Great Lives



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


  • Aneurin Bevan

    04/01/2011 Duration: 28min

    In his time, Aneurin Bevan was, according to one biographer, "the most colourful and controversial, most loved and most loathed political personality in Britain". The founding father of the NHS is the choice of Lord Kinnock, the former leader of the Labour Party who, like Bevan, grew up in Tredegar, in the heart of the Welsh coalfields, where he met his hero many times. Kinnock regards Bevan as a hero on a level with Nelson Mandela and believes it was Nye alone who had the force of personality and political will necessary to get the Health Service established after the war. But the presenter Matthew Parris and his other studio guest, Bevan's biographer, John Campbell are more sceptical. Campbell goes so far as to argue that, the achievement of the NHS not withstanding, Nye Bevan's life was essentially a failure because, in his commitment to socialism, he misread the trend of history so completely. Now, with the NHS facing radical reform, this programme captures some of the passion and debate that surround

  • Sammy Davis Jr

    28/12/2010 Duration: 27min

    Lionel Blair chooses his friend and dancing partner Sammy Davis Jr. Sammy described himself as a 'one-eyed black Jew' - and he was described by others as one of the greatest all-round entertainers of all time. Lionel danced and sang with Sammy in a dazzling performance on the stage at the Royal Variety Performance in 1961, and he revisits that memory through an evocative archive recording. Paul Gambaccini is on hand to help presenter Matthew Parris draw out the contradictions and triumphs of Sammy Davis Jr's great American life. Producer Beth O'Dea.

  • Samuel Beckett

    21/12/2010 Duration: 28min

    Business guru Sir Gerry Robinson was born in Ireland but moved to England in his teens, and he chooses Samuel Beckett, another Irishman who lived away for much of his life - in Paris. Gerry, a late convert to Beckett's plays, loves him because he's accepting of the human condition: that we're all locked in this repetitive pattern. We don't want to keep on doing the same thing over and over again, but we do. Presenter Matthew Parris is also joined by Jim Knowlson, who was a personal friend of Samuel Beckett for 19 years, and is his authorised biographer. He reveals that Beckett was far from the dour gloomy figure of popular imagination, and was in fact very good company - as long as you didn't interrupt him when he was watching the rugby on the telly on a Saturday afternoon. Producer: Beth O'Dea.

  • DH Lawrence

    14/12/2010 Duration: 27min

    DH Lawrence was, in the words of Geoff Dyer, a man with thin wrists and thick trousers. He was also the author of Women in Love, Sons and Lovers and Lady Chatterley's Lover. But poet and performer John Hegley has chosen him above all for the quality of his poetry, an admiration presenter Matthew Parris also shares. Lawrence died aged just 44. An obituary at the time reckoned he was 'a rebel against all the accepted values of modern civilization'. Certainly his life - born in Eastwood, Notts, became a teacher only to run off with a German-born mother of three to embark on his 'savage pilgrimage' around the world - was unpredictable. As indeed was this programme, recorded in front of an audience at the Arnolfini in Bristol, with John Hegley using both music and verse to make his point. Geoff Dyer, the author of Out of Sheer Rage, makes the case that Lawrence's unpredictability was a sign of strength, and that his best work lies in his letters and not his books. The producer is Miles Warde.

  • Malcolm McLaren

    07/12/2010 Duration: 28min

    Matthew Parris presents the life of the great rock and roll swindler, Malcolm McLaren, who died earlier this year. 'I've been called many things,' McLaren wrote as advance publicity for his one man show, 'a charlatan, a con man, or the culprit responsible for turning popular culture into nothing more than a cheap marketing gimmick. This is my chance to prove these accusations are true.' The man behind the Sex Pistols and Duck Rock is nominated by public relations expert Mark Borkowski, author of The Fame Formula, and a man who knew him well. What intrigues Borkowski is not just the success, but the myths that have evolved around this highly manipulative man. Matthew Parris is more sceptical, as is Chris Salewicz. As a journalist for NME between 1974-1981, Salewicz watched McLaren rewrite the rules of management. He also introduced the Sex Pistols to the man from EMI who then signed them up. An intriguing programme about fame, the media, and why the truth should not be confused with an easily believable myt

  • Walt Disney

    28/09/2010 Duration: 28min

    Satirical cartoonist Gerald Scarfe nominates Walt Disney. Gerald Scarfe spent much of his childhood in his sick bed, so it's not surprising that Disney cartoons and feature films meant so much to him. He can still recall the thrill at the prospect of seeing Pinocchio at the cinema, and then the agony of being lead away again in the rain because the tickets were too expensive. Walt Disney came from a working family. His god-fearing father Elias, said by one writer to have 'hated Capital, and favoured Labour, but really needed to make a buck', found work where he could. So Walt lived a peripatetic childhood, and sought solace in drawing and play acting. Hard times early on did not make Walt frugal with money in adulthood, and despite the huge successes of the golden era of Disney, it was only with the opening of Disneyland that Walt attained any substantial personal wealth. You don't have to look far to find myth surrounding Walt Disney. Even after his death, rumours that his body had been cryogenically

  • Michel de Montaigne

    21/09/2010 Duration: 27min

    Michel de Montaigne is one of the most influential writers of the French Renaissance. He is known for popularising the essay as a literary genre and became famous for his ability to fuse intellectual speculation with casual anecdotes and autobiography. Montaigne's work continues to influence writers to this day. Championing his life is the surgeon, scientist, broadcaster and politician Professor Robert Winston and providing expert witness is the writer Sarah Bakewell, whose recent biography, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, was recently published to great acclaim. Producer: Paul Dodgson.

  • Winston Churchill

    14/09/2010 Duration: 27min

    Winston Churchill's is the Great Life chosen by Lord Digby Jones, former Director General of the CBI. Expert contribution comes from Professor David Reynolds. Both men have vivid memories of the day in 1965 when, as children, they heard that Churchill had died. Surprisingly this is the first time that Churchill has been nominated in the series. Considered by many a busted flush in the 1930s, Churchill is now remembered as our greatest wartime leader - his speech before the Battle of Britain still sends a shiver down the spine. But his great qualities and personal flaws remained inextricably linked. David Reynolds has uncovered a stark revelation about Churchill's real state of mind at the time he made that speech, while Digby Jones argues that the ability to instil confidence in people even when there is little rational hope of victory is one of the signs of a great leader. He believes that no one made his mark on the last century in the way that Churchill did. David Reynolds does not subscribe to the Gre

  • Golda Meir

    07/09/2010 Duration: 27min

    Golda Meir was the Iron Lady of Israeli politics, a straight-talking, intransigent leader who once said, "There is a type of woman who does not let her husband narrow her horizons". She is the choice of former Conservative government minister Edwina Currie. Golda Meir was born in Kiev and educated in the United States, but moved to Palestine her twenties, just after the First World War. One of the signatories on Israel's Declaration of Independence in 1948, Meir was elected to the Knesset and stayed there until she retired in her late sixties. But when prime minister Levi Eshkol died unexpectedly she was called back to take his place. She was the compromise candidate but stayed there for five years and was in power during the Yom Kippur War. Edwina Currie admires her conviction and humanity, and that fact that she reminds her of her granny. Ahron Bregman from the Department of War Studies at Kings College London, served in the Israeli army and was present at Golda Meir's funeral. Unlike Edwina, Ahron t

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