Flagship for the BBC's Autumn 2002 schedules is a series of programmes to identify the Greatest Briton
of all time. The series kicked off on Sunday 20 October 2002 with "Great Britons: The Top 100" - the top 100 Britons, as
selected in a poll of over 30,000 BBC viewers.
After a rundown from 100 to 11, the top 10 were presented in alphabetical order. A series of programmes
over the coming weeks will profile each of the top 10, with the eventual winner voted on.
The series, coming about 400 years after Channel 4 began its initially excellent series of Top 10s, is
the BBC's late stab at a genre being gradually ever shunned by most TV executives, and is sure to be
unpopular with the ITC, which stated in its most recent annual report that there has been:
"[a] preponderance of similar programme formats across channels, the tendency to
exhaust generic series, whether top 10s, other 'list' programmes or 'from hell's."
The BBC has found itself a great big rope, and has taken an almighty swing at a distant, and now almost
empty, bandwagon. If nothing else, though, the series will at least yield profiles of the ten finalists,
some of which might be worth watching.
The fundamental poll flaw
"Great Britons: The Top 100" suffers from the same problem faced by any "Best of..." list
that relies on a popular vote for its outcome, in that it features a horrendous skew towards
the contemporary, and away from the historical. Just as my choice of top ten albums of all time changes
with every new CD I buy, and just as anyone who doesn't spend half their time thinking of top 5 lists will probably name that one with Antonio Banderas they saw at the Odeon the other
week as the greatest film of all time, and just as any greatest poll for the best pop single of all time
features mediocre efforts from the last 12 months rather than older classics, so it is we end up with a
list of 100 Great Britons, more than one third of whom were born in the twentieth century.
Of course, it's all subjective anyway, and sure, contemporary greatness, importance, or visibility,
shouldn't be disregarded simply because it doesn't have the advantage of hundreds of years of analysis and
review to back it up, but can a man who until no more than five or six years ago was
regarded as one of the members of Take That who didn't write the songs really be regarded as one of the
nations's 100 greatest?
Current thinking is, of course, that he can. At which point, an exercise of this ilk becomes a poll of
what we think right here, right now. We think David Beckham is God, but we've forgotten C.B.Fry.
Tolkien did that film recently, didn't he, so he should probably be in the list, whereas Wilde,
Yeats, and Keats have been underperforming lately, so we'll leave them off. What's that you say? The
Venerable Bede? Before my time, mate, I wouldn't know. That J.K. Rowling, though, she's good isn't
I tell you this. A few years ago, you could have held this poll, and Robson & Jerome would have been
The 100 Greatest Britons, as voted for by some silly people
- 87 men, and only 13 women!
- Three Beatles!
- 17 people with a last name beginning with the letter "B"!
- More royals than you can shake a stick at!
- 15 Knights!
The Top 10 are given in alphabetical order. Until the final vote is cast, we won't know the exciting
outcome. Whoever wins, though, the final awards ceremony will be a muted affair. What with them all being
The Top 10
- Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Wearer of big hats, smoker of big cigars. Also a brilliantly flamboyant industrialist who built 25
railways, the Clifton Suspension Bridge, and the occasional Atlantic Liner.
- Sir Winston Churchill
Prime Minister during World War II. Led the country to victory with a V-sign and a cigar. "We
Shall never surrender!" and all that. Currently the bookies favourite to take the title.
- Oliver Cromwell
With his New Model Army, defeated Charles I, subjugated Ireland, and invaded Scotland. Not a fan
of freedom of expression. Defeated the Levellers. Bit of a bastard, really.
- Charles Darwin
Creator of evolutionary theory. Writer of "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection "
- Queen Elizabeth I
Friend/enemy of Blackadder. Also Queen of England, chiefly during the Elizabethan era. That's when
smoking was popularized, by the way.
- John Lennon
Member of The Beatles, Peace Campaigner, Jealous Guy. Shot by Mark Chapman in 1980.
- Viscount Horatio Nelson
Naval Commander, scourge of Napoleon. Killed by a French sniper at the start of the victorious battle of
- Isaac Newton
Great mathematician and scientist. Or, total shit. Either way, the bookies are predicting a podium finish.
- William Shakespeare
Playwright. Generally recognised as the author of the works of William Shakespaeare, though this is not
universally acknowledged. Looks like a good each way bet.
- Diana, Princess of Wales
Road rage victim. A Royal apart. Queen of Hearts. Brave campaigner / manipulator of the press and
I have to apologise here, and point out that as I only saw half the program, descriptions for the rest of the list peter
out in the mid-40s.
