Great Lives - Four Hundred And Counting

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20171209

From Leon Trotsky to Morecambe and Wise - Matthew Parris on the rows, revelations and rank incompetence behind 400 editions of Great Lives.

Deep in the summer of 2001, a new programme tiptoed out onto Radio 4. The concept was simple - book someone famous to talk about someone dead. Except there was a problem; famous people don't talk much about someone else. In a world of the celebrity plug, getting voices to commit to a radio programme where they couldn't talk about themselves was proving tough. Twelve slots to fill, and nobody signed up.

Four hundred episodes later.... Barbara Castle, Beryl Bainbridge, Bernard Manning, eventually everyone says yes. David Attenborough chose a man who first drew a flea, George Osborne the king who taxed the non-doms. Then there was Christopher Hitchens, so incensed by the presenter that he walked out. "You're a bleeding Tory," he said, "and always have been. Have you done? I have to be somewhere at one."

In Four Hundred and Counting, Matthew Parris and original series producer Miles Warde go behind the scenes to find out how Great Lives was born. Featuring material never previously played - nominators and experts about their hopes and fears; archive of original presenters Joan Bakewell and Humphrey Carpenter; plus a special selection of the very best of Great Lives.

"There's a joy in judging people by their choice of hero. It's one reason Matthew Parris's Great Lives series has run for 40 series." Ben Preston, Radio Times editor, 2016.

Programme extracts include: Penelope Keith on Morecambe and Wise; Michael Sheen on Philip K Dick; Grace Dent on Nancy Mitford; Brian Sewell on Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria; Maureen Lipman on Cicely Saunders.

Produced at BBC Bristol by Miles Warde

Made for BBC Radio 4 Extra and first broadcast in December 2017.