BBC Radio 4

    Selecting The New Elizabethans

    Editor's Note: Tony Hall is the Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House. He chaired the panel which chose 60 public figures who define Queen Elizabeth II's reign for the landmark Radio 4 series The New Elizabethans. Here he writes about selecting these New Elizabethans - CM.

    It was an offer I couldn't refuse. Would I chair of panel of eminent - and feisty - historians to judge "men and women whose actions during the reign of Elizabeth II have had a significant impact on lives in these islands...for better or worse." One thing was certain: whatever decisions the panel came to would be controversial. As with every list, there'd be arguments over who was in and who was left out.

    Should the people chosen as New Elizabethans be a collection of saints? Absolutely not was the decision: it would not be an honours list, instead what mattered were people who were 'weather makers' influencing the nation's life. They would paint a portrait of the age. So my hero - David Attenborough - made it through with acclamation. But so too did Enoch Powell, who was at the centre of debates about race and immigration in the '60s and '70s. Radio 4 listeners were invited to nominate their candidates; over a thousand names were put forward, among them Myra Hindley. But that was a step too far: notoriety or infamy do not make a New Elizabethan.

    What was incontrovertible in the long list, and then in the sixty names chosen, was the dominance of culture. Excellence here is one of the defining characteristics of the age of Queen Elizabeth II. In painting, Francis Bacon and David Hockney made it through a long list of candidates. Theatre was richly peopled: the final choices of Laurence Olivier, Harold Pinter and Peter Hall were the subject of heated debate. The panel decided that with only 60 programmes, we could only have one poet and in the end decided narrowly on Phillip Larkin over John Betjeman, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath or Seamus Heaney. Music, in which the UK has been outstanding, again made for really difficult choices: John Lennon and Paul McCartney - together in one programme because, to be frank, it was hellishly difficult getting the list down to 60 and because it was impossible to choose between them. But also Benjamin Britten (cheers from me) and David Bowie. And just think who we left out. For writers, the choice narrowed to Graham Greene, Doris Lessing, Salman Rushdie, and, because the panel were keen to ensure an author who wrote for children of all ages was represented, the amazing Mr Dahl. Fashion is represented by Vivienne Westwood, architecture by Norman Foster and design by Terrence Conran. Looking through the lists of so many other exemplary names who never made it into the final list, you can't escape the fact that we're a creative nation and that this is one of the areas that defines our place in the world.

    It was also amazing to look back at the scientific discoveries and innovations made by Britons during the reign. The inclusion of figures like Dorothy Hodgkin, Richard Doll, Robert Edwards and Francis Crick demonstrate the huge advances made in medical science - the discovery of the structure of penicillin; research showing the health damaging effects of smoking; IVF and the discovery of the structure of DNA. And of course in Dorothy Hodgkin we also had the first British woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize for science. We also included Jocelyn Bell Burnell for her breakthrough as an astrophysicist, identifying the first radio-pulsars - described as the "greatest astronomical discovery of the twentieth century." And we couldn't leave out the computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee for his role in bringing about perhaps the biggest game-changer of them all - the World Wide Web.

    The panel were keen to capture some of the key changes in all our lives over the last 60 years - but intolerant of duplications. Again hard choices. Alan Sainsbury, one of the supermarket pioneers who brought us, amongst other things, oven ready frozen chickens and Sir Ralph Robins who made Rolls Royce one of Britain's biggest manufacturing successes are included. Roy Jenkins as a reforming Home Secretary. David Trimble and John Hume who shared the Nobel Peace Prize for Northern Ireland, whose descent into and recovery from violence was one of the dominating themes of the Elizabethan years. Germaine Greer representing the women's movement, surely one of the biggest changes of the last 60 years.

    We also looked for people who are not household names but who have nonetheless had a huge impact on our society. So, very much guided by Max Hastings, Talaiasi Labalaba - a Fijian born NCO who the special forces regard as their great hero for his unbelievable courage in a secret operation in Oman, where he lost his life - was chosen. And Jayaben Desai, the truly inspirational leader of the Grunwick strike, whose actions helped to improve conditions for immigrant workers, especially women. Or Vladimir Raitz, inventor of the package holiday, which has revolutionised the way we travel.

    In the end, after three long, noisy and highly entertaining meetings, the emphasis of the group changed from reducing the numbers through voting to thinking about how the sixty felt as a radio series. Were the sixty rounded enough to represent the Elizabethan era? In the end it's a matter of judgement. But what is clear is that Queen Elizabeth's sixty years have been just an interesting, if not more so, than the reign of her namesake Elizabeth I.

    Tony Hall is the Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House

    • Visit the New Elizabethans website to the full list of public figures included in the series.
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