Great Lives



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


  • Josiah Wedgwood, master potter

    01/09/2021 Duration: 27min

    When Josiah Wedgwood had part of an injured leg amputed, he encouraged his workers to celebrate the anniversary as St Amputation Day. This remarkable man from Stoke on Trent built a pottery empire that made him famous round the world. He's nominated here, on location, by the former MP for Stoke Central, Tristram Hunt, now head of the Victoria and Albert museum in London. The programme includes an interview with the head of Royal Staffordshire, Norman Tempest, plus readings from Brian Dolan's biography, The First Tycoon. Tristram Hunt's latest book is called The Radical Potter. The presenter is Matthew Parris, the producer for BBC audio in Bristol is ex-Stoke resident Miles Warde

  • Frantz Fanon

    24/08/2021 Duration: 27min

    Born and raised in Martinique, Frantz Fanon fought for the Free French Forces against the Nazis, and then devoted his life to the liberation of Algeria from France. Fanon was a psychiatrist and author of two acclaimed anti-colonial works: Black Skin, White Masks, and The Wretched of the Earth. He is the choice of the writer and broadcaster Lindsay Johns, who explains why his connection to Fanon is not just intellectual and moral, but also personal. And from Paris, the Frantz Fanon expert, Françoise Vergès, offers her analysis of his life and work. The presenter is Matthew Parris and the producer for BBC Audio in Bristol is Chris Ledgard Image: Archives Frantz Fanon / IMEC

  • Althea Gibson

    17/08/2021 Duration: 27min

    Althea Gibson made sporting history in 1957 - the first black tennis player to win a Wimbledon title. She also won the US Open and the French Open. Raised on the streets of Harlem, her story is remarkable. And yet she is relatively unknown. Devi Sridhar, Professor of Global Public Health at Edinburgh University, champions Althea Gibson's life with the help of the writer Sally H. Jacobs, who is writing a new biography of the tennis star. The presenter is Matthew Parris and the producer for BBC Audio in Bristol is Chris Ledgard

  • Yehudi Menuhin

    10/08/2021 Duration: 27min

    Yehudi Menuhin was the original child prodigy. He was born in America in 1916, and was soon playing in concert halls round the world. He also played to the survivors of the German concentration camps, and waded into the fight against apartheid in South Africa too. Tasmin Little was a pupil at the Yehudi Menuhin school in Surrey, England, and knew her choice well. Not only was he a brilliant performer, she says, he was a crossover star who played with Ravi Shankar, Stephane Grappelli and Morecambe and Wise. You'll also hear from his biographer, Humphrey Burton, and from Yehudi Menuhin too. Presented by Matthew Parris Produced for BBC audio in Bristol by Miles Warde

  • Hans Christian Andersen

    03/08/2021 Duration: 27min

    Hans Christian Andersen was 'a very strange orchid,' says Michael Booth. He was born in 1806 in Denmark, and today is still famous for so many stories that every child knows, 156 in total. His own life is almost as odd as the tales he told. A neurotic hypochondriac, he escaped a terrible childhood and travelled to Copenhagen to make his name. Helping to tell the story of his life is Michael Rosen, the author of many books for children including 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt'. Michael Booth is the author of The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia. And Hans Christian Andersen is the author of The Little Mermaid and The Emperor's New Clothes The presenter is Matthew Parris, the producer for BBC Audio in Bristol is Miles Warde


    03/06/2021 Duration: 27min

    "Step one: invite notable guest. Step two: get them to talk about someone else." After nearly 500 episodes, Great Lives feels like a stable series, but there have been surprises along the way. From Bernard Manning on Mother Theresa to Timmy Mallett on Richard the Lionheart, there's a tradition of guests picking unexpected people they admire. Cerys Matthews on Hildegard of Bingen, Diane Morgan on Air Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding, Iain Lee on Andy Kaufmann, and Lemn Sissay on Prince Alemayu of Ethiopia: "Maybe this is the first Great Life that is a life that hasn't happened," he says. Also features Josie Long on Kurt Vonnegut plus a host of other famous voices in the mix. Presented by Matthew Parris Produced by Miles Warde

