The UK is not just about places, as it is the people that provide meaning and narrative to the stone, bricks and mortar of the cathedrals, museums, palaces and castles that make up UK attractions. Winston Churchill, is probably the greatest Briton who ever lived, he certainly was according to a BBC poll conducted in 2002 when he came first. Other politicians made the grade too, with Margaret Thatcher, controversially taking 16th place – Brown and Blair never quite made it, as individuals or as a comedy duo; and neither will they here at You2UK. We might throw in Sinn Fein’s Jerry Adams and Martin McGuiness.
Great warriors have kept the UK free of invaders since 1066, and none come greater than Horatio Nelson, who with maverick tactics broke the back of the French and Spanish fleets at the battles of the Nile and Trafalgar. Nelson, gave his life (if rather melodramatically) for his country and is still regarded as a national hero, commemorated at Trafalgar Square, Portsmouth and Greenwich.
Other warriors who make it onto the You2UK Great Britons Top 20 include Boudica, the bra-burning queen of the Iceni, who led uprisings against the Romans, and whose statue Margaret Thatcher used to see everyday outside Parliament. Gulf War veteran, and SAS man turned ‘thriller’ writer Andy McNab has also made it for his bravery, stupidity and contributions to English with phrases such as ‘giving someone the good news’ as a term for killing them.
Sport has also provided some regular and irregular Great Britons, with both heroes and villains. Sir Alex Ferguson is still making history with both longevity and success at Manchester United, arguably the biggest football club in the world, where the Scotsman regularly sees off pretenders to his crown as clubs repeatedly turn to big-name Johnny Foreigners in a bid to beat him at his own game. Other footballing legends from these shores include alcoholic and one time midfield genius Paul Gascoigne; Bobby Moore, who won the World Cup for England in 1966, and Alan Shearer, who lost the World Cup for England in 1998 with his flying elbows.
Boxing Champ and life chump Frank Bruno heads the list of Great Britons from other sports, as well as ‘London, East End boy’ Canadian Lennox Lewis. Cricketing arch rivals Geoff Boycott and Ian Botham make the list, as do bare-footed running flop, Zola Budd; collapsing and urinating marathon woman, Paula Radcliffe; ski-jumper, Eddie ‘the Eagle’ Edwards, and rowing legend Sir Steve Redgrave.
Music’s hall of fame is well represented with ex-Beatle turned cuckold, John Lennon heading the list, along with punk impresario and shameless self-publicist, Malcolm McLaren; reformed rent-boy user and coke-fiend, Sir Elton John; The Who’s creative motor Pete ‘it was only for research officer’ Townsend; mad-dog and Englishman, Noel Coward; and finally, heroin addict, guitar hero, and poor parent, Eric ‘Slow Hand’ Clapton.
Literature, headed by Shakespeare and Dickens, provides many of our Great Britons, including manic depressive, Virginia Wolf; intellect and wordsmith, Martin Amis; ex-SAS man and professional bullshitter Andy ‘Good News’ McNab (as mentioned earlier); and silicon-tit queen, Jordan, whose book - the imaginatively titled Being Jordan – sold more than a million copies. Mostly to women!
TV and movies have provided their fair share of Great Britons with the likes of Sir Richard Attenborough, Sir Ben Kingsley, Richard Burton, Michael Caine, and Sir Alex Guinness all making the list. Other less likely candidates include reality TV star, Jade Goody; full-time grump, Jeremy Clarkson; disgraced presenter, Angus Deyton; Welsh ‘stunt’ men, Dirty Sanchez; and the ever so politically incorrect Spike Milligan.
As well as Great Britons, You2UK will also be featuring ‘Great Nearly Britons’, those people such as Madonna, Jerry Springer, anyone Irish who does something good, Canadian boxer Lennox Lewis, and all those other not so British institutions that we regard as our own, or who regard themselves as British…for whatever reasons.
Sir Alec Guinness
With a distinguished career that spanned six decades, the late English actor Sir Alec Guinness is today best remembered internationally for his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy.
