About Great Lives
Biographical series in which guests choose someone who has inspired their lives.
The award-winning Sound Recordist and Musician, Chris Watson nominates his hero, Ludwig Koch. In 1889, German-born Koch was the first person ever to record birdsong (at the age of 8) onto a wax cylinder recorder, given to him by his father as a toy. Despite a promising baritone voice and being a very good violinist, the first world war put paid to Ludwig Koch's career as a musician and he began working for the German branch of EMI recording cityscapes, before going on to invent the ‘sound book', a nascent sort of multimedia that became very popular in Germany before the second world war. As a Jew and an outspoken critic of the Nazi regime, Koch fled Germany in 1936 for England, sadly leaving his many recordings behind. But his theatrical delivery, unique voice and the fact that, as Chris Watson notes, "He was not shy about his achievements", soon made him a household name in broadcasting here in the UK. Chris Watson is joined by emeritus professor Sean Street. Together and with the aid of archive, they marvel over the great lengths Koch went to to capture his 'performers'. Produced in Bristol by Ellie Richold
An aristocrat in an eye patch, a jazz saxophonist, a crime novelist and a pioneering organic farmer. Lady Eve Balfour was born in 1898 into the political elite - her uncle was A J Balfour, who was Prime Minister from 1902-05. But from the age of 12 she wanted to be a farmer and, after studying at agricultural college, made her dream a reality. She started experimenting with organic farming, and eventually published a book called The Living Soil, which lead to her founding the organic farming body, the Soil Association. Seen as somewhat of a crank, she faced opposition from fellow farmers and politicians alike. Meanwhile, her personal life was as fascinating as her agricultural life. She lived in a run-down farmhouse with her female partner, played saxophone in a jazz band and co-authored a series of best-selling crime novels. Presenter, Matthew Parris, is joined by former Director of the Soil Association, Patrick Holden, and Sarah Langford, a farmer and author who claims a "borderline obsession" with Lady Eve. Produced for BBC Audio in Bristol by Heather Simons
Veteran British film director Ken Loach nominates the 17th century radical pamphleteer and and leader of the Diggers, Gerrard Winstanley. Born in Wigan in 1609, Winstanley began writing religious pamphlets after his cloth selling business in London went bankrupt and he was forced to move to the country. There his 'heart was filled with sweet thoughts ... that the earth shall be made a common treasury of livelihood to all mankind', for 'the great Creator Reason, made the Earth to be a Common Treasury... for Man had Domination given to him, over the Beasts, Birds and Fishes; but not one word was spoken in the beginning, that one branch of mankind should rule over another." Winstanley began to dig a nearby wasteland, calling on others - rich and poor -to join him in the digging, which he believed would start a revolution and feed the poor. His ideas were radical, communal, spiritual and deeply challenging. Within a year the Diggers had been aggressively expelled from their site of occupation. The late Tony Benn called the Diggers, 'the first true socialists', but Winstanley has also been claimed by anarchists and environmentalists. With Emeritus Professor of Early Modern history, Ann Hughes. Presented by Matthew Parris and produced for BBC Audio in Bristol by Ellie Richold
On the 11th June 1988 Jessye Norman performed a spine-tingling rendition of 'Amazing Grace' to a packed Wembley Stadium, bringing to a close a concert marking the seventieth birthday of Nelson Mandela. By this point her career Jessye Norman was a global icon of opera, best-known for her performances in works by Wagner, Verdi and Mozart. She refused to take the parts traditionally offered to Black singers and once said that pigeonholes were only for pigeons. She would sing, in fact, whatever she liked. Double-bassist and founder of the Chineke! Orchestra Chi-chi Nwanoku was driving back from a concert when she first heard Jessye Norman singing on the radio. She remembers being so struck by her voice that she had to pull over and wait until the performance had finished before continuing her journey. Chi-chi and presenter Matthew Parris explore some of Jessye Norman's work and recordings, and her views on what it means to be a Black woman in classical music. Chi-chi and Matthew are joined by Kira Thurman, Associate Professor of Musicology at the University of Michigan to help map out the key moments and decisions in Jessye Norman's extraordinary life. Produced for BBC Audio Bristol by Toby Field
The Godmother of English - and Irish - ballet, Dame Ninette De Valois or ‘Madam’ as she was known to those around her. She is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the history of ballet. She established the Royal Ballet School, the Royal Ballet and the UK’s premiere touring ballet company, which went on to become the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Under the guidance of ‘Madam’, these institutions grew and became celebrated around the world, with post WWII Ballet tours generating much needed funds for the British Treasury and company members, including Margot Fonteyn and Robert (Bobby) Helpmann, becoming international celebrities. Madam was also instrumental in the development of National Ballets in Turkey, Iran and Canada. She achieved all of this despite a childhood diagnosis of polio and was dedicated to ballet right up until her 102nd year. She is nominated by choreographer Sir David Bintley. He met Madam while studying at the Royal Ballet School in the mid 70’s. To David, who was originally from Huddersfield, ‘Madam’ was his ‘Southern Grandmother’. David is joined by Anna Meadmore – dance historian and curator of the Royal Ballet Schools Special Collections Archive. Together they reflect also on Madam's formidable character, her unprecedented contribution to English Ballet and her legacy as an adventurous traditionalist. Presented by Matthew Parris Produced in Bristol by Nicola Humphries
