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Melvyn Bragg Biography

Melvyn Bragg comments:

Nationality: British. Born: Carlisle, Cumberland, 1939. Education: Nelson-Thomlinson Grammar School, Wigton, Cumberland, 1950-58; Wadham College, Oxford, 1958-61, M.A. (honours) in modern history 1961. Career: With BBC Television and Radio from 1961: general trainee, 1961-62; producer on Monitor, 1963; for BBC 2 editor on New Release (later Review, then Arena), Writers World, and Take It or Leave It, 1964-70; presenter, In the Picture, Tyne Tees Television, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1971, Second House, 1973-77, and Read All About It, 1976-77, BBC, London. Since 1978 editor and presenter, South Bank Show; Head of Arts, 1982-90, and since 1990 Controller of Arts, London Weekend Television; since 1988 presenter, Start the Week, BBC Radio 4. Chairman, Border Television, Carlisle. Since 1969 member, and chairman, 1977-80, Arts Council Literature Panel; president, Northern Arts, 1983-87, and National Campaign for the Arts since 1986. Awards: Writers Guild award, for screenplay, 1966; Rhys Memorial prize, 1968; Northern Arts Association prose award, 1970; Silver Pen award, 1970; Broadcasting Guild award, 1984; Ivor Novello award, for musical, 1985; BAFTA Dimbleby award, 1987; W. H. Smith Literary Award, 2000. D. Litt.: University of Liverpool, 1986; University of Lancaster, 1990; D. Univ.: Open University, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, 1988. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1970, and Royal Television Society; Honorary Fellow, Lancashire Polytechnic; Domus Fellow, St. Catherine's College, Oxford, 1990. Received the title of lord from Prime Minister Tony Blair, 1998.



For Want of a Nail. London, Secker and Warburg, and New York, Knopf, 1965.

The Second Inheritance. London, Secker and Warburg, 1966; NewYork, Knopf, 1967.

Without a City Wall. London, Secker and Warburg, 1968; New York, Knopf, 1969.

The Cumbrian Trilogy. London, Coronet, 1984.

The Hired Man. London, Secker and Warburg, 1969; New York, Knopf, 1970.

A Place in England. London, Secker and Warburg, 1970; NewYork, Knopf, 1971.

Kingdom Come. London, Secker and Warburg, 1980.

The Nerve. London, Secker and Warburg, 1971.

The Hunt. London, Secker and Warburg, 1972.

Josh Lawton. London, Secker and Warburg, and New York, Knopf, 1972.

The Silken Net. London, Secker and Warburg, and New York, Knopf, 1974.

Autumn Manoeuvres. London, Secker and Warburg, 1978.

Love and Glory. London, Secker and Warburg, 1983.

The Maid of Buttermere. London, Hodder and Stoughton, and NewYork, Putnam, 1987.

A Time to Dance. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1990; Boston, Little Brown, 1991.

Crystal Rooms. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1992.

Credo. London, Sceptre, 1996.

The Sword and the Miracle. New York, Random House, 1996.

The Soldier's Return. London, Sceptre, 1999.

Fiction (for children)

A Christmas Child. London, Secker and Warburg, 1976.

Uncollected Short Story

"The Initiation," in Winter's Tales 18, edited by A.D. Maclean. London, Macmillan, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1972.


Mardi Gras, music by Alan Blaikley and Ken Howard (producedLondon, 1976).

The Hired Man, adaptation of his own novel, music and lyrics byHoward Goodall (produced Southampton and London, 1984). London, French, 1986.


Play Dirty, with Lotte Colin, 1968; Isadora with CliveExton and Margaret Drabble, 1969; The Music Lovers, 1970; Jesus Christ Superstar, with Norman Jewison, 1973; The Seventh Seal, 1993.

Radio Play:

Robin Hood, 1971.

Television Plays:

The Debussy File, with Ken Russell, 1965; Charity Begins at Home, 1970; Zinotchka, 1972; Orion, music by Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley, 1977; Clouds of Glory, with Ken Russell, 1978.


Speak for England: An Essay on England 1900-1975. London, Secker and Warburg, 1976; revised edition, London, Coronet, 1978; as Speak for England: An Oral History of England 1900-1975, New York, Knopf, 1977.

Land of the Lakes. London, Secker and Warburg, 1983; New York, Norton, 1984.

Laurence Olivier. London, Hutchinson, 1984; New York, St. Martin's Press, 1985.

Rich: The Life of Richard Burton. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1988; as Richard Burton: A Life, Boston, Little Brown, 1989.

(With Ruth Gardiner). On Giant's Shoulders: Great Scientists and Their Discoveries: From Archimedes to DNA. New York, Wiley, 1998.

Editor, My Favourite Stories of Lakeland. Guildford, Surrey, Lutterworth Press, 1981.

Editor, Cumbria in Verse. London, Secker and Warburg, 1984.


(1972) The ways in which I came to write are sketched in the last chapters of A Place in England: they are made the notions of a fictional self—Douglas Tallentire.