Born in 1914 into rather unusual circumstances for the time, the identity of the young Alec’s father was forever a mystery, although the inclusion of the name ‘Guinness’ on his birth certificate by his mother, Agnes de Cuffe, led many to speculate that his father was a member of the Irish brewing dynasty of the same name.
Andy McNab joined the British Army as a boy soldier in 1976, served in Northern Ireland, joined the SAS, saw action the Far and Middle East, Central and South America; by the time he left the military in 1993, he was Britain’s most decorated soldier. So it’s ironic that McNab is best remembered as the leader of a failed mission during the Gulf War (1991) – Bravo Two Zero.
Is Thatcher a Great Briton? Plenty might say so, but just as many hate her. Even today, twenty years after she was forced from office by her own party, no British figure inspires such mixed feelings. Perhaps that’s not surprising, as Thatcher presided over a decade of wrenching social change.
Margaret Thatcher was born in 1925, the daughter of a grocer. Despite her humble origins, she joined the party of the genteel upper classes, the Conservatives, where she excelled, becoming party leader in 1974 and rising to become Prime Minister in 1979.
Think Tom and Jerry. Think Thatcher, think Scargill. Arthur Scargill was a key figure in the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike - one of the key British historical events of recent times. With his trademark comb-over hairstyle, and firebrand oratory, Scargill became the embodiment of all things anti-Thatcher in an era of incredible change.
Arthur Scargill’s path was mapped out early on – born in Barnsley, Yorkshire in 1938, his father was a coal miner, and a member of the Communist Party. At age 15 the young Scargill swapped his school cap for a miner’s helmet and followed his father’s blackened footsteps down the pit.
Sir Michael Caine
Sir Michael Caine has carved a successful – though patchy – career out of wooden acting; and while he was lucky with roles early in his career in Zulu, Get Carter, The Italian Job, and The Ipcress File, it is the past glory of these roles that has more than made up for what is undeniably limited ability in front of the camera, despite the accolades of a fawning film world.
Bobby Moore (1941 – 1993)
There is no image is more iconic for English football fans than that of England football team captain, Bobby Moore, on the shoulders of his teammates holding the World Cup aloft in front of a packed Wembley stadium, on a glorious day in the summer of 1966. While the image represents the apogee of the England team’s success, it is also a symbol of the last hurrah of Great Britain in the year following Churchill’s death, and at the height of the swinging Sixties; Moore’s image with the World Cup marked the end of Great Britain and the beginning of the United Kingdom as a dwindling world power.
In his game, Paul Gascoigne, known as Gazza, brought poetry to football, but sadly the story of his life has the tortured poet’s tragic parabola: when he burned, he burnt brightly, but in falling he has fallen far: it might be played out in the tabloids, but his is an epic tragedy.
Gazza was born in 1967, in Gateshead. As a footballer, he was a midfield playmaker, and he played in some of the greatest teams of his generation: Newcastle United, Tottneham Hotspur, Middlesbrough, Everton, Lazio and Rangers. Gascoigne was notorious for going on mazy runs, befuddling opponents and dazzling fans with displays of improvisatory skill. He was the closest England ever had to Maradonna, and could run with the ball as if it was attached on a string to his feet.
Ask most modern Britons who Boudicca was and they’ll probably only be able to tell you one thing: that she showed the invading Romans that the indigenous Celts weren’t going to roll over and beg for them. But that is quite enough - as a proto-feminist freedom fighter, Boudicca has earned a place in British myth.
Boudicca was a queen of the Iceni tribe in what is now East Anglia. Her husband Prasutagus was a Roman ally who left instruction that when he die his kingdom be split between the Roman Emperor and his daughters. But on his demise around AD60 the Romans ignored his will and steamed into the place as if they had been given sole right to role. His daughters were punished by being raped and Boudicca was flogged.
The UK has a long tradition of powerful matriarchs – Margaret Thatcher and Boudicca come to mind – but the grandest of them all, at least in the popular imagination, is Queen Victoria. She presided over a period when the sun famously never set on the British Empire, and Britannia ruled the waves – a period when the UK was, in modern parlance, the world’s only hyper power. She might have not had much influence on policy, but the tone of the era and particularly the standard of public morals, were set by her example.
Let’s be honest, if you honestly believe that the world was created by a bearded white man who lives in the crowds and populated the Earth by getting a man and a woman to produce children who would go on to commit serial acts of incest in order to ‘begat’ more people, then you seriously need your head looking at. But until the mid-nineteenth century no one had a better suggestion. Enter stage left Great Briton Charles Darwin, whose theories on natural selection changed forever how we viewed ourselves in the world.
Charles Darwin, author of the theory of evolution, can claim to be the scientist who has had the single biggest effect on the modern world - not bad for a man who spent most of his time studying fossils, beaks and gooseberries.
Sid Vicious (1957-1979)
The Sex Pistols were the vanguard of the punk scene in the 1970s, with music and attitude that flew in the face of the British establishment. While Malcolm McLaren was the ‘brains’ behind the short-lived band, and John Lydon the voice, the image of the Pistols, and the punk movement itself, was embodied by the band’s charismatic bass guitarist, Sid Vicious.
Contrary to popular belief, Charles ‘Charlie’ Chaplin, the man who more than anyone turned Hollywood into the entertainment giant it is today, was not American. He was one of our own, London born and bred. He took the music hall tradition of his actor parents, put it on film, and created one of the first global brands, ‘the tramp’. And what a brand: he acted, wrote and directed for nearly 75 years, becoming the personification of the silent film era. Even today, the ‘the tramp’ is as recognizable as Mickey Mouse. For this, we salute him as a truly Great Briton.
Sir Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727)
Famous for his 'discovery' of gravity, depressive mathematician, Isaac Newton, took the world of science by storm and was something of a Stephen Hawking in his day.
Born in January 1643 in Woolsthrorpe, Lincolnshire, little Isaac's was an unhappy childhood: his wealthy father died three months prior to his birth and his mother remarried and left him to be brought up by his grandparents. The angry young man didn't like his stepfather and made threats against him and his mother. To add to his rebellious teenage years, Newton embarked on an affair with a young woman to whom he became engaged, before casting her aside for his studies at Cambridge which he began in 1661.
The Eighties were the high point of athletic superstardom in the UK as track and field meets and terrestrial television coverage of them simultaneously reached their respective apogees of popularity. But while Coe, Cram and Ovett all jostled each other for the title of greatest middle distance runner, and Sanderson and Whitbread went bicep to beard in the javelin, none of them could match the all round sporting prowess and easy grace with which legendary decathlete, Francis Morgan Oyodélé Thompson aka Daley Thompson, became the UK's number one sporting hero.
Sir Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965)
Winston Churchill was voted the UK’s No 1 ‘Great Briton’ in a BBC poll – best remembered for his leadership and speeches during the Second World War, the man who once modestly claimed to ‘have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat’ was much more than an orator; a great politician, writer, warrior, artist and historian, Churchill drew on all these skills and experiences to unite not just the British nation, but also the politically opposed USA and USSR, in what was ultimately a victorious, but costly battle against the tyranny of Nazism.
Sir Elton John
An average pianist with a flair for song-writing, a complex about his hair, a penchant for coke and rent boys, and tendency for hissy fits, is how some might describe Sir Elton John, but not us here at You2UK.com. Sir Elton has certainly lived the rock-n-roll lifestyle, tinkling the ivories of anyone within reach during the raucous Seventies - partying with the likes of David Bowie and Gary Glitter, losing all his hair in the process; marrying a trophy wife (if the trophy was for simply taking part); and nearly winning a trophy as the chairman of Watford F.C. Yes the pint-sized pianist from Pinner, has had it all, done them all, and notched up a few hit records along the way.
Crooning, trumpeting, writing, campaigning, and even drawing, were just some of the talents of this Great ‘Briton' - but it is for his comedy and calling Prince Charles a ‘little grovelling bastard' that Spike Milligan is remembered for best.
Born Terence Alan Patrick Seán Milligan in India, 1918, baby Spike was the son of an Irish-born captain in the British Army, and an English mother. The Milligan's moved back to the UK in the early Thirties, where Spike worked as a clerk by day, and a trumpeter and crooner by night.
Boxer Frank Bruno was the darling of British TV for much of the 1980s and 90s, due to his rapport with TV sports commentator, Harry Carpenter, and his oh-so-British habit of not winning. It was therefore ironic that after becoming heavyweight champ in 1995, Bruno lost a certain amount of cache with the British public, and slowly slid into a downward spiral of drug use, domestic violence, and even worse, pantomime.
Professor Stephen Hawking
Credited with being the first person to truly bring the mechanics of cosmology to the masses, Professor Stephen Hawking CBE is probably as well known for his electronically generated voice as he is for his theories on black holes and his attempts to link general relativity and quantum theory.
Some might say that Professor Hawking’s destiny was already mapped out for him; being born in Oxford, 300 years to the day after the Italian mathematician and astronomer Galileo Galilei died. Hawking went to Cambridge to study physics, which went against his father’s wishes for him to study medicine there. Despite not really working that hard at university, the young Hawking graduated with a first class honours degree.
As a cricketer, Geoffrey Boycott was famous for his stultifying style of batting which would often see him occupy the crease for days at a time, often to the distress of his team, but never to the detriment of his averages. A controversial figure, Boycott often clashed with figures in cricketing authority, and was even known to get his own teammates run out on purpose.
The Asian Shopkeeper
Imagine a place where everything closes at 5pm weekdays, between 1pm and 3pm on Saturdays, while on Sundays only newsagents open between 7am and 11am. It’s a place where if you needed milk after the sun has set you would have to ask a neighbour, rob a cow or simply go without. In this place smokers were allowed to run out of cigarettes whilst watching The Sweeney and Minder on TV, forcing them to fall back on domestic violence to help calm their fraying, nicotine starved-nerves. For the people of the UK prior to the mid-Eighties, once the shops had closed they were left in a twilight zone, denied the right to buy cider, scotch eggs and children’s cricket sets in dirty polythene bags. Times were tough for the people of the British Isles; that was until an unlikely saviour came to town: the Asian shopkeeper.
Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758 – 1805)
“England expects that every man will do his duty”
Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson was a British naval officer most famous for his participation and leadership in the Napoleonic Wars. Having worked his way up the ranks, in life Nelson was a national hero, as famous for his scandalous affair with Lady Emma Hamilton, as he was for his victories on the sea – most notably the Battle of the Nile; in death Nelson became a god of the British Empire, embodying, courage, duty and honour.
Many people believe that the Queen, who was crowned in 1952, has an easy life, going on holiday all the time with an army of servants to dote on her every whim, but few people take the time to realise that despite being the UK’s head of state, no one serves the country as devotedly as she. From an early age, Queen Elizabeth II has answered her country’s call of duty, following a prescribed schedule from dawn til dusk, going to places she probably doesn’t want to go to, and almost inevitably entertaining despotic and idiotic world leaders that none of us, least of all her, would ever want to meet.
Ian Dury was and is the unsung hero of the UK music scene in the late 70s. Crippled by polio as a child, the singer/songwriter’s ungainly gait only added to his cache at the vanguard of the new wave punk movement; as the front-man of Ian Dury and the Blockheads, he shouted and crooned his way through legendary lyrics that remain embedded in the UK’s national psyche to this day.
The phrase ‘had it, lost it’ is usually applied to talent or fame, not the financial rewards the two can bring. However, for one woman who gained celebrity for winning a large sum of money, the fame remained for all the wrong reasons long after the money was gone.
‘Spend, Spend, Spend’ was Viv Nicholson’s reply in 1961 when asked what she planned to do with the £152,319.00 (the equivalent of £3 million today) she’d won on the football pools – and that’s just what she did.
Viv Nicholson makes the you2uk.com list of Great Britons for having had a penchant for miniskirts and knee-length boots, being atypically rubbish with money, and still liking £70 perfumes even though she is skint.