Paul, punk and Sir Michael keep the South Bank bursting… 

16 November 2023

Panoramic shot of the South Bank of the Thames from the northern banks

Picture by Bernard Fallon


TVTimes cover

From the TVTimes for week commencing 23 June 1979

FROM Paul McCartney to Sir Michael Tippett … from high pop to highbrow … Melvyn Bragg, the TV culture vulture, has to be a particularly artful middle man to satisfy the diverse tastes of all The South Bank Show viewers.

And the successful show’s 39-year-old king-pin certainly has something to blow his own trumpet about in this respect.

He has managed to strike the right chord with classical music lovers and punk rockers, draw a fine line between the interests in contemporary painters and old masters — and keep his everchanging audiences coming back for more.

Bragg, who edits and presents the programme with unfailing freshness and originality, also generates many of the ideals [sic] for the content.

But, although he and his lively team of researchers and producers dream of pleasing most of the viewers most of the time, he realises that this is impossible for any arts show with this format.

In Sunday’s programme, the last in the series, Bragg aims at grabbing the serious music fans by focusing on Britain’s greatest living composer, Sir Michael Tippett. A far cry from Paul McCartney, the subject of the first show.

Sir Michael, still prolific at 74, is staling work on a triple concerto and has just finished his fourth string quartet. He tells of his development as a composer and his admiration for Beethoven.

Even the gritty humour of Scottish comic Billy Connolly has had a place in the show.

Movie buffs have been kept in the picture, too, with stars such as Ingrid Bergman agreeing to a South Bank interview.



Bragg says: “We are ITV’s major arts programme and we have an adequate, but not lavish, budget. We had to make certain decisions about what we were going to do in literature, classical music, non-classical music, theatre, television drama, rock, ballet and opera, and map out the art scene.”

But what about a recent punk item? Can punk really be considered an art?

Bragg says: “Punk is part of our treatment of rock, and we’ve tried to treat rock seriously as part of an arts programme. The rock world of the past two years has been in a disturbing state.

“I mean, the energy has been coming from the punk people while the older-established stars have seemed to be coasting along and not inventing anything new.

“They seem to have become, as it were, showbiz celebrities instead of rock artists working away. We wanted to show we’re not ignoring that territory.

“With our punk item [which featured the band Stiff Little Fingers] we did what we could call one of our up-and-coming pieces, reporting on what was happening in rock.”


Stiff Little Fingers

Stiff Little Fingers: “We tried to treat rock seriously,” says Bragg


Although Bragg holds on to the reins of the programme tightly, he still depends heavily on his team of researchers and producers.

“I’ve got an excellent team,” he says. “They work a year ahead and can tell me about every major film being made in 15 countries, every major theatrical production coming up, every exhibition.”

Bragg is bursting with ideas and enthusiasm for the show. His suggestion to make a major programme on Sir Michael Tippett was gladly taken up by Alan Benson, the music expert in the team, although he admits he doesn’t always see eye to eye with Bragg.

Making the film presented Benson with some special challenges. He says: “The mere fact that I know we will get at least 2,500,000 people switching on at the beginning of the programme is an immense responsibility.

“I don’t want them switching off again after the first couple of minutes because they find the music too difficult.”



Benson had what is described as an audition when he went to Sir Michael’s home in Wiltshire. “He is a charming, but daunting man. It was like sitting an examination. He’s so intellectually bright that he doesn’t let a thing pass. But he is a dynamic talker, a great advantage to a programme of this sort.”

Sir Michael had sat and said things only a great figure of his age could get away with, such as: “My parents had this great problem with me because I was intellectually brilliant as a child.” But he said it with a gleam in his eye and no conceit, says Benson.

Another series of The South Bank Show is planned for the late autumn, and Bragg says: “The fact that we were affectionately sent up on The Benny Hill Show, which reaches about 10 million viewers, proves we must be in the consciousness of a lot of people.

“The British people, and I include myself, are rather slow to take to new ideas, especially when the arts are involved, but I think we are getting there.”


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