Born in 1922, Hattie Jacques began her career in music hall before graduating onto the radio comedies of the 1950s such as Educating Archie', 'It's That Man Again' and 'Hancock's Half Hour' where she became a star. TV and films followed, most notably the role of Eric Sykes' twin sister in 'Sykes' and the stern but lovelorn matron, headmistress or housekeeper in the 'Carry On' films. Hattie was teased about her weight in school and she was often the person being laughed at in her work. She largely accepted this role but yearned to do more serious work. In contrast to many of the characters she played she was a vivacious person who loved men and liked a party. Choosing Hattie is neuroscientist Sophie Scott who remembers Hattie as the first funny woman she heard or saw. Sophie studies why we laugh and says it was great how Hattie held her own with these men. Together with expert Andy Merriman they explore Hattie's life including how she did her own welding in a film, her marriage to John Le Mesurier and affair with John Schofield, and whether the typecasting she suffered was a hindrance or a benefit to her career. Presented by Matthew Parris who remembers Hattie uttering "But not with a daffodil!" in 'Carry On Nurse'. You'll have to listen to find out where exactly that daffodil was discovered. Produced for BBC Audio in Bristol by Toby Field.
It's a famous name - there's Raffles Hotel and Raffles Hospital, plus the rafflesia, the largest flowering plant in the world, an ant, a butterflyfish and a woodpecker, as well as the Raffles Cup, a horse race in Singapore. He was born in 1781 and as an agent of the East India Company, Thomas Stamford Raffles rose to become lieutenant governor of Java during the Napoleonic war. He's also often named as the founder of Singapore and also London Zoo. But how did he achieve so much so fast? Recorded on location at London zoo with Matthew Gould, CEO of the Zoological Society of London; plus Stephen Murphy of SOAS University of London and Natasha Wakely who talks about Matthew Gould's second choice, Joan Procter, first female curator of reptiles who famously used to take a Komodo dragon for walks on a leash. The producer in Bristol is Miles Warde
Thomas Mann was a German writer whose books explored themes around family, beauty and the creeping threat of fascism in Europe. Mann's best-known 'Death in Venice' revealed the author's attraction to young boys and it was turned into a film in 1971 starring Dirk Bogarde. Mann moved to Switzerland before the outbreak of the Second World War and lived in exile in Europe and the USA for the rest of his life. From his home in California he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Einstein and Brecht, and he recorded broadcasts for the BBC urging the German people to rise up and over throw Hitler. He was married and had six children, two of whom took their own lives. Lexicographer and word expert on 'Countdown' Susie Dent says German was her first love and she first-read Mann whilst studying at University. She loves the tension in his work between the pull of one's senses and the desire to stay aloof and detached. Susie and Matthew are joined by Karolina Watroba, Research fellow in German and Comparative Literature at the University of Oxford. Karolina was born in Poland where Mann is a huge cultural icon and she first read 'The Magic Mountain' in the summer before she went to University. Future subjects in the series include Hattie Jacques and Stamford Raffles, founder of London Zoo and Singapore. Produced for BBC Audio in Bristol by Toby Field
"It's the complicated ones I enjoy the most." Matthew Parris Tony Benn, MP from 1950 to 2001, packed so much into a long career. He renounced the peerage inherited from his father, served in the Labour governments of both Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan, led the Stop the War Coalition from 2001 and became pretty much the country’s pre-eminent rock star politician in older age. Comedian Ellie Gibson says she was a Tony Benn groupie and saw him speak many times. A brilliant orator and prolific diarist, he was by the 1980s distrusted by many in his own party, and a bogey figure in the right wing press. Contributors include ex Labour MP, Chris Mullin, and his biographer, Jad Adams; plus rare early archive of Tony Benn himself talking about his constitutional fight to give up his inherited peerage. Ellie Gibson is one half of the Scummy Mummies podcast duo. The producer in Bristol is Miles Warde
When Jon Ronson was growing up, he went to see The Specials play in Cardiff. "I went on my own to Sophia Gardens," he says. "The crowd was fantastically wild. There’s a lot to not like about the feral nature of British street culture – i.e. getting beaten up - but out of turmoil can come great art, songs like Ghost Town and Concrete Jungle. Anyway, before The Specials came on, I made a decision: I would pretend to faint in the hope that I could watch the show from the side of the stage. It worked like a dream. I was carried by the bouncers to the wings, and left there. This was probably the most exciting moment of my life, and as I stood there, Terry Hall noticed me and came over to ask if I was okay. Terry Hall, the coolest man in Britain, being kind and showing concern." Years later Terry Hall publicly announced that he'd been abducted by paedophiles as a boy. Jon Ronson immediately remembered the care and concern Terry had shown him and wondered if this was why. Programme includes Terry's bandmate, Lynval Golding, giving his first interview since Terry died in December; plus two of his friends, Shaun O'Donnell and Gary Aspden, and the voice of Terry himself. Jon Ronson is the author of Adventures with Extremists and presenter of Things Fell Apart, about the culture wars. The producer in Bristol is Miles Warde