  • Rosie Millard on Edward III

    25/05/2021 Duration: 27min

    Edward III should be much better known, Rosie tells Matthew Parris. He not only won great battles like Crecy in 1346. He also championed the flourishing of Perpendicular architecture; he understood the "branding" of England, and introduced the flag of St George; and he was ahead of his time in other ways - he was the first king of England to own a mechanical clock and the first to have hot and cold running water in his bathroom! The expert is the medieval historian, Lord Sumption. He agrees Edward III deserves to be better known, but is less starry-eyed about his achievements. Edward, Lord Sumption says, was an incompetent diplomat, lived too long, and ended his reign a "heroic failure". Presented by Matthew Parris Produced by Chris Ledgard

  • Ben Miller on William Hazlitt

    18/05/2021 Duration: 27min

    Actor, comedian and Author Ben Miller discusses the colourful, complicated and uncompromising life of William Hazlitt. Born in 1778 William Hazlitt is considered one of the greatest critics and essayists in the history of the English language, but for centuries, his life and works were lost in the shadows. He was an advocate of universal rights and civil liberties, and a fierce opponent of pomp and power. He railed against slavery, believed strongly in the power of the imagination, and said, 'The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves'. But he wasn't without his own demons and fell out of public favour. Rumours of gambling, sex addiction and adultery challenged his reputation. In recent years scholars have debated his life and works and a renewed interest in his essays has emerged. Ben Miller plays Lord Featherington in Bridgerton, and he wrote and starred in The Armstrong and Miller Show on Channel Four. With expert contributions from Dr Uttara Nataragen, a foun

  • Arlo Parks on Elliott Smith

    12/05/2021 Duration: 27min

    Singer-songwriter Arlo Parks has been nominated for three Brit Awards at just 20 years old. Her inspiration for her debut studio album is drawn from American singer-songwriter Elliott Smith. Matthew Parris and Arlo Parks are joined by Elliott’s friend and former manager of his band Heatmiser, JJ Gonson. They also hear from writer and college professor William Todd Schultz, author of the biography ‘Torment Saint: The Life Of Elliott Smith’. Together they explore Elliott’s life and musical achievements; from his unsettled childhood to performing at the 1998 Oscar awards ceremony. Although nominated for Best Original Song in the Hollywood film Good Will Hunting and deemed a cult icon in the Indie music scene after releasing an impressive six solo albums, Elliott rose to fame with reluctance and eventually committed suicide at just 34 years old. Arlo contemplates the direction Elliott’s music might have taken were he still alive today, and how his work has influenced and inspired her own. Produced in Bris

  • Jonathan Dimbleby on Harry Hopkins.

    06/05/2021 Duration: 27min

    On May 10 1940, the Germans invaded the Low Countries, Winston Churchill became prime minister, and Harry Hopkins moved in to the White House. This remarkable man was President Roosevelt's closest confidante until the end of the war. A principal architect of the New Deal, he was the president's first envoy to meet Churchill and was sent off to meet Stalin too. But what also impresses his nominator, Jonathan Dimbleby, is his courage - Harry Hopkins had stomach cancer and died in 1946. Features biographer David Roll, author of The Hopkins Touch, plus impressive archive of Hopkins on the BBC. Presented by Matthew Parris Produced in Bristol by Miles Warde

  • KT Tunstall on Ivor Cutler

    27/04/2021 Duration: 27min

    Ivor Cutler is hard to categorise. Whimsical and uncompromising, depressive yet joyful, childlike and curmudgeonly, an 'outsider', championed by insiders like Paul McCartney, he's perhaps best known for his collection 'Life in a Scotch Sitting Room Volume Two" (there is no volume one) or his much-covered 1983 indie hit 'Women of the World'. Cutler often referred to himself as a 'humourist', though his work spans music, poetry, children's books, performative and visual art. A sensitive soul and keen member of the Noise Abatement Society, he loved the small, quiet things in life - bugs, flowers, birds, small kindnesses and cups of tea. He hated chemical smells, loud noises and cars and always rode his bicycle to get around - whether peddling his harmonium to a gig to support Soft Machine or heading to Hampstead Heath to sit quietly with his notebook under a tree. The Scottish eccentric had a distinctive style - wearing plus fours and often with a flower adorning his hat. He would approach strangers offering s

