Great Lives



Biographical series in which guests choose someone who has inspired their lives.


  • David Jonsson on Jean Michel Basquiat

    12/01/2021 Duration: 27min

    Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat rose to fame in the 1980's Lower East Side New York arts scene. Andy Warhol was his friend and collaborator, Madonna a one time girlfriend and David Bowie a huge admirer. But beyond this club scene personality raged a prolific artist, writer and musician. During his short career Basquiat created no less than 1000 drawings, 700 paintings and many sculpture and mixed media works. In 2017 he became one of a handful of artists whose work broke the $100 million mark. His life challenged the boundaries of ‘blackness’ but also the boundaries of American art. He is championed by actor David Jonsson best known for his work on 'Deep State' and 'Industry'. He has described Basquiat's life as both an inspiration and a cautionary tale. He is joined by Jordana Moore Saggese, Associate Professor of American Art at the University of Maryland College Park and author of two scholarly books on Jean-Michel Basquiat. These include The Jean-Michel Basquiat Reader: Writings, Interviews and Critical Re

  • Rob Rinder on Jessica Mitford.

    05/01/2021 Duration: 27min

    Jessica Mitford was the fifth born of the notorious Mitford Sisters. Born into the aristocracy, as a child she had her own language, collected a running-away fund and fought to set herself apart from her fascist siblings. As an adult she was in turn a communist rebel, an investigative journalist, a civil rights activist and pop singer - opening a gig for Cyndi Lauper and recording an unlikely duet with her friend and fellow mischief maker Maya Angelou. She’s championed by Robert Rinder, the criminal barrister and television personality known to many from the reality courtroom series ‘Judge Rinder’ and more recently, ‘My Family, The Holocaust and Me’ who reveals the impact her story has had on his own life. Robert Rinder is joined by guest expert Laura Thompson, author of the New York Times best seller, 'The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters'. Presented by Matthew Parris Produced By Nicola Humphries for BBC Bristol

  • Diane Morgan on Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding

    29/12/2020 Duration: 27min

    Comedian and actor Diane Morgan chooses the life of Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding. Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding is best known for his role in the Battle of Britain. He is widely regarded as the architect of Britain's unlikely victory, using an intelligence strategy known as the Dowding System. The Battle of Britain was at the very end of his military career - his nickname by then was "Stuffy" Dowding - and shortly after he was side-lined. But he cared deeply for every one of his pilots, and following his retirement he became focused on what had happened to all his "dear fighter boys" lost in the war. He wrote extensively on the after life and spiritualism - many bereaved families wrote to him seeking answers as a result. He met his second wife after a medium suggested he take her out for lunch having received a communication from her late first husband from beyond the grave. Together they were prominent advocates of spiritualism, and of animal rights, with Dowding giving his maiden speech in the Lords

  • David Spiegelhalter on Frank Ramsey

    17/12/2020 Duration: 27min

    Frank Plumpton Ramsey contributed original ideas to the fields of logic, mathematics, economics and philosophy. He was a friend and respected interlocutor of Keynes, Wittgenstein, Russell and Moore, who considered him to be one of the sharpest minds around. His contributions are all the more remarkable given that he only lived to be 26. Matthew Parris and David Spiegelhalter are joined by Cheryl Misak, author of "Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers". Producer: Ellie Richold

  • The Great Lives of Great Lives

    11/12/2020 Duration: 28min

    Back in the late summer of 2001, a new biography series aired on Radio 4. Matthew Parris was not the first presenter, but he has chaired more editions than anyone else. His very first episode was about Morecambe and Wise, since when he's listened to claims for Leon Trotsky, Donna Summer, Doris Day and Benito Mussolini. So what makes a great life, and can anyone join? Here, with some help from the first programme's producer, he starts to draw some conclusions of his own. Extracts include Toni Morrison, Frank Sinatra, Muhammad Ali, Virginia Woolfe, Kenny Everett, and Clement Attlee, Nominators include Jessie Ware, Christopher Hitchens, Ken Dodd, Andi Oliver, Penelope Keith, David Attenborough, and Grace Dent. The presenter is Matthew Parris, the producer in Bristol Miles Warde