Edward Coke was born in Norfolk in 1552. He's best known as a judge and Parliamentarian, the link says Jesse Norman between Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights. He was also, the programme claims, an occasionally appalling human being who used his own daughter in a marriage deal to buy himself favour with the King. Joining Jesse Norman in studio, often backing up his claims for Coke's greatness, is Dr Alexandra Gajda of Oxford University. Jesse Norman is a government minister, former paymaster general and one time financial secretary to the Treasury. The presenter is Ian Hislop, the producer Miles Warde
In 1997 Kofi Annan became the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations. The nineties were a turbulent period for the organisation and it had received criticism for a lack of action in both Rwanda and Bosnia leading to thousands of deaths. Kofi was born in Ghana and after a brief spell in the USA slowly worked his way up through the organisation and his appointment was seen by many as a return to a consensus and multi-lateral approach to diplomacy. Choosing Kofi is the writer, biologist and presenter Gillian Burke. Gillian's Mum worked for the UN and Gillian describes herself as a "Child of the UN". For both Gillian and her Mum, Kofi Annan was a symbol of hope and an embodiment of the core principles of the UN, and she is keen to learn what qualities Kofi had that made him a good diplomat. To help answer that is former ambassador to the UN, Sir Jeremy Greenstock. Sir Jeremy praises Kofi's ability to listen to all sides but says his eyes would harden when he disagreed with what was being said. Together with Matthew Parris, they chew over the successes and failures of Kofi Annan's career, the role of the UN, and what impact he might be having today if he were still alive. Presenter: Matthew Parris Guests: Gillian Burke and Sir Jeremy Greenstock Produced for BBC Audio, Bristol by Toby Field
"The most important thing to do in your life is not to interfere with somebody else's life." Frank Zappa was born December 1940 in Baltimore, USA. Comedian John Robins - who is obsessed - reckons that it was his subsequently itinerant childhood that had much to do with what happened next. Frank's musical output was prodigious and varied, but John laughs out loud when pushed on whether he had any hits. That wasn't the point of Frank Zappa - the music was everything, creating it and performing it. Joining the award winning comedian and broadcaster in studio is Deb Grant, who provides a steadying balance to John Robins' fan boy approval of all things Zappa. Programme includes multiple clips of Frank himself, including his most famous quote: "Most rock journalism is people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read." The producer in Bristol is Miles Warde
Frederick the Great had a brute of a father. When young Frederick was captured trying to run away, he was locked up and forced to watch his friend - possibly his lover - being beheaded in front of his eyes. King of Prussia from 1740, Frederick was also a musician, a composer, a writer and a chancer who took extraordinary military risks to secure his place in Europe. Adolf Hitler thought the world of Frederick the Great, but how do Germans view him today? Joining Matthew Parris to discuss a really extraordinary great life is Christopher Clark, regius professor of history at Cambridge University and Frederick's nominator. He recalls crossing into East Berlin in the eighties and being thrilled to discover Frederick's cultural legacy was still largely intact. Also in studio is Katja Hoyer, author of Beyond the Wall who grew up with the spectre of Frederick looming large both at school and at home. The producer in Bristol is Miles Warde
Broadcaster Qasa Alom chooses the first African American tennis player to win the US Open and Wimbledon, Arthur Ashe. Arthur Ashe was born in Richmond, Virginia, a state in the US that in 1943 was still part of the segregated south. If Arthur wanted to compete with white players, he had to leave for St Louis and then California to play. His story is staggering, and not just his success in a notoriously elitist sport. His mother died when he was six, he had a heart attack when he was 36, and he died of AIDS when he was just 49, contracted from a tainted blood confusion. Film maker and broadcaster Qasa Alom grew up loving Rafa Nadal. Then Ashe's story blew him away. "In a world where we have so many demonstrative heroes, in sport, in politics, the extrovert who is shouting the loudest often gets heard. There's a really good opportunity here to showcase other ways of being a champion, and Arthur Ashe for me is certainly that person." Programme contains historic interviews, including Arthur Ashe talking to Anthony Clare for In The Psychiatrists Chair shortly after his first heart attack. Also includes a new interview with Raymond Arsenault, American author of Arthur Ashe: A Life. Presenter: Matthew Parris Producer: Miles Warde First broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in April 2023.