Present ideas on fiction are represented in the novel The Nerve and in an essay "Class and the Novel" in Times Literary Supplement (London), 15 October 1971.

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Melvyn Bragg began his writing career with two good novels about wasted human potential, For Want of a Nail and The Second Inheritance. But it was Without a City Wall which secured for him a deserved reputation as one of the best contemporary novelists. Theme and structure reinforce each other as Bragg traces, first, the awakening of passion in Richard Godwin, a self-imposed exile from the chaos of London, for Janice Beattie, a Cumberland girl of unusual intelligence and powerful ambition; and then the challenges that the life of consummated passion entails for both of them. The drama develops principally from Janice whose ambition and fastidiousness prove stronger than sexual passion or her sense of responsibility to others. Her passion for Richard contracts, while his for her continues to expand. Richard is driven to the brink of self-destruction, but recoils in time to force Janice to some kind of modus vivendi between the claims of his passion and the claims of her individuality. The Silken Net also develops the theme of sexual struggle. This book focuses on a restless intellectual, Rosemary Lewis, whose energy alienates her from life in the Cumberland village of Thurston. Her vigor is admirable but her egoism is destructive as she attempts to breed in her husband the same intensities that motivate her. The resulting conflict registers with less authority, however, than that developed in Without a City Wall.

The alternation of intensity and apathy in the passional life is again one subject explored in The Hired Man. Covering the years 1898 to 1920 in the life of John and Emily Tallentire, the novel articulates the nuances of their emotions. Communication between a man and a woman becomes a function of the body; and estrangement develops when perfect physical accord is broken. After Emily's death, at the age of 40, John is back where he was at the beginning, a man for casual hire on the great farms but now with all his zest gone. Bragg's artistry is at its best in his honest portrayal of the hard lives of agricultural laborers in the early 20th century. The protagonist of A Place in England is Joseph Tallentire, John's son. Bragg is less close to Joseph than to John; in fact, the most memorable pages of the novel feature the now patriarchal John. After much struggle Joseph is able to "be his own man" as owner of a public house; but his success is undercut by the disintegration of his marriage, a loss to him for which he cannot account.

Kingdom Come reveals much of the power found in The Hired Man and has much interest for the modern reader, as Bragg presents the contemporary generation of the Tallentire men. Lester, a con man and cousin, and Douglas, the son of Joseph and a writer of talent, lack the purposefulness and inner strength of their ancestors, though Harry, the adopted son who stays in Thurston, retains these qualities in large part. Douglas is the sympathetically presented protagonist who can neither be satisfied with the stern ancestral morality nor get clear of the claims of responsibility which derive from it. His divided nature defeats him because it leads him to betray the woman he loves and whose real worth he realizes too late.

In two other novels Bragg has again had recourse to Cumberland and its people. In Josh Lawton, a moving parable, Lawton has overtones of a Biblical patriarch and suffers the predictable fate of those who are too good for this world. In Autumn Manoeuvres Bragg traces the destructive and self-destructive career of Gareth Johnson. His violent loathing of his stepfather and his own violent self-loathing are linked to the violence of his begetting (his mother had been gang raped in World War I). Is he the victim of fatality or is he his own victim? (more the second than the first, Bragg implies).

London figures more than Cumberland in The Nerve and Love and Glory. In The Nerve Bragg traces, in a first-person narrative, the stages in the mental breakdown of his protagonist, Ted. Power accrues when Ted, the narrator, actualizes some of his experiences of physical and mental pain, but the breakdown which is a "break-through" is not precisely characterized. In Love and Glory Bragg explores the various forms of love from self-serving passion to selfless devotion. The conflict centers on the relationship between Ian Grant, an actor of genius, and Caroline, his Scottish mistress, who loves him with greater devotion than he can reciprocate. The central character is a writer for television, Willie Armstrong, who is Grant's best friend. He comes to love Caroline to distraction but gives her up when she fails to respond to his advances and when he realizes the claims of his wife, Joanna, upon him. Willie thus gains in insight and understanding while Ian Grant retrogresses spiritually and becomes even more submerged in his egotism.

The immediacy of Bragg's Cumberland milieu is, at least superficially, the quality that impresses most in his fiction. As in Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence, milieu is integrally fused with the fortunes and development of the characters. Like Hardy he has in unusual degree insight into human beings who confront the elemental realities of nature, and like Hardy's his people encounter problems difficult to resolve when they lose rapport with nature. The protagonist of The Soldier's Return, coming home in 1946 from years spent fighting in the jungles of Burma, finds himself alienated from his wife and family. With The Sword and the Miracle, inspired by his discovery of a sign to St. Bega in Cumbria, the author went back some thirteen hundred years for a tale of seventh-century Ireland. Bragg's eye for detail, his compelling sense of drama, his penetration into the emotional and psychic life of his characters, his sense of the moral verities, and his supple and luminous prose have all contributed to his standing as a distinguished novelist.

—Frederick P.W. McDowell

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