In terms of potential for grey matter stimulation, it doesn’t get much better than a show on BBC Radio 4 talking about some of the great people that lived amazing lives throughout history. Great Lives has been airing on BBC Radio 4 since August 2001 and the most recent incarnation, started with Series 26 in December 2011, with the help of new presenter, Matthew Paris.
While it continues to focus on consistently interesting people, it can be a bit hit and miss in terms of its delivery, but it’s worth sifting through the archives at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qxsb to find the great great ones. Dylan Thomas, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, George Orwell, Henry Cooper, Josephine Bonaparte, Walter Scott, Stan Laurel, Rasputin, Jean Cocteau, Florence Nightingale, Salvador Dali, Bill Shankley, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Kenny Everett, Galileo and whole lot more can be found.
Although, the episode on DH Lawrence, for example, which first aired on the 14th December 2010, is a bit all over the place and didn’t do enough to introduce newcomers to Lawrence and his work. While the episode on Aneurin Bevin is much more rounded, looking at his life brilliantly and evoking the character of the great Welshman. However, one thing that seems to be missing from the majority of the shows is a breakdown of the history of their lives, which seems to miss out on the true potential of the show.
A good comparison would be with one of the best BBC Radio 4 shows in recent years, The History of the World in 100 Objects. While it is comparable in terms of having a really strong presenter and interesting guest speakers, where it excels is in its ability to catalogue the history of the focal point in a way that Great Lives doesn’t do. There’s also a lack of fine editing in some of the older shows, like DH Lawrence, in which a good amount of nonsense seems to have made it into the episode, when it should perhaps have been stripped and refocused.
Despite this, there are still a good number of gems to be found with Great Lives. Like the recent episode on Ludwig II of Bavaria or the older episode on the brilliant writer of Alone in Berlin, Hans Fallada. The final episodes of series 26 aired on Wednesdays 11th January 2012 at 16:30 on BBC Radio 4, however, large portions of the back catalogue are also available to download as podcasts through iTunes for free.
As of August 2013, Paris is well into the 31st Series of the show, which shows no sign of slowing. Eva Gardener, Fela Kuti and Ivor Novello all fall under spotlight of the series, which includes guest speakers, Russell Grant and writer Julie Burchill.
Great Lives, BBC Radio 4 review: 3.5/5