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Great Lives

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

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George Orwell

Whilst at school, a young Alan Johnson was given some money by a teacher and told to go and buy four copies of any book for the school library. He headed down the Kings Road in Chelsea, stopping only for a sly cigarette along the way. Having already read 'Animal Farm', he picked 'Keep the Aspidistra Flying' and yearned for the life of lead character Gordon Comstock.Former Home Secretary Alan Johnson tells Matthew Parris, why Orwell was crucial to his education and political development. But he's surprised to learn that Orwell is not on the National Curriculum, and insists that Orwell would have hated ID cards. With Jean Seaton, Professor of Media History at the University of Westminster and Chair of the Orwell Prize.Producers: Beatrice Fenton and Toby Field.First broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in September 2012.

28mins

28 Sep 2012

Rank #1

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Tom Shakespeare on Gramsci

Dr Tom Shakespeare is a lecturer at the Medical School in the University of East Anglia and prominent campaigner for the rights of the disabled.He explains to Matthew Parris why the life and work of the Italian left-wing revolutionary Antonio Gramsci means a great deal to him personally. They're joined in the studio by Professor Anne Sassoon. Producer: Christine HalFirst broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in September 2014.l

28mins

2 Sep 2014

Rank #2

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Robinson Crusoe

Was Robinson Crusoe real? According to the book it was 'written by himself'.To establish the facts, Matthew Parris is joined by two notable desert island survivors to discuss Crusoe’s life and strange adventures, during 28 years on an uninhabited island near the mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque. Crusoe's nominator is Lucy Irvine, who spent a year on Tuin Island with a man called Gerald. Her exploits resulted in a book and a film called ‘Castaway’. The second guest is journalist Martin Popplewell, who was inspired as a teenager to try desert island life by Brooke Shields in the film ‘The Blue Lagoon’.As Martin points out, "There's no mention in the entire Crusoe book of coconuts" in this entertaining dissection of both Crusoe and his creator, Daniel Defoe.Producer: Miles WardeProduced in Bristol and first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in July 2019.

24mins

13 Aug 2019

Rank #3

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Russell Kane on Evelyn Waugh

Comedian Russell Kane nominates the novelist Evelyn Waugh. One of the greatest prose stylists of 20th century literature, not to mention one of the funniest, novelist Waugh also has a reputation for being a snob, a bully, and a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary. How much of this was a self-parodying pose, and how much the underlying truth? Russell is supported by literary critic Ann Pasternak Slater. Both are unabashed Waugh fans.Russell calls him "a ninja master of banter", but series presenter Matthew Parris says he can't stand him... Producer: Jolyon JenkinsFirst broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in December 2018.

27mins

11 Dec 2018

Rank #4

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Laura Marling on Lou Andreas-Salome

Laura Marling, folk singer-songwriter, nominates the first female psychoanalyst, Lou Andreas-Salomé.Laura has been unravelling the mysteries of Russian-born Lou Andreas-Salomé ever since she came across her name in the biography of the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. She'd never heard of Salomé's name but discovered she was Rilke's literary mentor for years. As well as this, she was the only woman allowed in Sigmund Freud's Inner Psychoanalytic Circle, and was proposed to by Friedrich Nietzsche, who called her “the cleverest person I ever knew...” Yet today, she's been largely forgotten. Laura makes the case for remembering this enigmatic woman who inspired some of the greatest minds of our time. Laura Marling has been nominated for the Grammy Awards, the Mercury Prize and has won a Brit award for best British Female Solo Artist. Presented by Matthew ParrisProducer: Eliza Lomas in BristolFirst broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2019.

27mins

13 Aug 2019

Rank #5

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William Shakespeare

No less a figure than the national bard, William Shakespeare, is nominated for great life status by poetry curator and TV producer, Daisy Goodwin. Dominic Dromgoole, Artistic Director of the Globe Theatre joins Matthew Parris to put flesh on the life that is remarkably light on known and verifiable facts. How and why did this son of an illiterate glovemaker from Stratford on Avon come to bestride the international stage, adopted not only as England's national poet, but even displacing Goethe and Schiller in Germany? Dromgoole argues that more than a sense of the man is conveyed in his 37 plays. Producer: Mark Smalley.