The best-selling author of How to Train Your Dragon, Cressida Cowell, explains her love for the Swedish author, Astrid Lindgren. Born in 1907, Lindgren invented the Pippi Longstocking stories to tell to her children during the war years, only writing them down for a publisher years later. Following the immense success of Pippi, Astrid Lindgren went on to write Emil of Lonneberga, Children of Noisy Village and the fantasy novels Mio, my son; Ronia the Robber's Daughter; and The Brother's Lionheart. But it was Pippi who brought her fame and fortune. She was a particular hit in post-war Germany, where it is claimed the stories helped de-nazify the Hitler youth. In the 70s and 80s Lindgren began campaigning on child, environmental and animal rights, influencing Swedish government policy and becoming known as the 'Grandmother of all Sweden'. She is still very much adored there today. Cressida Cowell is a recent children's laureate. Also joining the discussion is Johan Palmberg, Lindgren's great grandson, who recalls. "She had this understanding of what a child might be interested in ... she would be the first one to climb the trees and have the children follow her up" Produced in Bristol by Ellie Richold Image courtesy of Jacob Forsell
Actor Adjoa Andoh has a list of TV, theatre and film credits as long as your arm. She's best known worldwide as Bridgerton's Lady Danbury, and is due to direct - and star in the title role - in a new production of Richard III. Her great life is the 20th century American writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, author of "Their Eyes Were Watching God". An iconic figure in the literature of the jazz age, her name was all but forgotten after her death in 1960, before being pulled back into public consciousness in the US by "The Color Purple" author Alice Walker, who famously wrote: "A people do not throw their geniuses away". With the help of fellow enthusiast Dr Janine Bradbury, Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Writing and Culture at the University of York, Adjoa makes the case that we should all know more about Zora, a trailblazer who - on top of her writing career - researched zombies in the Caribbean and helped collect the stories of slavery's last survivors. Presenter: Matthew Parris Producer: Beth Sagar-Fenton
‘For me, it’s all about his authenticity’. Chris McCausland Kurt Cobain, lead singer, guitarist and songwriter of the band Nirvana became the voice of a generation and is to this day considered one of the most influential musicians in the history of alternative rock. His angst ridden, often politically driven lyrics challenged the conventions of the day and resonated with youth audiences around the world. He championed the underdog and stood up for all those who had ever felt excluded from the mainstream. Kurt’s message resonated with comedian, actor and writer Chris McCausland, but so did his music. With its raw energy and Kurt’s ‘take me as I am’ performances, Chris found a rock band that delivered the authenticity he’d been searching for. Accompanied from New York by author, journalist and music specialist Laura Barton, Chris discusses the Great Life of Kurt Cobain, his music, his message, his sense of humour and why it’s never too late to jump in a mosh pit. Presented by Matthew Parris Produced by Nicola Humphries
Matthew Parris travels along the Thames to meet Nick Hayes - illustrator and author of The Book of Trespass - to discuss the life of Roger Deakin. They also enjoy a naked swim. Joining them, in his pants, is Patrick Barkham. His new biography of Roger Deakin is published this year. The producer in Bristol is Miles Warde.
"I was born an Englishman but I'll die a European." Those are the words of Henry Plumb, Lord Plumb, a farmer who was President of the National Farmers Union in the 1970s and who became the first British person to be elected President of the European Parliament. Championing his life is the farmer and current President of the National Farmers Union, Minette Batters. She says that Henry supported her from the outset and that he would offer advice and support wherever it was needed. Minette is joined by Richard Inglewood, Lord Inglewood, who knew Lord Plumb well. They explore Lord Plumb's early life as a farmer in Coleshill, his views on membership of the European Union, and his electoral success as a Member and then President of the European Parliament, which included such perks as involvement in the European Song Contest. Matthew Parris asks Minette about the challenges of balancing her work with the day-to-day demands of farming and what impact Lord Plumb made on British life. Produced in Bristol by Toby Field. Image credit: John Cottle/NFU Correction: Henry Plumb's opponent in the election to become President of the European Parliament in 1987 was Enrique Barón Crespo and not Egon Klepsch.