  • Katherine Parr, sixth wife of Henry VIII

    08/12/2020 Duration: 27min

    In her book The Taming of the Queen, Philippa Gregory asks a simple question of her subject, Katherine Parr. Who would marry a serial killer? Katherine Parr has been largely overlooked because she survived the monstrous Henry VIII, but she was a remarkable woman. She married four times, wrote books and successfully navigated the choppy waters of Henry's reign. In popular culture she's written off as matronly or nurselike. In fact she was younger than Anne Boleyn when she married the king, and died tragically in childbirth the year after he expired. She also may have inspired Elizabeth I. Philippa Gregory is the author of the Taming of the Queen and the Other Boleyn Girl. Suzannah Lipscomb is the author of The King is Dead: The Last Will and Testament of Henry VIII. Future guests in the series include David Spiegelhalter, Diane Morgan and Rob Rinder The presenter is Matthew Parris, the producer in Bristol Miles Warde

  • Xuanzang, Chinese monk and traveller

    29/09/2020 Duration: 27min

    It was an extraordinary journey, and a life that reads like a fairy tale. Xuanzang was born at the start of the seventh century in China. He studied as a monk and travelled for 16 years - first westwards, and then in a crescent back and down over the Himalayas to India . He returned a famous man, laden with Buddhists texts and artefacts. Historian Michael Wood has followed much of his route; he first discovered Xuanzang at university and became intrigued about his life. "I'm tempted to say this is one of the greatest lives in all the civilisations of the world," says Michael. Joining him in discussion is Frances Wood and the presenter Matthew Parris. The producer in Bristol is Miles Warde

  • James Graham on John Maynard Keynes

    22/09/2020 Duration: 27min

    James Graham, the award-winning playwright whose work includes the TV dramas "Brexit: The Uncivil War" and "Quiz", tells Matthew Parris why he is inspired by the life and work of John Maynard Keynes. Keynes was not just the revolutionary economist who helped shape the course of post-war history. The programme explores his colourful love life and lifelong passion for the arts. Matthew and James are joined by Linda Yueh, economist and author of "The Great Economists: How Their Ideas Can Help Us Today". Producer: Chris Ledgard

  • Sir David Adjaye on Okwui Enwezor

    15/09/2020 Duration: 27min

    “I was astonished by the experience of standing there, where the two oceans met. I knew at that very moment this would be my concept: the meeting of worlds". Okwui Enwezor. For centuries, the art establishment had been defined and dictated by predominantly white, wealthy, western critics and curators. Then in the early 90’s a young man who was born in Nigeria and studied Political Science in New York came onto the scene and said, ‘no more’. With an eye for aesthetic and a burning fire of political concern, curator and educator Okwui Enwezor transformed the art world. He placed non-western art histories on an equal footing with the long-established narrative of European and North American art. He was a man with a mission, utterly confident and determined. Sir David Adjaye, the architect perhaps best known for his largest project to date – the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African American History and Culture - champions the ground-breaking life of Okwui Enwezor, who became both his friend an

  • Tom Allen on Kenneth Williams

    08/09/2020 Duration: 27min

    Comedian and presenter Tom Allen first discovered Kenneth Williams as a young boy, watching the Carry On films and listening to Round the Horne with his mum. He joins Matthew Parris and Kenneth's biographer, Christopher Stevens, to explore the life of the famous twentieth century entertainer. Together, they discuss stealing the show, sexuality and living solo. Featuring clips from Kenneth's performances from Parkinson to Just a Minute, Desert Island Discs to Hancock's Half Hour, the trio reflect on Kenneth's dexterity and complexity, as a performer and as a person. Producer: Camellia Sinclair