28mins

7 Oct 2011

Rank #6

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Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde, author of The Importance of Being Earnest and The Ballad of Reading Gaol, is proposed by Will Self, a writer once described as a 'high powered satirical weapon'.In 1895, and at the height of his success, Wilde began libel proceedings against the Marquess of Queensberry, sparking a disastrous sequence of trials, prison, exile and disgrace. A century later Oscar Wilde is often listed as one of the wittiest Britons who ever lived, but this was a life that ended in tragedy and early death. Joining Will Self and Matthew Parris in the studio is Franny Moyle, author of a biography of Oscar Wilde's wife, Constance, an often overlooked character in Wilde's life. The programme features actor Simon Russell Beale's reading of De Profundis - From The Depths.The producer is Miles Warde.

28mins

10 Apr 2012

Rank #7

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Toyah Willcox on Katharine Hepburn

Singer Toyah Willcox chooses the actress and Hollywood legend, Katherine Hepburn.Dubbed an 'oddity' and 'box office poison', she liked to goad the press and public with her eccentric behaviour and unconventional love life. Her career in Hollywood spanned six decades, during which she starred alongside other Hollywood greats, including James Stewart, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy.The four time Oscar award winning actress Katharine Hepburn is this week's Great Life. She is championed by singer and actress Toyah Willcox - who met and worked with her. The expert is Dr Mark Glancy – Reader in Film History, at Queen Mary, University of London. The presenter is Matthew Parris. Producer: Perminder Khatkar.First broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2015.

27mins

29 Sep 2015

Rank #8

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Sarah Vine on Dante

"Whenever I have too much to drink, I bang on about Dante ...." Sarah Vine makes a choice from the heart - the great Italian writer Dante Alighieri, father of the Italian language and author of the Divine Comedy. "I'm not an expert," she says, "mine is more of a romantic infatuation." As well as the outspoken Daily Mail columnist, Matthew Parris is joined by Claire Honess, professor of Italian studies at Leeds University. Together they piece together an extraordinary life. Includes extracts from Radio 4's production of the Divine Comedy starring John Hurt Producer: Miles WardeFirst broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in April 2014.

27mins

8 Apr 2014

Rank #9

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Ian McKellen on Edmund Hillary

On May 29 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Everest. Both men immediately became famous worldwide. The actor Sir Ian McKellen, then a young teenager in Burnley, was clearly struck by the achievement. In later life he met Hillary in New Zealand and has strong memories of a modest man whose first job was beekeeping. "I did a good job on Everest," Hillary once said, "but have always known my limitations and I found being classified as a hero slightly embarrassing."Joining Sir Ian McKellen to discuss the life of this fascinating man - he took a tractor to the South Pole in 1958 and became High Commissioner to India in 1985 - is the author of Everest 1953, Mick Conefrey. He reveals the epic story of the first ascent, plus discusses Hillary's work with the Himalayan Trust.The presenter is Matthew Parris, the producer Miles Warde.

27mins

4 Aug 2015

Rank #10

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Stephen Fry on PG Wodehouse

Stephen Fry nominates his hero PG Wodehouse, a writer who he says simply cheers him up like no one else. Fry wrote to his hero when he was a schoolboy and his most treasured possession is a signed photograph which reads: "To Stephen Fry, All the best, PG Wodehouse." PG Wodehouse was a self-made man, he began as a bank clerk, married a chorus girl and was interned by the Nazis. He wrote some of the most entertaining novels, stories, plays and lyrics of the 20th century and created enduring characters; the most popular being Reginald Jeeves and Bertie Wooster.Stephen makes the case for why PG Wodehouse is a great life. To help him he is joined by Dr Sophie Ratcliffe Associate Professor in English, University of Oxford and author of 'PG Wodehouse - A life in Letters'. Presented by Matthew Parris. Producer: Perminder Khatkar First broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in August 2017.

29mins

8 Aug 2017

Rank #11

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Mark Steel on Charlie Chaplin

Mark Steel makes the case for Charlie Chaplin being one of the most radical comedians of his time. He reckons it's sad that most see Chaplin as that bloke who wore a bowler hat, had a funny walk, waved a cane around and wasn’t even that funny. Mark argues that Charlie Chaplin’s silent films and his "Tramp" character make sense if you look at the upheavals in society that were occurring alongside his career.Mark is best known for the Mark Steel Lectures and Mark Steel's in Town. He says that while Chaplin was standing up for the working class, the irony was that he became the richest rebel. Presenter Matthew Parris is also joined by Simon Louvish - author of ‘Chaplin: The Tramps Odyssey’. Producer: Perminder KhatkarFirst broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Christmas Day 2018.

