Melvyn Bragg: Why I’m still haunted by my first wife’s suicide
The Daily Mail 28th February 2009
There is a book in Melvyn Bragg’s library that he cannot bring himself to read. It isn’t badly written or one he finds distasteful. It has featured on literary prize shortlists around the world and earned its author plaudits. Yet still the book broods on a shelf, ignored, because TV’s King of Culture fears that what it might show him would be just too painful.
The book is Bad Faith by Carmen Callil, the story of French Nazi war criminal Louis Darquier. It is not Darquier’s story that repels Bragg, 69, but what it might reveal about Darquier’s daughter, Anne, who died in 1970.
The reason is that the presenter of The South Bank Show blames her for the suicide of his first wife, Lisa Roche, in 1971 – a tragedy that devastated not just Bragg’s life but that of his daughter, Marie-Elsa.
Lisa was a patient of Anne Darquier, a renowned psychoanalyst, and Bragg has no doubt it was Darquier’s self-inflicted death from alcohol and drugs that finally drove his wife over the edge after years of struggling with depression.
This is the first time he has been able to talk about Lisa’s death in 38 years, and it’s clear that the man whose TV persona is marked by smooth confidence is finding it incredibly difficult.
‘Why someone who is ill continues to…’ the words trail off and the affable charm gives way to a quiet rage. ‘Why they don’t say to their patient: “I am ill, but I recommend Dr X instead of me.” I can’t understand it.’
His teeth are clenched, the words extracted rather than spoken. ‘I thought maybe I should talk to the author Carmen Callil about what happened with Anne Darquier, but I just didn’t have the energy,’ he says. ‘I still don’t have the energy to read her book.’
He is only now willing to talk about the traumatic months leading up to Lisa’s death because he has written Remember Me, the fourth in his series of Cumbrian novels, which fictionalise the characters and events of his own life.
In the novel, the stories of the invented Joseph Richardson and his wife Natasha ‘twist like rope’ with the true story of Bragg and his wife Lisa.
So close are the parallels that at times it’s hard to distinguish whether he is talking about Lisa or her literary counterpart Natasha.
Bragg met Lisa Roche at a party in his final year at Oxford University in
1960. A bright boy from a working-class background – his parents ran a pub in Wigton – he had suffered his first nervous breakdown in his late teens. Perhaps it was the mental scars he bore that drew him to the enigmatic French girl.
Bragg’s books mirrors events in his own life, though they are works of fiction
An aristocratic artist, Lisa was five years his senior. Rather like Bragg, she was trying to distance herself from her roots. A year after their marriage in 1961, she finally admitted that her father was not a mere schoolteacher, but a member of a grand French family – and her childhood had left deep but invisible scars.
It is easy to see how the darkness inside this intense, artistic woman would be drawn to the light given off by Bragg and his fierce intellect.
Coupled with a considerable ambition, his easy manner has enabled him to rise through the ranks of the media to become controller of arts and features at London Weekend Television and, more recently as Lord Bragg of Wigton, a popular member of Tony Blair’s charmed inner circle.
‘The Sixties was full of working-class arrivistes who were clambering over television, music journalism and the art world,’ says Bragg, describing his early ambitious self. ‘They saw a few open doors and made a mad rush for them.’
He laughs as he mimes ferociously elbowing the competition out of the way.
Though that atmosphere thrilled the young TV executive, it did not suit his wife. Lisa – like her fictional counterpart Natasha – was not comfortable with Swinging London, and pulled back from the mayhem.
‘She didn’t want to go out there and he did, not just because he was a working-class arriviste,’ says Bragg.
For a moment, it is not clear whether he is talking about his own past or the characters in his book.
‘That was part of Lisa’s character, too, but I developed it for the novel,’ he adds hastily.
As a BBC trainee producer, Bragg settled with Lisa in Kew, South-West London, before buying a house in an unfashionable part of Hampstead.
In the novel, Natasha and Joseph’s lives mirror that exactly – and Natasha’s loneliness is heartbreaking to witness.
She spends her days waiting in their Kew home, then in Hampstead, for the return of her husband, who, full of excitement at his new job, is oblivious to his wife’s desperation.
When I point this out, Bragg looks shocked, as though struck by a sudden thought. ‘She needn’t have been then really,’ he says, barely audible. ‘There were things to do. Kew wasn’t in the middle of the bush, nor was Hampstead.’
Again, though he is talking about the character of Natasha, the intensity of his reaction makes me wonder whether he’s really referring to his wife.
Then he rallies and adds: ‘You see that was different from Lisa, because in that time she built up a group of friends who also stayed at home.
‘These were all women who lived in Kew while their husbands worked in London. We were only 20 minutes away.’
At the time of Lisa’s death, the couple had separated and Bragg was with Cate Haste, who he now has two children with
At the time of Lisa’s death, the couple had separated and Bragg was with Cate Haste, who he now has two children with
He trails off, as if unsure what he says is true. The line between fact and fiction is fine.
When the Braggs moved to Hampstead, Lisa decided to go into therapy after suffering years of depression, a condition rooted in an unexplained traumatic childhood and suicide attempts before she met her husband.
Though he undoubtedly feels enormous responsibility at what happened to Lisa, he believes Anne Darquier’s decision to take on a woman in such a fragile mental state was irresponsible.
The analyst’s own severe mental problems meant she was unable to provide the duty of care such a vulnerable young woman needed.
‘It is totally reprehensible what happened,’ he says of Darquier’s decision to treat patients as she struggled with drink and depression herself.