- Ernest Shackleton
Explorer. Never quite made it to the South Pole, but decided to go for a stroll across Antarctica.
Despite losing their ship, under Shackleton's inspired leadership, not one man perished
- Captain James Cook
Farmer's boy who got himself into the navy, sailed off, and claimed Australia and New Zealand for
- Lord Robert Baden-Powell
Founder of the Scout movement
- Alfred the Great
Unified England, defeated the Vikings
- Duke of Wellington
The Iron Duke, defeater of Napoleon
- Margaret Thatcher
Prime Minister, 1979-1990. First female British Prime Minister, and the first to win three consecutive
elections. Loved and loathed in equal measure.
- Michael Crawford
Played Frank Spencer in 70s sitcom "Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em", before moving into musicals, playing the
lead role in The Phantom of the Opera
- Queen Victoria
- Sir Paul McCartney
Member of The Beatles, Wings. Clearly no-one remembers The Frog Chorus
- Alexander Fleming
Inadvertently discovered Penicillin
- Alan Turing
Mathematician, father of computing
- Michael Faraday
Chemist. Studied electromagnetism, electrolysis
- Owain Glyndwr
Fifteenth Century Welsh Nationalist
- Queen Elizabeth II
Monarch. Celebrated the Golden Jubilee of her reign in 2002
- Stephen Hawking
Wheelchair bound theoretical physicist. Author of one of the most popular science books of all time, A
Brief History of Time, which has now sold over ten million copies worldwide.
- William Tyndale
Made the first English translation of the Bible.
- Emmeline Pankhurst
- William Wilberforce
Campaigned for the abolition of slavery. Died shortly before the Abolition of Slavery Act came into
- David Bowie
- Guy Fawkes
Rubbish terrorist. Tried, and failed, to bomb Parliament. Snitched on his fellow bombers
- Sir Leonard Cheshire
World War II pilot. Flew over 100 bombing missions. Returned after the war to establish a charitable
foundation, caring for the disabled.
- Eric Morecambe
Giant of Comedy. Formidably popular partnership with Ernie Wise resulted in a succession of
much-adored Christmas specials
- David Beckham
Footballer, England captain, and free-kick specialist
- Thomas Paine
Wrote "The rights of man", campaigning for a welfare state, and was hated as a result. Nevertheless,
helped write the US constitution, and thought of the name United States.
Warrior queen, defended Britain against the Romans.
- Sir Steven Redgrave
Rower. Winner of a Gold medal at five consecutive Olympic Games from 1984 to 2000.
- Sir Thomas More
Speaker of the House of Commons, got himself killed when he refused to give his blessing to a law making Henry VIII more powerful
- William Blake
Mad writer and painter. Composed the words for the hymn Jerusalem
- John Harrison
Invented the Marine Chronometer, and stopped sailors getting so lost
- Henry VIII
A King of many wives. Remembered as a fat bearded man with an appetite, generally forgotten as a pretty good king
- Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
Prolific writer. Author of 18 novels, including Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, editor, writer of
some 30,000 letters, and rehabilitator of prostitutes.
- Sir Frank Whittle
Invented the Jet Engine, despite a lack of confidence and backing from the British Government.
- John Peel
Broadcaster, Radio 1 DJ, once played Mandolin for Rod Stewart. Likes The Fall.
- John Logie Baird
- Aneurin Bevan
- George O'Dowd (Boy George)
- Douglas Bader
- William Wallace
- Francis Drake
- John Wesley
- King Arthur
- Florence Nightingale
- T.E. Lawrence
- Robert Falcon Scott
- Enoch Powell
- Sir Cliff Richard
- Alexander Graham Bell
- Freddie Mercury
- Julie Andrews
- Edward Elgar
- Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother
- George Harrison
- Sir David Attenborough
- James Connelly
- George Stephenson
- Charlie Chaplin
- Tony Blair
- William Caxton
- Bobby Moore
- Jane Austen
- William Booth
- King Henry V
- Aleister Crowley
- Robert the Bruce
- Bob Geldof
- The Unknown Soldier
- Robbie Williams
- Edward Jenner
- David Lloyd George
- Charles Babbage
- Geoffrey Chaucer
- Richard III
- J.K. Rowling
- James Watt
- Richard Branson
- Paul Hewson (Bono)
- John Lydon (Johnny Rotten)
- Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery
- Donald Campbell
- King Henry II
- James Clerk Maxwell
- J.R.R. Tolkien
- Walter Raleigh
- Edward I
- Barnes Wallis
- Richard Burton
- Tony Benn
- David Livingstone
- Tim Berners Lee
- Marie Stopes
It's all at http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/programmes/greatbritons/