  • Ernie Bevin, forgotten political giant

    01/09/2020 Duration: 27min

    Ernie Bevin led an extraordinary life. Born in Somerset in 1881, his father is unknown and his mother died when he was eight. He left his job as a farm labourer age 11 and moved to Bristol, where he helped to found the Transport and General Worker's Union. He was Churchill's Labour minister in the wartime cabinet, and heavily involved in postwar reconstruction as Foreign secretary under Clement Attlee. He smoked too much and drank too much, and made a massive impression on everyone he met. So why is he not better known? Nominating him is Frances O'Grady, General Secretary of the TUC, Matthew Parris presents and also contributing is his biographer, Andrew Adonis, author of Ernest Bevin: Labour's Churchill. The producer in Bristol is Miles Warde

  • Jessie Ware on Donna Summer

    25/08/2020 Duration: 27min

    Jessie Ware is a singer, songwriter and podcaster. Her latest, critically acclaimed, album, What's Your Pleasure?, draws inspiration from soul, funk, boogie, and disco - and, notably, the work of the Queen of Disco, Donna Summer. Jessie joins Matthew Parris and Pete Bellotte, co-producer and co-writer of many of Donna Summer's biggest hits - I Feel Love, Love to Love You Baby, and Hot Stuff, among others - to explore the life and work of her musical heroine. Jessie, Pete and Matthew discuss Donna's Protean vocal abilities, her eventful childhood and how post-war Munich provided the perfect environment to create some of disco's most momentous hits. Pete reveals how a three-minute demo of Love to Love You Baby became a seventeen-minute breakout hit and together they explore why disco has endured despite an early backlash. Jessie ponders whether life has changed for a woman in the music industry and reflects on Donna's personal legacy. With additional contributions from Danyel Smith, author of Shine Bright: A

  • Peter Frankopan on Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

    18/08/2020 Duration: 27min

    Bearded, profoundly deaf and somewhat eccentric, Tsiolkovsky's theoretical work means he is, for many, the "father of space travel". He died in 1935, and so never saw his research come to fruition. To discuss Tsiolkovsky's life and achievements, Matthew Parris is joined by Peter Frankopan, Professor of Global History at Oxford and author of the international best-seller, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. Matthew's other guest is Doug Millard, Curator of Space Technology at the Science Museum. Producer: Chris Ledgard

  • Frida Kahlo nominated by Author Jessie Burton

    12/08/2020 Duration: 27min

    “We’re talking here about a woman who was Mexican, dark skinned, disabled and queer, who produced art and didn’t allow her disabilities to define her. She defined who she was on her own terms," says Circe Henestrosa, co curator of Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up. Circe joins Jessie Burton, author of The Miniaturist in discussion about the Mexican artist known for her self-portraits and her distinctive look - the dresses and flowered hair, the monobrow, the piercing stare. Born in 1907, Kahlo's life was a collage of strength, beauty and pain. She survived polio and a bus crash that should have killed her, as well as a complex, passionate marriage to fellow artist Diego Rivera. Nominator Jessie Burton celebrates Frida Kahlo as a remarkable life who triumphed over adversity with true grit, glamour and great wit. The presenter is Matthew Parris. The producer in Bristol is Nicola Humphries. Jessie Burton is author of The Miniaturist, The Muse and The Confession. Circe Henestrosa is a fashion curator and Frida Kah

  • Mussolini

    04/08/2020 Duration: 29min

    September 1943, and German troops have just landed in gliders to rescue Benito Mussolini from the mountain resort where he was being held. “I knew my friend Adolf Hitler would not desert me,” he said later. But Mussolini died before the end of the war, shot and then strung up with his mistress in Milan. Who was this man, and is he still relevant today? Nominating him is Professor Margaret MacMillan, not as her hero but as someone she says must not be dismissed as a buffoon. Mussolini founded and led the fascists in Italy, was a brilliant propagandist, and would have probably died in his bed but for the war. Winston Churchill, speaking in 1927, told him his fascist movement "has rendered a service to the entire world." Only later did he dub him the Italian Miscalculator. Mussolini declared war on Britain just as France was poised to fall. As well as archive of Mussolini, Churchill, and the Italian journalist Luigi Barzini, the programme features Professor John Foot of Bristol University. Margaret MacMi

