Episodes

  • The chef and co-founder of The River Cafe, Ruth Rogers, picks the life of the writer and activist James Baldwin.

    A writer, poet, playwright and activist, Baldwin was known as a trailblazing explorer of race, class and sexuality in America and the “literary voice of the Civil Rights movement”.

    Joining Ruth and Matthew is Professor Rich Blint from the Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts in New York. He is director of the college’s race and ethnicity programme and is a contributing editor to the James Baldwin Review. Together they explore Baldwin's writing style, the turbulent times faced both politically and personally; and ask - were he alive today - whether he would feel the world had progressed in its attitude to race.

    Presented by Matthew Parris and produced for BBC Audio in Bristol by Caitlin Hobbs.

  • The Greek politician and economist takes us back to ancient Alexandria and the life of the first woman to make her name as a mathematician. But Hypatia is best known now for being brutally murdered. Yanis Varoufakis makes the case for her as a philosopher and mathematician, and explores how her story has been interpreted and misinterpreted in the centuries after her death. He's joined by the writer and broadcaster, Professor Edith Hall.

    Presented by Matthew Parris and produced for BBC Audio in Bristol by Chris Ledgard

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  • The president of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge and former Channel 4 editor champions the life of a 14th-century mystic. Like Dorothy Byrne, famous for her scathing attacks on broadcasting executives in the 2019 MacTaggart Lecture, Catherine of Siena stood up to powerful men. She lobbied Popes, attacked corruption in the Catholic church, and played an active role in the troubled Italian politics of the late 14th century. Alongside Francis of Assisi, she is one of two patron saints of Italy.
    Carolyn Muessig, Chair of Christian Thought at the University of Calgary, provides the expert analysis.

    Presented by Matthew Parris and produced for BBC Audio in Bristol by Chris Ledgard

  • Ewan MacColl sang "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" to Peggy Seeger down the phone. When they met, Peggy says, he was in the grip of his midlife crisis. "I'm fond of saying the poor boy didn't stand a chance," she tells Matthew Parris. This programme is her attempt to set the record straight. "I'd like to do a bit of justice to him, because there's an awful lot of myths, an awful lot of bad talk, misunderstandings."

    Ewan MacColl was born Jimmy Miller in Salford, which he wrote about in 1949 in his song, "Dirty Old Town." He made his name in theatre, was married to Joan Littlewood, and after the Second World War he was a powerful force behind the folk revival. He also with Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker created the famous Radio Ballads. Peggy is joined in discussion by Peter Cox, author of Set Into Song. The programme is heavily illustrated with MacColl's music and his voice.

    The producer for BBC audio in Bristol is Miles Warde

  • When Josiah Wedgwood had part of an injured leg amputed, he encouraged his workers to celebrate the anniversary as St Amputation Day. This remarkable man from Stoke on Trent built a pottery empire that made him famous round the world. He's nominated here, on location, by the former MP for Stoke Central, Tristram Hunt, now head of the Victoria and Albert museum in London. The programme includes an interview with the head of Royal Staffordshire, Norman Tempest, plus readings from Brian Dolan's biography, The First Tycoon.

    Tristram Hunt's latest book is called The Radical Potter.

    The presenter is Matthew Parris, the producer for BBC audio in Bristol is ex-Stoke resident Miles Warde

  • Born and raised in Martinique, Frantz Fanon fought for the Free French Forces against the Nazis, and then devoted his life to the liberation of Algeria from France. Fanon was a psychiatrist and author of two acclaimed anti-colonial works: Black Skin, White Masks, and The Wretched of the Earth. He is the choice of the writer and broadcaster Lindsay Johns, who explains why his connection to Fanon is not just intellectual and moral, but also personal. And from Paris, the Frantz Fanon expert, Françoise Vergès, offers her analysis of his life and work.

    The presenter is Matthew Parris and the producer for BBC Audio in Bristol is Chris Ledgard
    Image: Archives Frantz Fanon / IMEC

  • Althea Gibson made sporting history in 1957 - the first black tennis player to win a Wimbledon title. She also won the US Open and the French Open. Raised on the streets of Harlem, her story is remarkable. And yet she is relatively unknown. Devi Sridhar, Professor of Global Public Health at Edinburgh University, champions Althea Gibson's life with the help of the writer Sally H. Jacobs, who is writing a new biography of the tennis star.

    The presenter is Matthew Parris and the producer for BBC Audio in Bristol is Chris Ledgard

  • Yehudi Menuhin was the original child prodigy. He was born in America in 1916, and was soon playing in concert halls round the world. He also played to the survivors of the German concentration camps, and waded into the fight against apartheid in South Africa too. Tasmin Little was a pupil at the Yehudi Menuhin school in Surrey, England, and knew her choice well. Not only was he a brilliant performer, she says, he was a crossover star who played with Ravi Shankar, Stephane Grappelli and Morecambe and Wise. You'll also hear from his biographer, Humphrey Burton, and from Yehudi Menuhin too.

    Presented by Matthew Parris

    Produced for BBC audio in Bristol by Miles Warde

  • 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 the author of The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia.
    And Hans Christian Andersen is the author of The Little Mermaid and The Emperor's New Clothes


    The presenter is Matthew Parris, the producer for BBC Audio in Bristol is Miles Warde

  • "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 Ethiopia: "Maybe this is the first Great Life that is a life that hasn't happened," he says.
    Also features Josie Long on Kurt Vonnegut plus a host of other famous voices in the mix.

