Melvyn Bragg on Francis Bacon and Harold Pinter

Bragg reflects on his most memorable experiences of The South Bank Show
Francis Bacon. Photograph: ITV / Rex Features
This was in the big room at the Tate where he said that if he wanted to be really depressed he'd look at the Rothkos. Then he said: "Actually, it's probably best if you go to a carpet factory." I think we sourced his images very well and he talked very vividly about how he painted and why he painted. We got a lot right in all sorts of ways and then we got plastered. I had to make a decision in the cutting room whether we used it but in the course of being plastered he said an immense amount that was core Francis – some massively truthful things. So I thought, well, I'll get egg on my face but we're going to show it. It made me laugh when I watched it back, still does.

Melvyn Bragg on Francis Bacon
In today's Observer newspaper, Melvyn Bragg reflects on his time as presenter of The South Bank Show, now in its final year. In the three decades since it was first aired in 1978, The South Bank Show has profiled a vast selection of writers, artists, and other luminary cultural figures. Bragg recalls the circumstances surrounding his interview with Francis Bacon in 1985, where they discussed the Irish painter's life, and the central ideas that formed his work:
Once [Bragg had] established the format, he began bringing in outside directors like Tony Palmer, Ken Russell, James Ivory and Ken Loach. Bragg himself also grew more confident in front of camera and more willing to allow unpredictability intrude on his interviews and profiles. More often than not these formal detours were inspired by large amounts of alcohol. Subjects like John Osborne, Eric Clapton, Dennis Potter and Peter O'Toole were intimate with the bottle, and Bragg, no stranger himself, had the good manners to join them.

The most memorable example was an epic drinking-bout of an interview with Francis Bacon that began with a bottle of champagne at 9am and continued with Bragg and Bacon slurring their way through a hilarious disquisition on the nature of reality. I tell him that that kind of looseness, or loucheness, seems to have been consigned to another era.

"I'm not so sure it has," he says, but then seems to contradict himself. "I think this generation are much more aware of their public reputation. I mean, Francis didn't give a shit. Peter O'Toole didn't give a shit. Clapton back then didn't give a damn. And also in the back of their minds there was a belief that artists were alcohol-fuelled and that was OK. When I did the Dennis Potter interview he was drinking, smoking and taking drugs at the same time. That was part of what he did."

But if the show was drenched in booze, its appreciation of its subjects remained earnestly sober. Inhibitions may sometimes have been lost but never respect for the artist, however drunk he might have been. One of the recurring criticisms that Bragg has faced over the years is that his interviews are unchallenging, taking the artist at his or her own worth. [Read More]

Harold Pinter. Photograph: ITV / Rex Features
In the same interview, Melvyn Bragg shares memories of others he interviewed during the show's run, and happens to include the feeling of awkwardness he felt meeting Harold Pinter - a playwright both obliging and difficult:
The first interview we did was very tricky, he just didn't want to answer. But I thought if I kept putting questions to him that he wouldn't answer it might be the best bit of the interview. I just let him smoke his black Sobranie and sit looking very actorly. We had two more interviews and in one of them he was excellent. He'd just written a poem and in a wonderful flush of shyness said, "would you like me to read it?" It was a wonderful poem about him going for a walk with his teacher on Hackney Marshes. He could be difficult but he could also be marvellous.

Melvyn Bragg on Harold Pinter