With its perceived air of smug superiority, The South Bank Show may have been one of the most parodied shows on British television. There is no doubt, though, that the final episode of ITV's flagship arts programme, which was broadcast on Monday after more than 30 years on the air, marked the end of an era. Melvyn Bragg, the show's host since its inception in 1978, has been unequivocal on what he sees as the unnecessary culling of important artistic commentary in order to make room for more populist programming.
"It's a great pity for arts programmes for which I have a kind of evangelical feeling," said the presenter, whose famously luxuriant hair and snub features have made him one of the pillars of terrestrial television, in a recent interview with The Daily Telegraph. "Whether I go on is immaterial, but whether arts programmes go on at a proper level, not someone strolling around in a four-wheel drive saying 'Aren't cathedrals nice?'..."
What Bragg terms a "proper level" is the show's professed serious treatment of all art forms, be it Coldplay or the Royal Shakespeare Company - the latter the subject of its final episode. Having started at the BBC as a trainee in the 1960s and worked in both radio and television, Bragg came up with the idea in 1971 for an arts programme with an open-to-all approach. "I wrote a manifesto," he has recalled, "arguing that the singing of Elvis Presley was as interesting as the singing of Luciano Pavarotti." This blurring of the cultural lines was, at the time, revolutionary. In keeping with its holistic approach, the first episode, screened in 1978, featured the former Beatle Paul McCartney, the feminist writer Germaine Greer and the cartoonist Gerald Scarfe.
Opening with Andrew Lloyd Webber's chirpy Variations, which thenceforth became the show's signature tune, The South Bank Show went from strength to strength, spotlighting, over the course of three decades, such cultural icons as Laurence Olivier, Harold Pinter, Francis Bacon, Barbara Cartland, John Updike, Clint Eastwood, Damien Hirst and George Michael. Filming was often protracted and intense. The Olivier interview, which took place in 1982 when the actor was very ill, was filmed over nine months. One with Dennis Potter in 1994 saw the dying playwright speak openly about his impending death. "My only regret is if I die four pages too soon," he said of his unfinished work.
For all its seriousness, though, the programme was routinely criticised for just the values it championed. "The South Bank Show is a classic example of dumbing down," said the author JG Ballard, who died earlier this year. "Most television trivialises the already trivial, but The South Bank Show trivialises the serious, which is much more dangerous." Bragg was unapologetic. "I find this snobbish, offensive and depressing," he railed. "It's also wrong. I think a programme on UB40 is every bit as serious as a programme on Harold Pinter."
Some claimed his matey rapport with his subjects resulted in a failure to ask uncomfortable questions. In his defence, it is unlikely that Bragg would have been able to secure such illustrious names if they had known they were in for a grilling. Many also accused Bragg of taking the artists he interviewed more seriously than they took themselves. This may well have been true, but the resulting archive of around 750 films has undoubtedly left a remarkable cultural legacy.
Since the announcement by ITV in May that the show was ending because of Bragg's retirement it has emerged that the series was in fact dropped after ITV bosses offered Bragg such a dramatic cut in budget (Bragg claims 82 per cent) that the presenter deemed the show undoable. Perhaps, he has suggested, this was their intention - to push him out without having to do the dirty. "They want a different sort of station," he said in the Telegraph, "a wholly commercial station."
As for Bragg, you could argue that, at 70, his television career would have started winding down soon anyway. No doubt his interest in politics - he was heavily involved in the New Labour project, for which Tony Blair gave him a life peerage in 1998, making him Lord Bragg of Wigton - and his still-regular spot on the BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time, in which he discusses historical events with academics from a contemporary perspective, will keep him busy. He has also written 20 novels, 13 non-fiction books and two children's books since his 20s.
Whether he goes on may be, as he says, "immaterial" - but something tells you he probably will.