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Great Lives


Biography series exploring the greatest people who ever lived. Matthew Parris interviews an eminent guest and an expert to reveal the truth behind their history heroes.

Biography series exploring the greatest people who ever lived. Matthew Parris interviews an eminent guest and an expert to reveal the truth behind their history heroes.
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London, United Kingdom




Biography series exploring the greatest people who ever lived. Matthew Parris interviews an eminent guest and an expert to reveal the truth behind their history heroes.




Christina Lamb on Benazir Bhutto

Benazir Bhutto made history when, aged 35, she became the first democratically elected female Prime Minister of a Muslim majority country. Her family are one of world’s most famous political dynasties, but also one blighted by tragedy – murder, feud and assassinations. Bhutto has been nominated by Christina Lamb, author and chief foreign correspondent with the Sunday Times. Bhutto was her friend and a huge influence on her life. She also expelled Christina Lamb from Pakistan. Christina has a...


Helen Glover on Alison Hargreaves

The Olympic rower Helen Glover is Matthew Parris' guest this week, choosing the life of the mountaineer Alison Hargreaves to discuss with the help of her biographer Ed Douglas. Alison Hargreaves' short life was defined by her love of the mountains. She became interested in climbing as a teenager and devoted her life to pursuing ever greater challenges. She was the first woman to climb Mount Everest without oxygen and unsupported before losing her life on the infamous K2 mountain in Pakistan...


Mark Carwardine on Douglas Adams

"Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, this is an interesting world I find myself in - fits me rather neatly, don't you think?" Douglas Noel Adams wasn't even fifty when he died in 2001, but his imagination had already roamed far. He created The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the Meaning of Liff and several episodes of Doctor Who, plus the Dirk Gently character and Last Chance to See. Nominating him is his co-writer on Last Chance to See, the zoologist Mark Carwardine....


Cherie Blair on Dame Rose Heilbron

For Cherie Blair, leading barrister and QC, picking her great life was simple - her role model is Rose Heilbron, England's first woman judge. When Cherie was growing up in Liverpool, Rose Heilbron was always the name that excited her grandmother the most. Rose was a barrister and when she was arguing a case before a jury in her home city, Cherie Blair's grandmother would follow her cases avidly, sometimes from the public gallery. Then she would come back and tell young Cherie all about what...


Greg Jenner on Gene Kelly

Greg Jenner on the great song and dance man Gene Kelly, star of Singin' In The Rain. "He was so much better than he had any right to be." Born in Pittsburgh in 1912, Gene Kelly was a broad-shouldered Irish American whose first love was ice hockey. But according to his biographer, Ruth Leon, he revolutionised movie-making by making the camera dance. Matthew Parris is impressed. Kelly's great films also include On The Town and An American in Paris - with extracts and archive, this is a joyful...


Patricia Greene on Bess of Hardwick

Patricia Greene, the actress who plays Jill Archer, makes the case for Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury, or Bess of Hardwick as she's more commonly known. Like her heroine, Patricia was born in Derby and was aware of the nearby grand stately home Hardwick Hall. 'More glass than wall' was the local saying; as the key feature of this 1590s house was the exuberant use of this rare material. Only recently did she discover that the initials 'ES', which are blatantly carved on the turrets, stood...


Simon Evans on JS Mill

Towards the end of his comic rant about the descent of man, Simon Evans does something very dangerous. He starts to read out to his audience an extract of John Stuart Mill. Potential comedy death? In this programme he explains why the famous Victorian philosopher with the squirly hair is his idea of genius. As well as On Liberty, Mill wrote The Subjection of Women and was the first member of Parliament to call for women's right to vote. Joining him and Matthew Parris is Professor Anne...


Erica Wagner on Roald Amundsen

"We are ready to take the Pole in any kind of weather on offer," wrote the Norwegian Roald Amundsen in December 1911. Born in 1872, Amundsen is part of a group of men - including the playwright Henrik Ibsen and the explorer Fridjtof Nansen - who gave shape to Norwegian identity just as the country broke free from Sweden and achieved independence. He is also remembered as the man who beat the British explorer Scott to the South Pole. The different cultures of their two countries come under...


