Melvyn Bragg on Ken Russell and his extraordinary new book

Melvyn Bragg. ( Picture by Simon Hulme)
Melvyn Bragg. ( Picture by Simon Hulme)

Interview by Graham Chalmers

Melvyn Bragg still misses Ken Russell, a man so unfairly maligned and down on his luck in his final years this forgotten genius of film-making once visited Harrogate to review a student film.

“To its shame, the BBC wouldn’t employ him in his last 10 years, “ says Bragg. “It was sad. I worked with Ken many times over the years. He always had that great flair. There were still flashes of ideas towards the end. I loved him for that.”

Lord Bragg himself is coming to Harrogate shortly to talk about his gripping new historical fiction novel, Now is The Time.

His appearance at Harrogate History Festival at the Old Swan Hotel on Sunday, October 25 is by no means the first time this master of the arts’ path has crossed with Harrogate’s.

Still as charming as ever at the age of 75, the renowned broadcaster and writer visited the town as recently as 2011 for Harrogate International Festivals to talk about his well-received The Book of Books on the radical impact of the King James Bible.

Currently chancellor of the University of Leeds, Bragg may have been a prominent figure in Britain’s cultural establishment since the 1970s but he’s never turned his back on his northern roots as a working class grammar school from Cumbria who first joined the BBC way back in 1961.

And something of that outsider spirit comes across in his latest novel, Now Is The Time which tells of an extraordinary episode in British history.

Set in 1381 when the people of England marched to London to protest against unfair taxes and,corruption, the book’s sympathies lie less with the court and its various intrigues and more with the movement’s rebel leader, Wat Tyler and his heartfelt idealism.

I tell him I think the book comes alive when it focuses on Tyler’s own soul searching in a manner which makes this legendary rebel appear like a real person rather than a heroic caricature.

Melvyn said: “Wat Tyler thought the young king Richard II had fallen into the hands of corrupt people. He was grieving for a lost England.

“The idea of attacking people within his own country weighed heavily on him. Although he had been a soldier, he wanted the revolt to be peaceful and it largely was until London.”

Now Is The Time is Bragg’s first work of historical fiction since 1996 when Credo, an epic story set in seventh century Britain, sold hundreds of thousands of copies in an era long before Hilary Mantel brought historical fiction to a new audience.

On the whole his latest book has been very well received, except in the case of a certain review in The Guardian by the historian Juliet Barker.

Bragg may be supremely likable with a twinkle in his eye but don’t be fooled by the soothing voice and charming manners.

When it matters he tells it as it is.

“The book’s had wonderful reviews in The Times and, surprisingly, the Mail. She’s just published her own history book on the same subject, which came out after I wrote Now Is The Time.

“If people don’t like something it’s their right to do so but she makes several factual errors in her review. She doesn’t know much about historical fiction.”

As audiences at his forthcoming appearance courtesy of Harrogate International Festivals will undoubtedly hear, the book is quietly steeped in the age-old north-south divide and the economic dominance of London.

In a passage which sounds all-too familiar to the modern reader, at one point the book describes how ‘many believed it was the city, not the government that now controlled policy’ - or words to that affect.

Despite his own politics; he was ennobled by Tony Blair in 1998 in the first flush of New Labour, he denies point blank that Now Is The Time has any clear-cut parallels to current times.

Instead he sees the book, and the story of Wat Tyler, as part of a long-time theme in his own work over the years in books, radio and TV.

“Wat Tyler is the orphan of English history. The people in the English Civil War referenced Wyler and his ideas. It had its roots in his time.”

Despite ITV ditching The South Back Show in 2009 after 33 years, this landmark show is still going strong on its new home at Sky Arts.

There aren’t many figures who’ve played a more instrumental role in bridging the gap between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture in the last half century than Melvyn Bragg.

Not that he’s one to believe the hype.

When I say I still like those often over-looked wildeyed films of the late 1960s and early 1970s such as The Music Lovers, that insanely lavish biography of Tchaikovsky he wrote for the brilliant maverick Ken Russell, his reply is honest and matter of fact.

“It was an okay script. It wasn’t up to much really. It had to be changed a lot. It didn’t help that one of the actresses had a breakdown on set.

Melvyn Bragg is at Harrogate History Festival at the Old Swan Hotel on Sunday, October 25 at 11.30am.

For tickets, visit Harrogate History Festival tickets