    Presented by Matthew Parris
    Produced by Miles Warde

  • 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 Edward III deserves to be better known, but is less starry-eyed about his achievements. Edward, Lord Sumption says, was an incompetent diplomat, lived too long, and ended his reign a "heroic failure".

    Presented by Matthew Parris
    Produced by Chris Ledgard

  • 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, 'The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves'.
    But he wasn't without his own demons and fell out of public favour. Rumours of gambling, sex addiction and adultery challenged his reputation. In recent years scholars have debated his life and works and a renewed interest in his essays has emerged.

    Ben Miller plays Lord Featherington in Bridgerton, and he wrote and starred in The Armstrong and Miller Show on Channel Four.
    With expert contributions from Dr Uttara Nataragen, a founding organiser of The Hazlitt Society and editor of The Hazlitt Review.

    Presented by Matthew Parris
    Produced by Nicola Humphries for BBC Bristol

  • 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 achievements; from his unsettled childhood to performing at the 1998 Oscar awards ceremony. Although nominated for Best Original Song in the Hollywood film Good Will Hunting and deemed a cult icon in the Indie music scene after releasing an impressive six solo albums, Elliott rose to fame with reluctance and eventually committed suicide at just 34 years old.

    Arlo contemplates the direction Elliott’s music might have taken were he still alive today, and how his work has influenced and inspired her own.

    Produced in Bristol by Caitlin Hobbs.

  • 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.
    Features biographer David Roll, author of The Hopkins Touch, plus impressive archive of Hopkins on the BBC.
    Presented by Matthew Parris
    Produced in Bristol by Miles Warde

  • 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 and keen member of the Noise Abatement Society, he loved the small, quiet things in life - bugs, flowers, birds, small kindnesses and cups of tea. He hated chemical smells, loud noises and cars and always rode his bicycle to get around - whether peddling his harmonium to a gig to support Soft Machine or heading to Hampstead Heath to sit quietly with his notebook under a tree.

    The Scottish eccentric had a distinctive style - wearing plus fours and often with a flower adorning his hat. He would approach strangers offering small sticky labels with 'cutlerisms' on like "Never Knowingly Understood", "Illiterates Against the Nizis" or "Funny Smell". He was convinced that the world was absurd and met it with a unique blend of dark and daft humour, refusing to let it crush his child's eye view.

    John Peel, who recorded many sessions with Ivor Cutler, once remarked that Cutler was probably the only performer whose work had been featured on Radio 1, 2, 3 and 4. He continues to inspire a cult following 15 years after his death.

    Matthew Parris and nominator KT Tunstall are joined by Bruce Lindsay, currently at work on a biography of Ivor Cutler.
    We also hear excerpts from interviews with Ivor's partner Phyllis King and his son Jeremy Cutler, conducted by the producer, Ellie Richold.

    Image: Courtesy of Jeremy Cutler

  • 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 no victim," he says. Features extensive archive of Kenny talking about his East End childhood plus the music he sang and produced.

    Presenter Matthew Parris
    Producer Miles Warde

  • 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

  • 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 what happens to a character after the crime is done.

    "I read sometimes how odd she was - I didn't find her odd at all. She was shy, very shy. She had a fringe, a sort of hank of hair that would fall over her eyes and I would catch her sneaking looks at me. But there was nothing odd about her. Perhaps my standards of oddness are different." Jonathan Kent

    The programme features extensive archive of Highsmith, plus the film director Anthony Minghella; at least one other Tom Ripley actor; and her award winning biographer, Andrew Wilson, who has a few Highsmithian novels on the way.

    This is the first in a new series which also features the African novelist, Chinua Achebe; the Plantagenet king Edward III; and the British entertainer Kenny Lynch.

    The presenter is Matthew Parris, the producer is Miles Warde.

  • 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, describing him as a "heroic figure". Joan Baez sang at his rallies. Years later, President Obama stole his slogan and opened a national monument to his memory. And yet he is little known internationally or even outside latino communities in the US.

    The lawyer and founder of Foxglove, Cori Crider, tells Mathew Parris why she is inspired by his legacy and why the lessons from his life are needed now more than ever.

    Matthew and Cori are joined by Miriam Pawel, the author of The Crusades of Cesar Chavez.
    Clips of Eliseo Medina were taken from an interview conducted by the producer.

    Producer: Ellie Richold

  • 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 Workshop where she could create sounds that had never existed in the world before. Her 'realisation' of Ron Grainer's theme tune to Doctor Who brought both her and the Workshop to greater prominence, but she later left the BBC and London and moved to Cumbria where she worked on a series of projects, as well as being briefly employed as a radio operator at the Gas Board. She was a pioneer of sound and her work is celebrated each year by Delia Derbyshire Day. Caroline was terrified by the Doctor Who theme tune as a child but fascinated by the woman, and later discovered tracks like 'Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO' and 'Blue Veils and Golden Sands' from Radiophonic Workshop mix tapes. The discovery of 267 tapes in Delia's attic provided another portal into the extraordinary sonic world of Psyche-Delia and the mystery surrounding both how she created her music and the choices she made in life provided the inspiration for Caroline's film 'Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes' in which she plays the lead. Delia appears in archive recordings to give Matthew Parris his first taste of a Wobbulator.

    Producer: Toby Field