The RTS was founded in September 1927, following a lecture at Leeds University from one of the future inventors of television, John Logie Baird.
“Invented before TV – the RTS was always ahead of its time,” said RTS Yorkshire Chair Fiona Thompson, while introducing Bragg to a sell-out crowd at ITV’s Leeds Television Centre in late-November.
During a wide-ranging address, the veteran arts broadcaster argued: “All new inventions provoke wonder and horror; hope and fear.” Television, too, has “a dark side”.
Bragg discussed George Orwell’s 1984, in which citizens are under constant surveillance from “telescreens”: “Here we see, at its most naked, television watching us – the eye of the world has become the camera eye on those who live here. This country is said to be the most CCTV-intensive nation on the planet.”
Noting the power of TV, Bragg said: “We need only to recognise its ability to shift million pounds worth of merchandise on the commercial channels every week.”
The Brexit campaign and “populism of [Nigel] Farage and Boris Johnson” had shown how “mendacious messages can sway opinion.
“Yet this is child’s play, compared with what could be done to scare and cower people with the help of mass surveillance, which grew out of the specific pursuits of television,” he said.
Bragg argued, however, that television is also “a force for good”.
He apologised for offering his own programme, The South Bank Show, which celebrates its 40th birthday in January 2018, in evidence. “[It has] a good size, democratic audience, many of whom were largely unable to see, hear or even read the greatest artists until a very few decades ago, thanks, of course, to television.”
Bragg picked two personal highlights from the vaults of The South Bank Show, which was broadcast on ITV until 2010 and has aired on Sky Arts since 2012.
Forty years ago, recalled Bragg, he wanted to “change the way TV did arts”. Specifically, he wanted to challenge the idea that the so-called high-arts such as opera were inherently superior to popular culture.
The first–ever episode of the show on 14 January 1978 featured an ex-Beatle. The arts broadcaster recalled: “We got slaughtered for that, but I started with Paul McCartney to show I was serious [about my mission].”
Bragg’s second highlight was the programme devoted to Ingmar Bergman (also in 1978), whose film, Summer with Monika, was the first subtitled movie Bragg saw. “I came out of that cinema completely transformed. I realised films weren’t just about actors but writers and directors [too]. I became obsessed about Bergman.”
Among those who turned down The South Bank Show were Samuel Beckett, with whom Bragg “had a nice tea and chatted about cricket” and Graham Greene.
Responding to a question about the dominance of London in the UK economy, Bragg labelled the treatment of the North of England a “disgrace”, accusing the Thatcher Government of the “deliberate destruction of 3 million skilled jobs in the 1980s because they were in Labour strongholds”.
Bragg – who sits in the House of Lords as a Labour peer and was born and bred in Cumbria – added: “What is amazing about the North is its people, their resilience and good humour.”
The Yorkshire Centre and ITV Yorkshire hosted a day of events to celebrate the 90th birthday of the RTS. They included a television quiz – which was won by Shiver North, the factual arm of ITV Studios – and tours of the Emmerdale Studio Experience and ITV Archive.
Bragg has donated 8,000 tins of film, which were shot but not used on The South Bank Show, to the archive. “It’s a feast: seven hours of unseen Norman Mailer; hours and hours of stuff by Pavarotti and Eric Clapton, and tons more we never showed.”
“Archives like ITV’s,” he added, “are fast becoming the repositories of the public and private lives of the nation. It’s extraordinarily important that they are properly preserved.”