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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.




Hans Christian Andersen

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...



"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...


Rosie Millard on Edward III

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...


Ben Miller on William Hazlitt

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,...


Arlo Parks on Elliott Smith

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...


Jonathan Dimbleby on Harry Hopkins.

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....


KT Tunstall on Ivor Cutler

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...


Black and British pioneer Kenny Lynch

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...


Chinua Achebe, Nigerian novelist

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

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...


Rights activist Cesar Chavez nominated by Cori Crider

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,...


Caroline Catz on Delia Derbyshire

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...


David Jonsson on Jean Michel Basquiat

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....


Rob Rinder on Jessica Mitford.

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...


Diane Morgan on Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding

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,...


David Spiegelhalter on Frank Ramsey

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

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...


Katherine Parr, sixth wife of Henry VIII

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,...


Xuanzang, Chinese monk and traveller

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...


James Graham on John Maynard Keynes

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...