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Great Lives is a BBC Radio 4 biography series. Produced in Bristolmarker it is presented by Matthew Parris. A distinguished guest is asked to nominate the person they feel is truly deserving of the title "Great Life". Matthew and a recognised expert (a biographer, family member or fellow practitioner) are on hand to discuss the life. The programmes are 30 minutes long, broadcast at 16:30 on Tuesday and repeated at 23:00 on Friday. There are usually nine episodes in each series, and 19th series was broadcast in August and September 2009.

Table of nominators and subjects

Series 12, April-May 2007

Series 13, August-October 2007

Series 14, December 2007 - January 2008

Series 15, April-May 2008

Series 16, August-September 2008

Series 17, December 2008 - February 2009

  1. Harvey Goldsmith, performing arts promoter, nominated Luciano Pavarotti, Italian operatic tenor
  2. Michael Grade, broadcasting executive, nominated Billy Marsh, theatrical agent
  3. Raymond Briggs, illustrator and writer, nominated Beachcomber, columnist
  4. David Soul, actor, nominated Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian and Resistance figure
  5. Tracy-Ann Oberman, actress, nominated Bette Davis, American film actress
  6. Pam Ayres, poet, nominated Tony Hancock, comedian and actor
  7. Redmond O'Hanlon, travel writer, nominated Alfred Russel Wallace, naturalist
  8. Rachel De Thame, horticulturalist, nominated Margot Fonteyn, ballerina
  9. Ken Livingstone, former Mayor of London, nominated Robert Kennedy, American politician


Series 18, April-May 2009

  1. Stuart Hall, broadcaster, nominated Napoleon Bonaparte, French historical figure
  2. Polly Toynbee, journalist, nominated Roy Jenkins, politician
  3. David Mellor, politician, nominated Thomas Beecham, conductor
  4. Ruby Wax, American comedian, nominated Carl Jung, Swiss founder of analytical psychology
  5. Colin Murray, broadcaster, nominated Frank Sinatra, American singer
  6. Andy Sheppard, saxophonist, nominated John Coltrane, saxophonist
  7. Michael O'Donnell, doctor and broacaster, nominated Fred Astaire, dancer and actor
  8. Misha Glenny, journalist, nominated Giovanni Falcone, Italian magistrate and anti-Mafia campaigner


Series 19, Aug-Sept 2009

  1. Andrew Motion, Poet Laureate, nominated Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Poet Laureate
  2. David Miliband, Member of Parliament and Minister, nominated Joe Slovo, South African ANC leader
  3. George Galloway, Member of Parliament, nominated John Cornford, poet and activist
  4. Dervla Murphy, travel writer, nominated Freya Stark, travel writer
  5. Rolf Harris, Australian musician and artist, nominated Kyffin Williams, Welsh artist


Earlier highlights

Great Lives features include:

A E Housman

The murder mystery writer Colin Dexter suggested the English poet A E Housman as his "great life" in May 2008. Dexter and Housman were both classicists who found a popular audience for another genre of writing. Parris said he had never much cared for Housman, but admitted that this changed his mind.

Nina Simone

The legendary chanteuse, pianist, composer and civil rights activist Nina Simone is the choice of another female musician who’s made a career of defying convention, Joanna MacGregor.

Julia Ward Howe

The American academic, Elaine Showalter, joins presenter Matthew Parris to discuss the life of the 19th century American writer, Julia Ward Howe. Best known as the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Ward Howe was a feminist, a pacifist and - according to Showalter - a great lost poet. With Professor Gary Williams.

W. H. Auden

Broadcaster Jeremy Vine loves the poetry of W.H. Auden but isn't much interested in his life. Presenter Matthew Parris doesn't think a lot of the poetry but is fascinated by Auden's life. Biographer Richard Davenport-Hines thinks you need to understand the life to appreciate the work. Jeremy Vine reads one of his own poems and wonders whether Auden would have liked it. Matthew thinks it's "estimable". Richard thinks it's "sincere". They both wonder whether Auden would have fancied Jeremy. And all three examine Auden's life.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of USmarker president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was born into a wealthy American family but transcended her origins to become a formidable campaigner for human rights and economic justice - both in the United States and on the world stage. Civil liberties lawyer Helena Kennedy argues that she's one of the great women of the last century, and, with the help of Roosevelt biographer, Blanche Wiesen Cook, examines her extraordinary life. Presented by Matthew Parris.

Max Miller

Max Miller was one of the highest-paid and most popular comedians of the 20th century. But his risqué humour got him banned from the BBC. TV critic Garry Bushell thinks he represented the true voice of working-class humour, and with the help of Roy Hudd, who worked with Miller, examines the career of the "cheeky chappie". Matthew Parris presents.

