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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.




Justin Marozzi on Herodotus

Herodotus - father of history or father of lies? Matthew Parris introduces a sparky discussion about a writer whose achievements include a nine book account of a war between east and west - the Persian invasions of Greece. Justin Marozzi proposes him not just as an historian, but as geographer, explorer, correspondent, the world's first travel writer, and an irrepressible story teller to boot. Backing him up is Professor Edith Hall, who sees Herodotus as the author of a magnificent work of...

Duration: 00:28:33

Liza Tarbuck on Nikolas Tesla

Actor and broadcaster Liza Tarbuck chooses the extraordinary life of the Serbian-American scientist Nikola Tesla whose inventions were ahead of his time. He founded the Tesla Electric Light Company and was responsible for the introduction of the A/C current in America, seeing off competition from his rival and former hero Thomas Edison. The fortunes and misfortunes of this brilliant and eccentric man who died virtually penniless in a New York hotel room are discussed by Liza and Matthew with...

Duration: 00:27:44

Hertha Ayrton

Helen Arney, self confessed science nerd, stand-up entertainer, and once nicknamed a "geek songstress", tells Matthew Parris why she's chosen Hertha Ayrton, the pioneering Victorian physicist, inventor and suffragette, as her great life. Ayrton, we hear, was the first woman to be admitted into membership of what is today known as the IET, the Institution of Engineering and Technology. Their archivist Anne Locker knows Ayrton's life and works and fields the questions from Matthew and Helen....

Duration: 00:27:44

Nazir Afzal on Gandhi

This week Matthew Parris invites the former Chief Crown Prosecutor for North West England Nazir Afzal who was responsible for convicting the men who sexually abused young girls in Rochdale to nominate a great life. He has chosen Mahatma Gandhi, also a lawyer, whom he says inspired him to speak out on behalf of those who were marginalised and ignored by the rest of society. Producer: Maggie Ayre.

Duration: 00:27:42

Daniel O'Connell

On a field outside Dublin, Daniel O'Connell met and shot a former royal marine in a duel. John d'Esterre had been outraged when O'Connell, the later hero of Catholic emancipation, described the mainly Protestant Dublin corporation as a 'beggarly corporation'. O'Connell later claimed that he had practised with two pistols every week, knowing that one day he would be challenged to a duel. Nominating O'Connell is the vice chancellor of Oxford and terrorism expert Louise Richardson. It's not...

Duration: 00:28:31

Cornelia Parker on Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp, the father of conceptual art, and responsible for that famously provocative urinal signed 'R Mutt, 1917', is the great life choice of fellow artist Cornelia Parker. She explains to Matthew Parris why he's influenced not only her work but that of so many other artists since his death in 1968. As an art student in the 1970s she recalls the attraction of Duchamp's 'readymades', such as a bicycle wheel or suspended wine bottle rack - manufactured items that the artist selected...

Duration: 00:27:50

Will Gregory on Flann O'Brien

Goldfrapp's Will Gregory is centre-stage at the Colston Hall in Bristol to tell Matthew Parris why he feels a kinship with Irish writer Flann O'Brien whose books 'At Swim-Two-Birds' and 'The Third Policeman' are now hailed as literary masterpieces but which only came to prominence after the author's death. Carol Taaffe, who has written about Flann, helps make sense of the man who wrote under three pseudonyms - Brian O'Nolan, Flann O'Brien, and Myles na gCopaleen. They look more closely at...

Duration: 00:31:23

Helena Morrissey on Rachael Heyhoe Flint.

City Boss Dame Helena Morrissey champions the life of Rachael Heyhoe Flint, the pioneer of women's cricket who was regarded as a ground breaker who ruffled feathers and shook up a male dominated sport. Helena Morrissey who has also made it to the top of her career in a male dominated word of the City, is founder of the 30% Club, a campaign group whose aim is to get a minimum of 30% women on FTSE-100 boards. Now working as Head of Personal Investing with Legal and General Investment...

Duration: 00:27:31

Andrea Catherwood on Constance Markievicz

Constance Markievicz led an amazing life - a leading figure during the Easter Rising of 1916, she was the first woman elected to Westminster though she never took her seat. Markievicz was born into a wealthy anglo-Irish family and gained her exotic surname from marriage to a Polish count. She was adventurous, flamboyant, committed to woman's rights, court-martialled and nearly shot. Nominating her is Andrea Catherwood, ex-ITN correspondent who made her first documentary for Radio 4....

Duration: 00:28:30

Nicholas Stern on Muhammad Ali

Nicholas Stern is IG Patel Professor of Economics and Government at the London School of Economics, among other positions, and former Chief Economist at the World Bank. He is also a massive boxing fan and chooses the life of Muhammad Ali to explore with Matthew Parris and sports journalist and boxing commentator Ronald McIntosh. Not only does Stern admire Ali's prowess in the ring, but more so his fearless stance against the Vietnam War which cost him dearly both personally and...