  • Black and British pioneer Kenny Lynch

    20/04/2021 Duration: 27min

    Kenny Lynch was born in Stepney, East London in 1938. He toured with the Beatles, wrote best-selling songs, was a champion boxer in the army, and a regular face on British TV. He was also - at the start of his career - one of the very few black and British singers in the UK, but he's not really remembered as a pioneer. Out to change that is his nominator, broadcaster and record producer Eddie Piller who first liked Kenny for his effortless style, but loves his records too. "Kenny Lynch was no victim," he says. Features extensive archive of Kenny talking about his East End childhood plus the music he sang and produced. Presenter Matthew Parris Producer Miles Warde

  • Chinua Achebe, Nigerian novelist

    15/04/2021 Duration: 27min

    Yasmin Alibhai-Brown picks Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, the author of Things Fall Apart. With archive contributions from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Chinua Achebe himself. He was born in Nigeria in 1930 and Yasmin Alibhai Brown met him twice in Uganda in the 1960s and remains deeply impressed by both his books and his life. The presenter is Matthew Parris, the producer is Miles Warde

  • The Talented Mr Ripley author, Patricia Highsmith

    07/04/2021 Duration: 27min

    Director Jonathan Kent was friends with Patricia Highsmith. He'd been playing Tom Ripley for a tv show, and staying in the hotel suite next door to her. She took a shine to him. Now he repays the debt with this revealing and intriguing programme to celebrate a hundred years since her birth in 1921. Although best known for the Ripley books, she first broke through with Alfred Hitchcock's film adaptation of her novel, Strangers on a Train. She was, says Kent, not so interested in murder as in what happens to a character after the crime is done. "I read sometimes how odd she was - I didn't find her odd at all. She was shy, very shy. She had a fringe, a sort of hank of hair that would fall over her eyes and I would catch her sneaking looks at me. But there was nothing odd about her. Perhaps my standards of oddness are different." Jonathan Kent The programme features extensive archive of Highsmith, plus the film director Anthony Minghella; at least one other Tom Ripley actor; and her award winning biographer,

  • Rights activist Cesar Chavez nominated by Cori Crider

    26/01/2021 Duration: 32min

    In 1960s California, Mexican-American Civil Rights Leader, Cesar Chavez led the United Farmworkers union in a series of strikes, boycotts and semi-religious processions, which inspired farmworkers, students and celebrities to join him in what he called 'La Causa' 'The Cause' was his struggle to force the landowners and growers - and the system in which they operated - to recognise farmworkers as human beings who deserved dignity, respect and basic rights. Senator Robert F Kennedy was a fan, describing him as a "heroic figure". Joan Baez sang at his rallies. Years later, President Obama stole his slogan and opened a national monument to his memory. And yet he is little known internationally or even outside latino communities in the US. The lawyer and founder of Foxglove, Cori Crider, tells Mathew Parris why she is inspired by his legacy and why the lessons from his life are needed now more than ever. Matthew and Cori are joined by Miriam Pawel, the author of The Crusades of Cesar Chavez. Clips of Elise

  • Caroline Catz on Delia Derbyshire

    19/01/2021 Duration: 28min

    The actor Caroline Catz chooses Delia Derbyshire, the musician and composer who is best known for her work at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop where she realised the theme tune to Doctor Who. With Dr David Butler from the University of Manchester who looks after Delia's archive. Delia was born in Coventry in 1937 and describes her earliest recollections of sound as the sound of the German blitz and the air-raid sirens. She studied music and maths at Cambridge and joined the BBC Radiophonic Workshop where she could create sounds that had never existed in the world before. Her 'realisation' of Ron Grainer's theme tune to Doctor Who brought both her and the Workshop to greater prominence, but she later left the BBC and London and moved to Cumbria where she worked on a series of projects, as well as being briefly employed as a radio operator at the Gas Board. She was a pioneer of sound and her work is celebrated each year by Delia Derbyshire Day. Caroline was terrified by the Doctor Who theme tune as a child bu

  • 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

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