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Great Lives


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

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


London, United Kingdom




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




Great Lives: Series 35: Laura Bates on Louisa May Alcott

Laura Bates tells Matthew Parris why Louisa May Alcott of "Little Women" is her Great Life


Sybille Bedford, author of Jigsaw and A Legacy

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...


Billy Bremner of Leeds United

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...


Sally Phillips on Hollywood star Myrna Loy

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...


Victoria Wood

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....


The amazing Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in 1928. She was a mother, writer, dancer, director, performer, friend of presidents, and author of seven volumes of memoir. The very first - I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - returned to the top of the best-seller lists when she died in 2014. So why were people fascinated by her life? Nominating her is Bristol University's recently appointed professor of slavery, Olivette Otele. "I l love her, I really do." She's joined by Patricia Cumper who has...


Ursula Le Guin nominated by Kate Stables

Ursula le Guin was born in California in 1929. Her books - including A Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness - have been described as masterpieces but she battled prejudice all her life from the literary elite. Choosing her because she loves both Ursula's books and who she was is the British musician Kate Stables. She's speaking to Matthew Parris from Paris. On the line from San Francisco is Arwen Curry - she knew the author and made the film The Worlds of Ursula K Le Guin with...


Frank Cottrell Boyce on Tove Jansson

"One of the best things a children's writer can do is to implant sign posts in childhood to things that are good, and to the small pleasures that will get you through life" Frank Cottrell-Boyce Tove Jansson was born in Helsinki in 1914. An artist, illustrator and writer she became best known as the creator of The Moomins, the little white trolls who lived in Moominvalley with other fantastical creatures such as the Hattifatteners, Mymbles and Whompers. Acclaimed screenwriter and children's...


Rick Stein on Jim Morrison

As a twenty-one year old man travelling the world, a young Rick Stein discovered The Doors and became fascinated by the band's lead singer, Jim Morrison. Over the subsequent fifty years, the life and legend of one of rock and roll's brightest stars had a lasting impact on the restauranteur. Joining Matthew Parris and Rick Stein to uncover the mysteries of Jim's life is the broadcaster Paul Gambaccini, who found The Doors when he was a student radio disc jockey at university. With...


Andi Oliver on Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison

When Andi Oliver first read Toni Morrison's 'The Bluest Eye' she felt as though someone climbed inside her head. Morrison's books saved her life - both emotionally and cerebrally. The author, editor and college professor Toni Morrison chronicled the lives of African-Americans in novels such as 'Beloved', 'Sula' and 'Song of Solomon'. She once said that what drove her to write was "the silence of so many stories untold and unexamined". Born in Ohio, she was granddaughter to a slave, and her...


Kurt Vonnegut and Josie Long

"I am a German American, a pure one, dating back to when German Americans were still marrying each other." Kurt Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis in 1922, but the most important event in his life happened in Dresden in 1945. He was a POW and underground in a meat locker during the firebombing. When he emerged he found the city totally destroyed. It took him another two decades to work out how to write his book, Slaughterhouse-Five. Nominating Vonnegut is the comedian Josie Long, who says...


Charlie Parker nominated by Ken Clarke

From Kansas City to New York, young Charlie Parker conquered the world of jazz.. He was famous during his life, and even more famous after he died aged 34. He's nominated here by former health minister, home secretary and chancellor of the exchequer, Kenneth Clarke. Together with Richard Williams and Val Wilmer, Ken recounts what made Bird great, and why he died so very young. "If you look at the street scenes of Harlem in 1940, it was a squalid place. Club life in New York was probably a...


Bill Bailey on his hero Alfred Russel Wallace

Bill Bailey has not just travelled in naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace's footsteps, he's crazy about him too. "I love him, I really do." Wallace is best known for what used to be known as the Wallace-Darwin theory of evolution. When he died in 1913, the New York Times called him the last of the 'giants belonging to that wonderful group of intellectuals ... whose daring investigations revolutionised and evolutionised the thought of the century." Born in 1823, Wallace was a collector, a...


Novelist Enid Blyton

Janice Turner recently wrote a sweet, sensitive article about packing up the contents of her parent’s house. “The experience was almost unbearable,” she began. Among the items passed down from the attic, “my entire childhood,” were a heavy sledge, Twinkle and Jackie annuals, “and a heavy trunk of 60 Enid Blytons.” 60 Enid Blytons - imagine that! Janice Turner aka @victoriapeckham and winner of press interviewer of the year, is nominating Enid Blyton in a programme filled scandal, racism and...


Jeremy Paxman nominates Lord Shaftesbury

What makes a brilliant politician? What should motivate them? Does having a faith help? Broadcaster and writer Jeremy Paxman chooses the seventh earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley-Cooper. a Victorian politician whose numerous and wide-ranging social reforms transformed working and living conditions for impoverished children, miners and chimney-sweeps alike. Joining Matthew Parris and Jeremy Paxman is Lord Shaftesbury's great-great-grandson, the twelfth earl, Nick Ashley-Cooper. The three...


War photographer and model Lee Miller proposed by Lindsey Hilsum of Channel 4 News

In the early summer of 1945, Lee Miller sent a telegram back to London about what she had seen in the Nazi death camps. “I implore you to believe this is true,” she wrote. Her employers were Vogue magazine. How did a famous beauty like Miller end up covering the war? Her extraordinary life and the images she left, most famously posing in Hitler's bath, are explored here by Lindsey Hilsum of Channel Four News. She is joined by Miller's son, Antony Penrose. Lee Miller was American, born in...


Just William / Richmal Crompton proposed by Peter Oborne with Martin Jarvis

"It's absolutely joyous, one of the highlights of my career!" Peter Oborne on being joined by Martin Jarvis, the man who brings Just William to life. Journalist Oborne is nominating both William Brown and his creator, Richmal Crompton. She wrote 39 multi-million selling books, and her delight in William is clear to hear in the archive. Other contributors include her biographer, Mary Cadogan, and her niece, Richmal Ashbee. But it's the brilliance of Martin Jarvis's impersonations of William,...


Constance Agatha Cummings-John

The author Chibundu Onuzo nominates the first elected female in Africa, Constance Agatha Cummings-John. Chibundu discovered the remarkable story of Constance while studying for her PhD. Born into the Sierra Leonean Krios elite in 1918, Constance was brought up in colonial Freetown, with a lifestyle which most resembled English gentility. But everything changed for her when she travelled to England and America as a teenager. She experienced racism and segregation for the first time, and...


Comedian Sindhu Vee on Prince

The comedian Sindhu Vee has loved Prince ever since she was a young girl in India - when her sister gave her illicit cassettes recorded from U.S. radio. Hearing his music changed her life forever, and seeing him perform influenced her career as a comedian. Sindhu is joined by BAFTA-winning investigative journalist Mobeen Azhar (who's seen Prince live 54 times) and presenter Matthew Parris, to discuss the life of Prince Rogers Nelson - a pop polymath and global superstar, who was also a man...


Fiona Shaw nominates actress Eleonora Duse

Fiona Shaw, BAFTA award-winning star of Killing Eve, joins Matthew Parris to explore the life of one of history's most remarkable actresses whose name has slipped from public memory. She inspired Stanislavski's 'method', changed Chekhov's mind about acting, and took Chaplin's breath away - the nineteenth-century performer, Eleonora Duse. Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, professor of English and Theatre Studies at St Catherine's College, Oxford, helps Fiona and Matthew uncover the drama of Duse's life,...