Duration: 00:33:07

Helen Sharman on Elsie Widdowson

How many people realise the impact Elsie Widdowson had on the way we view nutrition? She was a food scientist who devoted her life to improving the diets of adults and children in Britain and abroad. Matthew Parris hears why Helen Sharman, the first Briton to go into space, thinks Widdowson deserves her nomination. They are joined by Elsie's friend and biographer Margaret Ashwell, President for the Association for Nutrition. You can download the podcast to hear an extended version of the...

Duration: 00:38:41

Tracy Chevalier on Mary Anning

Matthew Parris and his guest - novelist Tracy Chevalier - discuss the life of Mary Anning, the working class woman from Lyme Regis who discovered full dinosaur skeletons on Dorset's Jurassic Coast and sold them to collectors in the early 1800s. They are joined by Hugh Torrens, Emeritus Professor of History of Science and Technology at the University of Keele. Mary's remarkable finds came before Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and she believed them at first to be giant crocodiles, but...

Duration: 00:29:03

Don McCullin on Norman Lewis

In 1968 Norman Lewis wrote an article called Genocide in Brazil. The photographs that accompanied it were by Don McCullin. Lewis later said that this one piece of journalism was the great achievement of his life. It led directly to the creation of Survival International and a change in the law relating to the treatment of indigenous people in Brazil. Lewis is known as a brilliant writer - one of our best, said Graham Greene, 'not of any particular decade of our century'. He's best...

Duration: 00:27:38

Sathnam Sanghera on Alexander Gardner

Author and Journalist Sathnam Sanghera nominates a Great Life; a man dismissed as a fantasist and a liar in his own lifetime. Alexander Gardner was a Scottish-American soldier, a traveller, an explorer and adventurer - a white man with a tartan turban, who ended up in India in a Maharaja's Sikh Army in the 19th Century, just before the British Raj took over. Possibly a plagiarist and touted as a scoundrel, yet Sathnam claims he's worthy of a bigger place in history. If just a tiny portion...

Duration: 00:28:48

Maxine Peake on Ellen Wilkinson

The actress Maxine Peake nominates her working class hero, Ellen Wilkinson, as a great life. Ellen is regarded as one of the most important figures in the history of British radical left politics. She joined the Communist party, met Lenin and Trotsky in Moscow and then went on to become one of the Labour Party's youngest people entering parliament in 1924. For Maxine Peake, the tragedy is that Ellen Wilkinson is now virtually a forgotten figure despite her remarkable achievements. With...

Duration: 00:27:42

Stephen Fry on PG Wodehouse

Stephen Fry nominates his hero P.G 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, P. G. Wodehouse." P.G 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 twentieth century and created...

Duration: 00:29:50

Peter Williams of Jack Wills chooses Steve Jobs

This week it's the turn of Peter Williams, founder of the British retail chain Jack Wills who is nominating Steve Jobs as his great life. For Williams, despite the fact that Steve Jobs was an abrasive and difficult person, it was his ability to predict what people wanted. It was his Apple products that have touched the lives of so many people world wide and for Peter it's his gadgets that have changed our attitudes to technology. To help Peter Williams make his case, he is joined by Luke...

Duration: 00:28:06

Iain Lee on Andy Kaufman

There were so many hoaxes in Andy Kaufman's brief career that for years his fans believed that he wasn't really dead. Kaufman's best known as Latka Gravas in the American sitcom Taxi, and his life was undoubtedly weird. Performance artist, Elvis impersonator, wrestler - he's difficult to pin down. Nominator Iain Lee believes he was a genius, while Olly Double of the University of Kent school of arts reckons Kaufman didn't really care if his audience laughed or not. Presenter Matthew Parris...

Duration: 00:26:10

Sue Cameron on Emma of Normandy

Twice Queen of England and mother of two kings, but have you heard of Emma of Normandy? Doyenne of Whitehall and Westminster journalists, Sue Cameron names William the Conqueror's aunt as her great life. Matthew Parris explores the time 1,000 years ago when England was emerging as a new nation in the decades before the Norman invasion, when the country's Anglo Saxon rulers were beset with Viking invasions. Emma, herself of French Viking descent, was pitched into a maelstrom of war and...

Duration: 00:27:23

Steven Knight on Sitting Bull

For Steven Knight, the screen writer and director of Peaky Blinders and Taboo, it was easy to nominate his great life. For him there was just one choice, his all- time hero Sitting Bull. As a young boy growing up in Birmingham in the 1970s, Steven was obsessed with stories and tales of Native Indians. At the age of 13, Steven searched for pen-pals and ended up exchanging letters with the great grand-children of Sitting Bull who lived in South Dakota. The correspondence and friendship he...

Duration: 00:27:38

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