay on England, 1900–1975, Based on Interviews with Inhabitants of Wigton, Cumberland, the author spent five years conducting interviews in his hometown of five thousand inhabitants. Bragg's interview subjects represent people of diverse ages and socio-economic status; they spoke to Bragg of their individual lives and memories, in some cases dating back to the turn of the century. A New Yorker reviewer considered the book to be "exceptionally cheerful," while Newsweek contributor Walter Clemons, declaring that Bragg "has done his work with thoroughness and affection," compared the book to works by Ronald Blythe and Studs Terkel. Clemons concluded that "his book is most eloquent when he openly expresses his satisfaction in the tough individuality of the people he grew up among and his pride that they still consider him one in whom they can confide." In the New York Times Book Review, Raymond Williams wrote that despite some of the inferences Bragg makes from his various conversations, he considered the work to be "a basically honest, careful and serious book, full of interesting detail about the lives of people in Wigton."
Bragg again pays literary homage to his birthplace in Land of the Lakes, "in effect a labor of love and a tribute to all that is in his blood," according to Richard Adams in the Washington Post Book World. Adams mentioned several misgivings about the book, including "a certain hyperbolic warmth of style which at times verges on traveloguese" and that "Bragg often descends to the chatty." Yet the reviewer perceived the book to be, overall, "a very honest piece of work, handsomely produced, lavishly illustrated with excellent photographs and reproductions and well worth the price."
Bragg's biography of actor Richard Burton, published in England as Rich: The Life of Richard Burton and subsequently in the United States as Richard Burton, relies heavily upon pages and pages of personal journals written by Burton himself and released by his fourth wife, Sally Hay, for Bragg's use. John Osborne indicated in the New York Review of Books that "this is not so much the authorized version as the widow's version, for she … entrusted Bragg with Burton's unpublished notebooks and made clear her ideas of how her late, brief husband should be respected and represented." Many reviewers felt that Burton's own words provide a compelling and intriguing glimpse into the complex man who died in 1984 at age fifty-eight. In New York magazine, Rita Koenig declared: "Bragg's greatest asset … is his access to Burton's diaries, a far cry from the usual chitchat of show-business journals." Newsweek contributor Cathleen McGuigan remarked: "The treats here are in the diary passages—domestic poetry written in Burton's witty, often humble voice." Although Caryn James wrote in the New York Times that she considered Bragg's prose to be "overwrought," the critic commended "the journal fragments that give the book its only true value." David Kaufman concluded in the New York Times Book Review: "Posterity should be grateful for the handful of Burton's superb film portrayals … and that Sally Burton, his fourth and last wife, overrode Burton's wishes and supplied Mr. Bragg with the notebooks that corroborate his greatness as an actor even as they document his frustrations as a human being."
Some of Bragg's nonfiction books have been based on his television and radio work. Among these are the titles On Giants' Shoulders: Great Scientists and Their Discoveries: From Archimedes to DNA and The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language. The former takes an entertaining approach to discuss twelve of the world's most influential intellectuals, ranging from Archimedes and Isaac Newton to more contemporary scientists, such as Sigmund Freud and Marie Curie. "The stories are personal, historically and scientifically interesting—and bound to capture the imagination of scientist and layperson alike," commented Thomas L. Isenhour in the American Scientist. With The Adventure of English, Bragg turns the history of the language into an exciting yarn stretching from the days of King Alfred, when English very well could have disappeared due to the influence of foreign invaders, to modern days, when it has become perhaps the most widely spoken tongue in the world. Spectator critic Andrew Roberts called the history simply "superb." Marianne Orme, writing in the Library Journal, concluded that Bragg's sociological approach to the evolution of language makes it "more readable to a broader audience than similar titles yet also satisfying to scholars."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 10, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1979.
Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 14: British Novelists since 1960, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1983.
Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1994.
American Scientist, September, 1999, Thomas L. Isen-hour, "Brushes with Greatness," review of On Giants' Shoulders: Great Scientists and Their Discoveries: From Archimedes to DNA, p. 475.
Booklist October 1, 1997, Mary Ellen Quinn, review of The Sword and the Miracle, p. 306; August, 2002, Emily Melton, review of The Soldier's Return, p. 1919.
Geographical, December, 2003, Mick Herron, review of The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language, p. 87.
Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2002, review of The Soldier's Return, p. 1054; June 15, 2003, review of A Son of War, p. 818; July 15, 2005, review of Crossing the Lines, p. 749.
Library Journal, October 15, 1997, Barbara Hoffert, review of The Sword and the Miracle, p. 90; August, 2002, Susan Clifford Braun, review of The Soldier's Return, p. 140; July, 2003, Susan Clifford Braun, review of A Son of War, p. 119; May 1, 2004, Marianne Orme, review of The Adventure of English, p. 105.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 26, 1989, Richard Eder, review of A Time to Dance, p. 2.
New Statesman, July 2, 2001, Francis Gilbert, "Novel of the Week," review of A Son of War, p. 55.
Newsweek, February 28, 1977, Walter Clemons, review of Speak for England, pp. B73-74; February 13, 1989, Cathleen McQuigen, review of Richard Burton, p. 77.
New York, February 20, 1989, Rita Koenig, review of Richard Burton, p. 64.
New Yorker, March 14, 1977, review of Speak for England, p. 139.
New York Review of Books, April 27, 1989, John Osborne, review of Richard Burton, p. 24.
New York Times, February 22, 1989, Caryn James, review of Richard Burton, p. C21.
New York Times Book Review, February 27, 1977, Raymond Williams, review of Speak for England, p. 3; March 12, 1989, David Kaufman, review of Richard Burton, pp. 15-16.
Publishers Weekly, August 25, 1997, review of The Sword and the Miracle, p. 44; April 5, 2004, review of The Adventure of English, p. 52; August 1, 2005, review of Crossing the Lines, p. 45.
Saturday Review, February 19, 1977, Clancy Sigal, review of Speak for England, p. 24.
Spectator, November 15, 2003, Andrew Roberts, "A Continuation of Empire by Other Means," review of The Adventure of English, p. 53; May 13, 2006, Bevis Hillier, "Books Do Furnish a TV Series," review of 12 Books that Changed the World.
Times (London, England), June 14, 1990, Victoria Glendinning, review of A Time to Dance.
Times Literary Supplement, October 23, 1969, review of The Hired Man, p. 1225; April 24, 1987, Anna Vaux, review of The Maid of Buttermere, p. 434; June 15, 1990, Jane O'Grady, review of A Time to Dance, p. 653.
Washington Post, June 25, 1987, Mary Lide, review of The Maid of Buttermere.
Washington Post Book World, August 5, 1984, Richard Adams, review of Land of the Lakes, p. 1.
Guardian Online, http://books.guardian.co.uk/ (June 22, 2003), Adam Mars-Jones, "Melvyn Bragg's 20th Novel, Crossing the Lines, Is Neither an Individual's Story nor a Portrait of a Community"; (July 5, 2005), Roy Hattersley, "Growing Pains: Crossing the Line, Melvyn Bragg's Latest Novel, May Be Unashamedly Autobiographical, but Roy Hattersley Doesn't Care."
Mostly Fiction, http://mostlyfiction.com/ (August 22, 2004), Mary Whipple, review of A Son of War.