Hanif Kureishi on David Bowie

"Suddenly this light comes into your life" - says Hanif Kureishi, referring to his hero, his great life, David Bowie. Hanif, an author, screenwriter and film maker went on to become friends with Bowie in the 1990's after they worked together when Bowie wrote the soundtrack to Kureishi's TV adaptation 'The Buddha of Suburbia'. For Hanif it was also David Bowie who inspired him to become an author and filmmaker - he says for a "mixed race Pakistani kid living in a crummy terrace bored out of...


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.


Suzy Klein on Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr was described by her studio as the most beautiful woman in the world. A recent film, called Bombshell, argued that she was a brilliant inventor as well. But what was going on behind that wonderful face? Suzy Klein, host of the BBC Proms, tells Matthew Parris that this was an intriguing woman who continually reinvented herself. She left her native Austria before the Second World War but, despite a successful Hollywood career, what she really wanted was to be known for being...


Mica Paris on Josephine Baker

For soul singer Mica Paris, when she first dreamt of becoming a singer it was Josephine Baker who inspired her most. Baker was a young black American dancer who became an overnight sensation in Paris in 1925 after performing wild, uninhibited routines in the skimpiest of costumes. So can Mica Paris make the case for Baker who wore a string of bananas and little else while performing the 'banana dance? Helping to tell the story of Josephine Baker is author Andrea Stuart. The presenter is...


Simon Callow on Orson Welles

The actor Simon Callow nominates one of the giants of the golden age of Hollywood, Orson Welles. He once said of himself he 'started at the top and worked his way down' never managing to recreate the success he had aged 26 with Citizen Kane, which he wrote, directed and starred in. Welles' friend and collaborator Henry Jaglom talks about knowing him for the last years of his life when Hollywood had turned its back on him and he was strapped for cash and looking for work. Producer: Maggie...


Ayesha Hazarika on Jayaben Desai

Stand up comedian and political commentator Ayesha Hazarika's hero is Jayaben Desai who led a two year strike at Grunwick Film processing factory in North London. The majority of the workers were migrant women and they became known as the 'strikers in sarees'. Matthew Parris remembers the strike in 1976 as he was working in Margaret Thatcher's office at the time, but only recalls the violence at the picket line and the fact that the strike failed. Can Ayesha Hazarika convince Matthew Parris...


Tej Lalvani on Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman was a physicist who helped design the atomic bomb and won the Nobel Prize. He is the great life choice of businessman Tej Lalvani CEO of his family business Vitabiotics and the newest Dragon on the BBC show Dragon's Den. Feynman was also regarded as something of an eccentric and a free spirit who had a passion for playing the bongos. Helping to make the case for this great life Tej is joined by the expert witness David Berman, Professor of Theoretical Physics at Queen Mary...


Laura Serrant on Audre Lorde

Professor Laura Serrant of Sheffield Hallam University, named as one of the most inspirational figures in healthcare, chooses the life of the black, gay poet and activist Audre Lorde who still inspires the women's movement today. She tells Matthew Parris why Audre has meant so much to her both personally and professionally in her work in nursing. Professor Akwugo Emejulu of Warwick University is the studio expert. Producer: Maggie Ayre.


Adrian Utley of Portishead on Miles Davis

Miles Davis - trumpeter, composer, bandleader - is championed by Adrian Utley of Portishead. "He's always been really important in my life, right from early on when my dad used to play him. It was part of the atmosphere of our house." From the early years with Charlie Parker and on via Kind of Blue to playing in front of 600,000 hippies on the Isle of Wight, Miles Davis was a musician who never stood still. "Always listen for what you can leave out," he used to say, and Portishead's seminal...


Jim Moir on Captain Beefheart

The comedian, actor and artist Jim Moir aka Vic Reeves is Matthew Parris' guest and chooses the life of Don van Vliet - the Dadesque musician and painter Captain Beefheart who has influenced many musicians since the 1960s. They are joined by Beefheart's biographer Mike Barnes to discuss the bizarre and complex persona developed by the Californian eccentric who died from MS in 2010. Producer: Maggie Ayre.


Gisela Stuart on Joseph Chamberlain

Gisela Stuart, the former Member of Parliament for Birmingham Edgbaston makes the case for Joseph Chamberlain to be nominated as her great life. But can she really make the case for this former industrialist who made it to the cabinet but had a knack for splitting political parties and switching allegiances? Jo Chamberlain was first a Liberal then a Liberal Unionist and finally formed an alliance with the Conservative party but fell out with them too. Gisela argues he was a man who wasn't...


Great Lives

Liza Tarbuck on Nikola Tesla