27mins

25 Dec 2018

Rank #12

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Barbara Stocking on Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great assumed power in a St Petersburg coup, extended the empire into Crimea, Ukraine and Alaska. is Russia's longest lasting female ruler, and wasn't even Russian herself. All of this intrigues Dame Barbara Stocking, former head of Oxfam, who admires Catherine's leadership style.Biographer Virginia Rounding provides the details of her background and her lovers, and Matthew Parris presents. The producer in Bristol is Miles Warde.

28mins

29 May 2018

Rank #13

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Tim Smit on Humphrey Jennings

Tim Smit has admired Humphrey Jennings since seeing Danny Boyle’s Olympics Opening Ceremony in 2012. Jennings was a film maker, artist, and co-founder of the Mass Observation Movement. Many of the scenes in that memorable Olympic ceremony were inspired by his work. His films about ordinary British life during the Second World War are a poetic testament to the people of the British Isles.Tim Smit wants to know why Jennings isn’t better known?Tim Smit is founder of the Eden Project and talks to Matthew Parris. They're joined by curator Ros Cranston from the British Film Institute, with contributions from Jennings' biographer Kevin JacksonProducer: Maggie AyreFirst broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in December 2018.

27mins

19 Dec 2018

Rank #14

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Suzannah Lipscomb on CS Lewis

Step though the wardrobe - as historian Suzannah Lipscomb selects the creator of the Narnia Chronicles, CS Lewis. The writer was a fascinating and extremely complicated man. Born in Northern Ireland, his mother died when he was a child, and his university career was interrupted so he could fight in the Great War.Suzannah views his writings as deeply moving, as they have influenced her faith.Presenter Matthew Parris is less convinced by the religious influence in his work. But contributor to the Cambridge Companion to CS Lewis, Malcolm Guite sits firmly on Suzannah Lipscomb's side.Produced in Bristol by Miles Warde.First broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in January 2017.

27mins

3 Jan 2017

Rank #15

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Eliza Manningham-Buller chooses Abraham Lincoln

Former director of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, tells Matthew Parris why she regards Abraham Lincoln as a great life. But will her hero stand up to intensive scrutiny and merit the description of having led a great life? The expert is Dr Tony Hutchison, from the American Studies Department at the University of Nottingham. The producer is Perminder Khatkar.First broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2016.

27mins

26 Jan 2016

Rank #16

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Eve Pollard on Nora Ephron

Former newspaper editor and writer Eve Pollard tells Matthew Parris why Nora Ephron, the screenwriter of hit films such as 'When Harry Met Sally', 'Heartburn', and 'Sleepless in Seattle', is a Great Life.They are joined by Dr Jennifer Smyth, an historian whose teaching includes women in Hollywood at the University of Warwick. Producer: Perminder Khatkar

27mins

26 Jan 2015

Rank #17

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Marcus du Sautoy on Jorge Luis Borges

Mathematician Marcus de Sautoy champions the blind Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. He is fascinated by the connection between the creator of 'The Library of Babel' and science - did Borges really understand notions of infinity and space? Biographer Jason Wilson adds colourful detail to the life of a great writer whom he insists was just being impish when it came to the weighty matters that have excited more than one mathematician over the years. The programme includes beautiful recordings of Borges in conversation in 1971. Marcus du Sautoy is the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Understanding of Science. Presented by Matthew Parris.Produced by Miles Warde.First broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra in 2014.

28mins

22 Apr 2014

Rank #18

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Philippa Langley on Richard III

When Philippa Langley and other members of the Richard III Society helped to discover the body of the king in a Leicester car park, Richard's life once again became a hotly contested debating point. Philippa joins Matthew Parris to defend Richard III as a Great Life, with expert witness and Richard biographer Annette Carson. Can the man who may have been responsible for the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower really be described as "great"? Or was he the victim of Tudor propaganda and Shakespearian slander? Producer Christine HallFirst broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2015.

27mins

6 Jan 2015

Rank #19