Great Lives is a much-loved biographical programme on Radio 4, the BBC’s current affairs and factual radio network. I have often listened to Great Lives at home or in the car and always enjoy the choice of subject, the perspectives of the contributors and the ideas that flow between them. At the time of writing this blog there have been 40 series of Great Lives, and 390 individual Great Lives episodes are available to listen to via the BBC iPlayer.
The format is simple:
Three people have a conversation about a ‘Great Life’. The subject is chosen and presented by a celebrity guest, who is asked to select a person who has inspired their own life. Over the hundreds of programmes that have been broadcast, well known writers, politicians, musicians and artists have presented a Great Life and explained what that life means to them.
Matthew Parris is the host. Kindly and gentle, he nudges his contributors to tell us why their Great Life is so special.
Finally, there is the ‘expert witness’, someone with particular knowledge of the life, who is there to give a sense of balance and objectivity – BBC style – to the discussion.
In August 2016 I received an email from the producer, Perminder Khatkar, asking me to take part in a conversation with the actress, writer and comedienne Maureen Lipman, who had chosen Cicely Saunders as her Great Life. Maureen had never met Cicely Saunders, but her husband, the playwright Jack Rosenthal had died in a hospice and subsequently she became a strong supporter of the hospice movement. She had learned about the role Cicely Saunders played in shaping that movement and quickly became a great admirer of the founder of St Christopher’s Hospice.
I was asked to be the ‘expert witness’.
To prepare for the programme, Perminder asked me to form a picture of Cicely Saunders’ life, work and achievements. The timing could not have been better. I am currently immersed in writing a new biography of Dame Cicely and have never felt so well informed about her life as I do at the moment. Perminder and I spoke on the phone and exchanged emails. A plan was made.
Within a few weeks, one warm afternoon in early September, I found myself going through the Art Deco doorway of Broadcasting House in London’s Portland Place. I joined Maureen and Matthew in the studio, making my own contributions to the conversation as it went along.
Paradoxically, directly opposite, just metres away, was All Souls Church, where Cicely had been a regular attendee during the late 1940s and through the 1950s. It was a lovely conjunction, and afterwards I spent a few moments on the steps of the church, gathering my own thoughts about Cicely’s remarkable contribution to the world.
Maureen Lipman on Dame Cicely Saunders is to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 1640 on Tuesday 6 September 2016.
I would like to thank Maureen, Matthew and Perminder for inviting me to contribute to this episode of Great Lives, and I hope you enjoy the programme.