Her death came as a result of a fall while under the influence of alcohol and
barbiturates, regarded as a suspected overdose. In Bragg’s new book, the Natasha/Lisa character is told of the death of her psychoanalyst in the most brutal way and then dumped from therapy, without any professional help, to pick up the pieces.
Anne Darquier broke the rules with her patient in more ways than one: it is highly likely that her father knew, or was known to, Lisa’s father in France.
The psychoanalyst would have been aware of the link, and it would have affected her judgment in treating Lisa because she may have known about the family background.
‘This woman came from the same part of France [as Lisa's family] and it is more than possible that Lisa’s father or grandfather knew her father, or would have known or known of him, without question,’ says Bragg.
‘We are talking about neighbouring villages in Haute Provence, so I could imagine the two of them…’
He judders to a halt. ‘I just don’t want to go there,’ he sighs. Suddenly he looks his age. The boyish face is deeply lined and the once lustrous locks have faded to grey.
What’s clear is that the death of her analyst in 1970 devastated Lisa. She was left floundering.
Those who knew what had happened were unwilling or unable to help. Friends and relatives were not told of the reason for her mental turmoil and were left perplexed as Lisa unravelled before their eyes.
‘What I portray in the book is absolutely accurate to what happened in Lisa’s life in so far as what I learned later, because she didn’t tell me at the time,’ says Bragg, and there is guilt in his voice.
Bragg’s relationship with daughter Marie-Elsa, from his relationship with Lisa, was strained for a long time
He has reason to feel guilty. At the time of Darquier’s death, he and Lisa had become estranged. Bragg had left her for another woman, the writer Cate Haste, whom he married in 1973 and by whom he has a son, Tom, and daughter, Alice.
There were arguments and pleas from Lisa for his return, but to no avail. On the night Lisa died, Bragg refused to visit her, saying he would see her the next day. There was to be no next day.
That night in 1971, Lisa took her own life. Bragg is reluctant to go into details of how. Even in the book when Natasha kills herself, the method is left to the reader’s imagination.
Shocked and racked with anguish, Bragg had to explain what had happened to their six-year-old daughter, who went to live with him.
For many years, Marie-Elsa was – unsurprisingly – deeply troubled by her mother’s death, and that affected her relationship with her father.
When Lisa died, she and Bragg were living separate lives, he in Hampstead and she in Chiswick.
But it was their split that seemed to have caused her breakdown. And, indeed, Bragg had a second breakdown after Lisa’s death.
Only after years of talking to their friends and relatives has he realised that the blame is not entirely his own.
‘I had this kind of out-of-body experience very severely for about a year and a half at that point, which was frightening,’ he says.
In the novel, a terrifying Tube journey in which Joe has a panic attack and is almost overwhelmed by suicidal urges is taken from real life – Bragg admits he still has ‘flutters’ of panic on the Underground.
He says that he was ‘determined not to hide’ his mental problems, an openness which led to his involvement with the mental health charity Mind, of which he is president. It is a subject about which he is passionate.
‘Anything that happens in your own mind is seen as your own fault, or people think you have been afflicted with something and no one wants to know about it,’ he says, angry at the way the mentally ill are shunted aside or ridiculed.
‘Mental depressions or disturbances are something that need to be treated and lived with.’
He is, of course, not the only one who has had to live with the harrowing consequences of Lisa’s severe depression. His daughter, Marie-Elsa, is 40 and a vicar in a tough North London parish. She, too, suffers the pain of what her mother did.
The book is a powerful reminder that the impact of a suicide resonates in the lives of the family and friends for many years. ‘Yes, it does,’ he says, almost inaudibly. ‘It does for quite a lot of people…more than you could imagine.’
Pouring out his feelings and memories about his wife’s death does at least appear to have brought Bragg closer to his daughter. ‘I showed the book to her and she was glad for me that I had faced up to it,’ he says.
He looks out of the window of his penthouse office across to West London and Chiswick, where Lisa died.
His voice sinks to a whisper. ‘My daughter had faced up to it far earlier than I had, because she had been through stuff on her way to being a priest that made her think more deeply and clearly than I had.’
It is a shocking admission, especially when you consider that the book took 30 years to gestate and, he says, five years to write.
Did he find writing it cathartic? ‘No, it wasn’t,’ he says. But the book’s story feels redemptive.
Joe is absolved of some guilt, as are their friends. Natasha’s death in the novel feels inevitable – no one could have saved her.
‘Redemptive?’ he asks. ‘Well, in the sense of…’ He takes a long pause and appears lost. ‘Redemptive in the sense of a properly considered response, but not in terms of absolution.’
Mining such painful territory for literary inspiration seems to have weakened him.
‘I grew up at a time when you didn’t let your feelings go,’ he says. ‘When you are of that mould, you become quite good at “fortressing” yourself.
‘You build up huge defence systems. These can become quite dangerous, boiling up inside until things explode, but what you also get is strength, because they are defence systems.
‘I found that after Lisa’s death, though I wasn’t trying to do it, I built up a defence system.’
That defence was work, ironic given that since completing Remember Me he has been unable to write a scrap of fiction. It clearly pains him.
‘It’s the first time since I was 20 that I haven’t written fiction,’ he says.
In Cumbria last summer, while recovering from an eye operation, he says he had the urge to write.
‘I started drafting a book, and then I completely ran out of steam,’ he says looking glum. ‘I just thought: “Stop it!” It is a little bit frightening.’
There is no self-pity in his voice. ‘Look, it’s not the end of the world, and who’s waiting?’ he shrugs.
His wife’s death may seem like a lifetime ago, but there is no doubt that the shockwaves are still buffeting this complicated and brilliant man.