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Last Word
Listen to the latest editionFriday   16:00-16:30
Sunday 20:30-21:00 (rpt)

Radio 4's weekly obituaries programme
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This week
Friday 7th November 2008
(Rpt) Sunday 9th November
John Wilson
John Wilson tells the life stories of people who have died recently: Studs Terkel, Alison Willett, Michael Crichton and Yma Sumac.
Studs Terkel
Broadcaster and Pulitzer Prize winning writer who has died aged 96

The week has been dominated by images of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people crammed into a city park in Chicago. The Obama celebrations came just days after the death of Studs Terkel, a man who’d spent more than five decades giving voice to the working people of that city - the steelmillers, waitresses, musicians – anyone with a story to tell. For Terkel, the history of America should have been written, not through the eyes of the politicians, generals and bankers, but from the bottom-up. He said he was after the “non-big-shot” perspective. He hosted thousands of hours of radio airtime and wrote dozens of books, one of which – The Good War – won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1985.

He was born Louis Terkel in New York in 1912. “As the Titanic went down, I came up”, was a favourite quip. He moved to Chicago at the age of eight, and adopted the name Studs after the hero of the Studs Lonigan trilogy of novels by James T. Farrell. For decades he was a familiar figure around the city – the man in the hat and red-check shirt, trailing a cloud of cigar smoke. But he was also famous from afar, having hosted one of America’s longest running radio shows, the Studs Terkel show.

Although Studs Terkel was obsessed with the lives of others, he kept many of the details of his own history under wraps and his emotions in check. He did write two autobiographies, the latest of which was one of three books he penned in his nineties.

John Wilson speaks to writer and broadcaster Garrison Keillor who was a close friend of Studs Terkel, Sydney Lewis, his transcriber and confidante and his publisher Andre Shiffrin. 

Studs Terkel was born May 19th 1912 and died November 1st 2008.

Allison Willett
Dance teacher who has died aged 56

In the film Billy Elliott a determined teacher tempts the young hero away from the boxing ring and onto the dance floor. In real life, a similar trick was achieved on behalf of legions of boys by the dance teacher Alison Willett. In the early 1970s at the Tozer studio in Nottingham, Alison Willett pioneered new ways of teaching boy dancers that played to their strengths and reflected their male interests. She got them throwing boxing shapes and kicking like footballers.

Alison Willett ran the Tozer Studio for more than three decades, having taken it over at the age of just 21.

John Wilson speaks to former pupil Ian Waller,  her son Marcus Farnsworth and Carole Venn, a former director of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing.
Michael Crichton
Writer and film director who has died aged 66

Michael Crichton was one of the big beasts of American popular fiction, an author who sold more than 150 million copies worldwide, mainly thanks to a book about big beasts – Jurassic Park. His tale of the dinosaur theme park – in which extinct animals are brought back to life through DNA cloning – was a massive hit, helped along by the Steven Spielberg adaptation. Crichton was also a film director in his own right – and he created one of America’s longest running and most popular television series – ER. A former doctor, he based the hospital drama on his own experiences on the ward. His medical background also informed his fiction - he understood both the beneficial possibilities of science and could imagine the flip-side.

After writing the bestselling novel The Andromeda Strain – about a deadly virus - while still working as a scientist in 1969, Crichton realised that science fiction was going to be a more lucrative business than science fact. His techno-thrillers sold millions, but were sometimes derided by literary critics and scientists alike. His 2004 novel State of Fear was the most controversial – it described eco-warriors causing environmental disasters to highlight the issue of global warming. Crichton himself shrugged off his critics.

John Wilson speaks to geneticist Professor Steve Jones and to science writer Matt Ridley.

Michael Crichton was born October 23rd 1942 and died November 4th 2008.
Yma Sumac
Peruvian singer who has died aged 86

Yma Sumac was an old school diva, a star of stage and screen who sang her way through exotic folk tales of life in the Peruvian mountains. When she arrived in New York in the 1950’s she was a sensation, filling concert halls, selling millions of records and starring in epic films. She claimed to have been descended from an Inca king and dressed the part, decked in jewellery and caked in makeup.

Yma Sumac was born September 13th 1922 and died November 1st 2008.
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