  • Dolly Alderton on Doris Day

    02/06/2020 Duration: 27min

    Dolly Alderton's love of Doris Day began when she watched Calamity Jane as a young child. And for Dolly, the incandescent film star was as much of a poster girl as The Spice Girls. But Dolly's view of the legendary actress and singer has changed as she's matured. Dolly joins Matthew Parris and Dr Tamar Jeffers McDonald, Reader in Film and Head of the School of Arts at the University of Kent, to discuss dancing, divorces and dogs. Together they explore whether the image of Doris Day as a happy-go-lucky girl-next-door is a true reflection of the life and character of one of the twentieth century's most famous stars. Producer: Camellia Sinclair Credit: Love Me or Leave Me (dir. Charles Vidor, MGM); Pillow Talk (dir. Michael Gordon, Arwin Productions).

  • Sybille Bedford, author of Jigsaw and A Legacy

    26/05/2020 Duration: 27min

    Sara Wheeler first read Sybille Bedford in her early twenties, and discovered a dazzling writer. The book she read was called A Visit to Don Otavio. It's set in Mexico, a country Bedford wanted to visit because of its 'long nasty history in the past and as little present history as possible.' Born Sybille von Schoenebeck in 1911 in Germany, she lived in Italy, France, California and London, and her book Jigsaw was nominated for the Booker prize. But by her own admission she never sold many books. Sara Wheeler is the author of Terra Incognita - about her travels in Antarctica. Victoria Glendinning adds her thoughts and wit to the programme. There are archive contributions from Hilary Spurling, Sue McGregor and Sybille Bedford too. The presenter is Matthew Parris

  • Billy Bremner of Leeds United

    19/05/2020 Duration: 27min

    Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe, chooses the life of infamous Leeds United Captain, Billy Bremner. Billy Bremner played for Leeds as a midfielder from 1959 until 1976. He scored 115 goals for the team and captained them for 11 years during the most successful period in their history. 5’5”, with a mop of red hair, he was known as “ten stone of barbed wire” "Wee Billy and “Midfield Terrier”. He grew up near Stirling in a working class family, moving to Leeds at 16 to where he returned in the 80s as manager. At the time, Anand was a schoolboy in Wakefield. Before he became a Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs, he was first and foremost a Leeds fan. Anand was also at school with Telegraph journalist Rob Bagchi - author of the forthcoming biography of the club. Growing up in West Yorkshire instilled a lifelong devotion to Billy and the club in both of them - in spite of their "Dirty Leeds" reputation and the ups and downs of a team often destined to narrowly miss out on

  • Sally Phillips on Hollywood star Myrna Loy

    13/05/2020 Duration: 27min

    When Sally Phillips first saw Myrna Loy, she burst into tears. It was in a film called The Best Years of Our Lives, about three veterans returning to their wives after World War Two. Myrna Loy was most famous for the Thin Man series, and she also played voluptuous baddies in flicks like The Mask of Fun Manchu. But it's not just her screen career that inspires Sally, a star herself for work in Smack the Pony and Bridget Jones. Myrna Loy was a hardworking and often fearless person, heavily involved with The Red Cross and UNESCO after the war. The author of Fast Talking Dames, Maria di Battista, joins the discussion from Princeton. The producer in Bristol is Miles Warde

  • Victoria Wood

    05/05/2020 Duration: 27min

    Victoria Wood grew up in a bungalow high up on the moors in Lancashire. The rooms were partitioned off with plywood, and she loved to play the piano on her own. She became the biggest comedy star in the UK, writing, directing, acting, and winning BAFTAS for being funny, and being serious too. Nominating the star of Wood and Walters, Dinnerladies and Housewife, 49 is Daniel Rigby. He won a BAFTA playing Eric Morecambe in 2011, and Victoria Wood played his mum. She also became his landlady. Joining the often joyful discussion is Jasper Rees - author of the upcoming authorised biography of Victoria Wood. The presenter is Matthew Parris, the producer in Bristol Miles Warde

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