Leon Trotsky

A fiery return for the biographical series in which Matthew Parris chooses the living, and the living choose the dead. Christopher Hitchens proposes Leon Trotsky, hero of the Russian Revolution later assassinated with an ice pick in the skull. He sees him as the perfect combination of the man of ideas and man of action, and says Trotsky's writings still make the hairs on his neck stand up. Matthew Parris is joined by Professor Robert Service in resisting him all the way.

Robin Day

News presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy nominates his illustrious predecessor Robin Day. During the height of his career, he was regarded as Britain's finest political interviewer - the "great inquisitor" - on television and radio. Some salute him for breaking the mould of deferential interviewing but others think he bullied his subjects and stole the limelight himself with his mannered performances. Krishnan Guru-Murthy explains why for him Day remains a hero, we hear archive evidence, and Matthew Parris chairs the programme.

W. G. Grace

Piers Morgan, former editor of the Daily Mirror and life-long cricket enthusiast, nominates W.G. Grace as the greatest English cricketer and, some would say, the greatest English sportsman of all time. He seeks to persuade presenter Matthew Parris, who is himself not a fan of cricket, of the achievements of the man who elevated cricket to its unique place in English life. Grace's biographer Simon Rae acts as umpire.

Tamara Karsavina

Writer and broadcaster Anna Raeburn nominates the ballerina Tamara Karsavina. Born in Russia in 1885 she was caught up in the October revolution and fled to England, where she lived until her death in 1978. She was the leading female dancer in Diaghilev's Ballet Russes from its beginning in 1909 until 1922, and her partnership with Nijinsky created many of the greatest ballet roles that we know. In England she coached Margot Fonteyn and created roles for Frederick Ashton. Anna Raeburn explains why Karsavina still lives for her and Matthew Parris chairs the programme, with expert contribution from Judith Mackrell.

Ignaz Semmelweis

Writer and broadcaster Frances Cairncross nominates a forgotten hero of medicine: Ignaz Semmelweis. Semmelweis was a doctor ahead of his time: in the mid-nineteenth century he discovered why women were dying in droves after childbirth: doctors were spreading disease on their hands around hospitals. The solution he came up with was regular hand-washing. But his message was ignored. Women carried on dying, Semmelweis went mad, and he died in obscurity. Matthew Parris chairs the programme, and Semmelweis biographer Sherwin B. Nuland offers expert advice.

Johnny Weissmuller

Olympic gold medallist Duncan Goodhew tells Matthew Parris why athlete-turned-actor Johnny Weissmuller deserves the mantle of greatness. Weissmuller's only son Johnny Jr joins them to explore his heroic father's disturbing childhood, his astonishing swimming talent, and his Hollywood adventures with bad-tempered chimps and ticklish tigers.

Ella Fitzgerald

The singer Ella Fitzgerald is the choice of the entrepreneur Ivan Massow on this week's edition of Great Lives. He joins presenter Matthew Parris and Dame Cleo Laine to explore the contradictions in the life of the woman they called "the First Lady of Song".

Sigmund Freud

Craig Brown reveals great dreams on Great Lives as he proposes Sigmund Freud. Almost seventy years after his death, the father of psychoanalysis remains a powerful and compelling character, though critics have denounced his work as "the greatest intellectual confidence trick of the last century". Matthew Parris chairs the programme, and Adam Phillips offers expert advice.

Noel Coward

Julian Clary proves the perfect guest for the series in which one of the living proposes one of the dead. His hero is Sir Noel Coward, nominated here for his elegance, for his plays, and for being gay in an age when it was still illegal. Sheridan Morley reveals many of the secrets of his life, including the extent of his role in allied intelligence during the Second World War, while presenter Matthew Parris wonders how long his literary achievements will last.

Andrew Carnegie

In 1901, when Andrew Carnegie sold his steel making empire to the banker J.P Morgan for 480 million dollars, the financier congratulated him on becoming “the richest man in the World”. But it’s not just Carnegie’s wealth that inspired this week’s guest, Daily Telegraph’s Editor-at-Large Jeff Randall, to nominate him for ‘Great Lives’. By the time he died, Carnegie had given most of his vast fortune away. Presenter Matthew Parris invites Randall to explore the life of an extraordinary businessman and philanthropist, with the help of Eric Homberger, Professor of American Studies at UEA.

Morecambe and Wise

Matthew Parris admits that he finds Morecambe and Wise "chummy and unchallenging" and their scripts to be "rather lame". But fear not; on hand to defend the talents of the comedy duo is Penelope Keith, who has not only selected them as her "great lives" for the consistently brilliant biography series, but was also their guest star in the 1977 Christmas edition of the show, which notched up over 28 million viewers.

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