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Greatest person of the 20th Century? You decide

BBC Two is starting its search for the greatest person of the 20th Century, inviting audiences to get involved and vote for their favourite icon in the most ambitious BBC history series in over a decade.

Icons, a co-production with The Open University, tells the definitive story of a century of change through the people who had the most impact on it. The first episode, focusing on great leaders, will be broadcast on Tuesday 8th January at 9pm on BBC Two.

There are 28 shortlisted icons, carefully selected by a panel of experts and Open University academics. Destined to ignite discussion and debate, from this shortlist Icons will ask the public to decide their greatest icon of the 20th Century.

Sports icons show anything is possible

Dr Simon Rea, Lecturer in Sport and Fitness, says that sport icons show us anything is possible if we want it enough:

“All of the sports icons have been responsible for instigating social change and the way that we think about certain groups in society. This is in addition to being some of the highest achieving and greatest sportspeople of the 20th Century and representing the drama, excitement, emotion and inspiration that sport is uniquely placed to provide.”

Billie-Jean King

Billie-Jean King was a trailblazer for women

Dr Rea is rooting for tennis player Billie-Jean King to win the accolade: “Billie-Jean King changed the landscape not only for female tennis players, female sports professionals but females in general. She showed women that they could stand up to their employers and demand equal pay and equal rights for equal work. This is a struggle that continues today – but she had the energy and courage to accelerate the process.”

Scientists look at the world in a different way

Dr Neil Smith, Senior Lecturer in Computing, is a keen advocate of the impact of the work of scientists: “Scientists are people who are determined and follow through with results even if it’s a struggle. They look at the world in a different way and ask the questions that most people just skip over. They see the importance and impact of their work in the wider world, and work to make a real difference to real people’s lives.”

Marie Curie

Marie Curie won two Nobel prizes

Marie Curie is the inspiring scientist Dr Smith is hoping wins the Icons title: “The first person to win two Nobel prizes, in two different fields. Invented radiotherapy. Saved countless lives In WWI by buying, crewing, and deploying portable X-ray machines.”

Greatest figures from 20th Century celebrated

Across seven episodes, celebrity advocates will celebrate the achievements of the some of the greatest figures of the 20th Century, from seven different categories of human excellence:

  • Leaders – Tuesday 8 January, 9pm: Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela – presented by Sir Trevor McDonald
  • Explorers, Wednesday 9 January, 9pm: Ernest Shackleton, Gertrude Bell, Neil Armstrong and Jane Goodall – presented by Dermot O’Leary
  • Scientists, Monday 14 January, 9pm: Marie Curie, Alan Turing, Albert Einstein and Tu Youyou – presented by Chris Packham
  • Entertainers, Tuesday 15 January, 9pm: Charlie Chaplin, Billie Holiday, Marilyn Monroe, David Bowie – presented by Kathleen Turner
  • Activists, Monday 21 January, 9pm: Emmeline Pankhurst, Mohandas Gandhi, Helen Keller and Martin Luther King Jr – presented by Sanjeev Bhaskar
  • Sports Stars, Tuesday 22 January, 9pm: Muhammad Ali, Pele, Billie Jean King and Tanni Grey-Thompson – presented by Clare Balding
  • Artists & Writers, Tuesday 29 January, 9pm: Virginia Woolf, Pablo Picasso, Alfred Hitchcock and Andy Warhol – presented by Lily Cole
  • LIVE FINAL Tuesday 5 February 9pm

Find out more

Explore all of The Open University’s free materials relating to the series on OpenLearn.

Programme Credits

  • Commissioned for The Open University by Dr Caroline Ogilvie
  • OU Academic Consultants: Dr Richard Jones and Dr Luc-André Brunet (FASS Arts), Dr Neil Smith and Prof Carol Morris (STEM), Simon Rea (WELS, Sport)
  • Lead OU Media Fellow: Dr Chris Williams (FASS)
  • OU Broadcast Project Manager: Amie Nimmo
  • OU Digital Content Producer: Freyja Taylor-Law
  • BBC Commissioning Editors: Tom McDonald & Jack Bootle
  • 72 Films Executive Producers: Cate Hall, Francesca Maudslay & David Glover
  • 72 Films Series Producers and Directors: Peter Sweasey, Elizabeth Dobson, Joe Myerscough, Michael Ogden, Julian Jones, Emma Frank, David Vincent & Stephen Mizelas

About Author

Kath works in the Media Relations team within the Communications Unit at The Open University. She is a skilled communicator with more than 15 years’ experience working in both the public and private sectors. She has a BA (Hons) English and American Literature from University of Warwick and specialises in stories from the Faculty of Social Science, Faculty of Education and Language Studies, BBC programmes, and student stories. In her spare time Kath enjoys touring the country in her hand-painted camper van, Trevor.

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