Greatest Ruritanian

11 November 2004

The Greatest Ruritanian

By Gwynne Dyer

“The only thing it proves is that white South Africans have telephones,” said Max du Preez, a South African journalist I once made a film about. He always did have a talent for understatement.

The South African Broadcasting Corporation had bought the “Greatest Britons” TV format from the BBC, and invited the viewers of SABC 3, an English-language channel mostly watched by affluent whites, to nominate their candidates for the hundred “Greatest South Africans” by phone, e-mail and text message. (Nelson Mandela got a free pass to the top of the list.) It then dutifully made hour-long television documentaries about each of the ten leading candidates after Mandela, with well-known personalities (“champions”) advocating each nominee’s cause — and failed to notice until the series began to air last month that not one of the top five was black.

Predictably, there was uproar. Not only was the list laden with whites in a country where only a tenth of the population is white, but some of them were heroes of the apartheid era like former prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd, who placed 19th, and neo-Nazi leader Eugene Terre’Blanche, who placed 25th. The series was suspended after the broadcast of the first two episodes, and the head of the SABC, Peter Matlare, announced: “We’re going back to the drawing board on this one.”

Some other people urgently need to go back to the drawing board, too. When the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation bought the format and called for the public to nominate the “Greatest Canadian”, the top ten included a ranting bigot called Don Cherry, a hockey commentator whose specialty is ethnic slurs against the players (but at least they didn’t nominate Celine Dion). The Dutch voted the assassinated anti-immigrant extremist Pim Fortuyn into second place in the “Greatest Dutchman” stakes. And there was a serious risk that the British public would choose Princess Diana over Shakespeare, Darwin and Newton.

She did get more votes than those luminaries — after all, they only wrote plays, discovered gravity, and created the theory of evolution, whereas she made a bad marriage, threw herself down the stairs, and made bulimia fashionable — but she was overtaken in the end by Isambard Kingom Brunel, the great Victorian engineer. The loyal students of Brunel University voted early and often, and only the BBC’s tactic of running the Winston Churchill show last ensured that the old imperialist (“I have not become His Majesty’s first minister in order to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire”) finally came out on top.

The list that really impressed, though, was the “Greatest German” list: Luther and Marx, Bach and Einstein, Gutenberg and Goethe. The Germans have had a profound influence on the world over the past four centuries — and yet you did have this nagging feeling that the list was incomplete: that if “greatest” means having had the greatest impact on the world, and not just being the cleverest or the nicest, then there ought to have been one more name on the German list. And there might well have been, except that the organisers refused to record any votes for Hitler.

That’s the problem with this format, you see: many countries have large skeletons in their closets. The French, for example, will undoubtedly include Napoleon on their list.

In real life, Napoleon was Hitler without the racism and the death camps, and he had a considerably longer run in power because he wasn’t quite as bad a strategist as Hitler. Enough time has passed by now that the French will probably get away with putting Napoleon on their list, but he did invade practically every country in Europe, some of them several times, and that’s bound to leave a lingering resentment.

Any list of “Great Mongolians” would start and end with Genghis Khan, hands down history’s greatest killer, and there are places (like China and Iraq) where that is still remembered and resented. The list of candidates for “Greatest Arab”, currently being voted on, would undoubtedly feature Osama bin Laden somewhere near the top if the organisers did not ban him. And if the Russians do not ban Lenin and Stalin from their list, they’ll be near the top, too.

It’s an awkward thing, history, and this “greatness” business is doubly awkward. Some interpret it to mean historical importance, and by that criterion Hitler certainly belongs on the German list and Stalin on the Russian list. Others see it as a popularity contest, however, and that’s certainly how foreigners would interpret it if the great killers made it onto anybody’s list. On the other hand, what if your country is so small or so new that foreigners don’t even recognise any of the names on your list of “Great Ruritanians”.

Best to stay away from the whole topic, and avoid the resentment and the ridicule alike. So when the BBC salespeople come around touting their fascinating new format, just say a firm “No, thanks” and get back to doing reality shows and soap operas: that’s where the audiences and the money really are. The minority who want challenging intellectual content can go listen to radio. Well, all right then, they can go read books. Both of them.

Oh, and a prediction: Bill Gates will top the list of “Great Americans”.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“In real…top, too”)