Francis Bacon on the South Bank Show

Melvyn Bragg interviews the great Irish painter
Francis Bacon in his studio, seated. Photograph by Beldam
'I paint for myself. I don’t know how to do anything else, anyway. Also I have to earn my living, and occupy myself.'
Francis Bacon
What's nicer after a hard day's work than a documentary on Francis Bacon? Very little, I suspect. Especially if it's not so much a documentary as a one-to-one with the man himself.

Last night I found a classic episode from the archives of The South Bank Show, a long-running late-night arts programme that profiled some of the greatest artists, writers and celebrities of the twentieth century. The episode in question offers a glimpse into the life, work and passions of Irish-born painter Francis Bacon. We begin in the storeroom of the Tate Gallery in London, where a series of Bacon's works are run through a projector with Bacon himself offering his thoughts. It's an intimate setting, and a great introduction to Bacon's unique artistic approach.

What I liked most of all was the way the programme manages to dispel some of the key myths related to Bacon and his work. Not only do we get a real sense of the artist's sensibilities, but the public image of Bacon as a tortured and difficult artist is almost immediately put to rest. There's no doubting that his work deals with difficult, troubling, even horrofic themes, but it soon becomes clear that Bacon is an optimist at heart. He has a sweet, disarming smile and does not dwell on the negative as such, but rather attempts to express in his work the reality of the world. The reality of sensation.

Francis Bacon, 'Study for the Head of George Dyer'

Among the highlights of the programme are the privileged glimpses we receive of Francis Bacon's inner world: his home in London and his social haunts. The locations are rich with images, from the chaos and detritus of the painter's famously messy studio, to the dark, gothic setting of his local bar. It's fascinating to see the characters that surround him as he talks about life, painting, and his passion for alcohol and gambling. He doesn't seem like an ideal role model, losing coherence at a restaurant table and pouring himselfanother glass of wine, but as he talks on about art and the meaning of life it's easy to feel his passion. It's easy to question whether it's the alcohol that makes him slurr his words or simply his enthusiasm. (A little of both, I suspect.)

Bacon is in many ways a natural speaker, approachable and articulate about the things that are personally important to him. And The South Bank Show interview offers us a chance to see just that, with an unmistakeable sense of intimacy. There are six parts in all, and combined they total approximately one hour. You can watch them consecutively or browse at will by clicking on the links below: