IoS Great Britons 2011

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The Independent on Sunday brings you its highly subjective list of the 50 natives of these isles who did most to lift our mood in difficult times. We also mourn those we have lost; ridicule those who deserve it; and celebrate the most inspirational foreigners

And so, this being as close to the end of the year as this newspaper shall get, we have the temerity to name our 50 Greatest Britons of 2011. These are the people who have been, to our world-weary eyes, the most admirable. Some are very well known; others, we feel, have not had their full due. We hope that this humble list helps to put that right.

Lists such as this one are obviously subjective and partial, and we'd be happy to hear from those who think we're wrong, or that we have ignored some better claimants. This is, after all, part of the purpose of such selections: to provoke debate – and to have a bit of fun. Members of what Private Eye calls the "online community" who wish to use the list as a springboard for raising their blood pressure to dangerous levels might like to bear this fun function in mind.

The news staff of the paper who made these choices have also compiled a list of the Plonkers of 2011, a somewhat less distinguished bunch, most of whom would wish to stop the clock, rewind to 1 January, and start 2011 all over again. They can't, and so their pratfalls have been duly immortalised here. We wish them, and all those who strut their ungainly stuff upon the public stage, a better-navigated 2012.

Adele

Musician

Adele's second album, 21 arrived in January 2011 and 12 months later, has topped many of the end-of-year polls. She made Billboard history by becoming the first female singer to be named top artist by the US paper, have the top album, and score the top single, Rolling in the Deep, all in one year. And she sold 13 million albums worldwide.

Rebecca Adlington

Swimmer

It was another successful year for Olympic gold medallist Rebecca Adlington as she won the 800-metre freestyle gold medal as well as a silver in the 400m freestyle at the World Aquatics Championships. Ever an admirable ambassador for sport, she now carries the hopes of the nation on her streamlined back for more gold at the London Olympics.

Maggie Alphonsi

Rugby player

As one of the leading try scorers for the England women's rugby team, Alphonsi and team mates including Katy McLean and Claire Purdy won yet another Six Nations this year, continuing to show the men's team how it is done. Have the compilers of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year never watched women's rugby?

Abdul Arain

High street campaigner

Abdul Arain is the Cambridge shopkeeper whose campaign against the building of a new Sainsbury's on his street led him to stand against the owner of the supermarket giant Lord Sainsbury in the University Chancellor Elections this year. Despite coming in fourth to Sainsbury, actor Brian Blessed and Michael Mansfield, QC, Arain was ultimately victorious in preventing the building of the new store.

Sir David Attenborough

Broadcaster and naturalist

His latest series Frozen Planet – despite silly quibbles over where polar births were filmed – is a triumph to add to all his others. Not only has the 85-year-old brought insights and an appreciation of the natural world to millions of viewers, but his enthusiasm for his subject is an object lesson in how to get pleasure, as well as learning, out of life.

David Babbs

Campaigner

As executive director of campaign group 38 Degrees, Babbs helped force the Government into making a U-turn on their hugely unpopular plans to sell off or lease more than 250,000 hectares of England's public forests. The group, who got more than half a million people to sign its petition, were victorious when the coalition announced the policy would be abandoned in February.

Robert Bailey

Teacher

British ex-pat teacher Robert Bailey from Lincolnshire was hailed a hero after saving his class of 42 from the Japanese tsunami in March. With only 8 minutes until the giant wave hit, Bailey led his class to safety as the coastal town of Ofunato was swept away around them. While other expats came home after the disaster, Bailey stayed behind to help find survivors.

Camila Batmanghelidjh

Charity founder

Founder of Kid's Company, which helps vulnerable inner-city children, spoke for the disenfranchised in wake of the riots. She was especially concerned for young people who felt cut adrift from society - a disengagement which she said had led many of them to turn against the establishment. Her words argued for public sector services at a time of rapid cutbacks.

Victoria Beckham

Fashion designer

Once the ultimate Wag, known for splashing a small fortune on designer labels, the former Spice girl has reinvented herself as a respected fashion designer. She beat off the likes of Stella McCartney and Tom Ford to win Designer Brand of the Year at the British fashion awards. And with sales of £28 million this year, Mrs Beckham means business.

Freddie Bourne and Heidi Withers

Romantics

Engaged couple briefly famous when his mother's email describing Heidi as "uncouth" and their wedding plans as "brash" went viral, drawing a tart response from Ms Withers' father. Undaunted, the couple married in November with a celebrity-style reception at a castle. A photograph of the new Mrs Bourne subsequently graced the "girls with pearls" page in Country Life.

Brent library protesters

Library campaigners

Residents fighting the closure of six libraries in the London borough of Brent represented the outrage felt by much of the nation's readers and researchers about cutbacks by staging a round-the-clock protest outside Kensal Rise Library, which was opened by American writer Mark Twain 111 years ago. The campaigners were the first in the country to seek a judicial review into library closures.

David Bull

Unicef CEO

The outspoken Unicef UK chief executive took on the national press when he appeared on BBC Radio 4's Today programme in July and pleaded for more news coverage for the famine in the Horn of Africa. He chastised editors for giving more attention to the phone-hacking scandal and "shaving foam" than "nutritional supplies for children who need to have their lives saved".

Sarah Burton

Fashion designer

The British Fashion Awards' 2011 Designer of the Year, Burton accepted the poisoned chalice of designing the royal wedding dress for Catherine Middleton, and not only avoided all the potential pitfalls (any reminders of Diana would have been a disaster), but also triumphed with Pippa Middleton's maid-of-honour gown. Sighs of relief all round.

Mark Cavendish

Cyclist

The "Manx Missile" enjoyed a triumphant 2011, becoming Britain's first winner of the Tour de France's green jersey. As well as notching up five stage wins, the sprint specialist's first child with former Page 3 model girlfriend Peta Todd was also conceived during the race. The 26-year-old could crown his year with the BBC Sports Personality of the Year title on Thursday.

Nick Clegg

Deputy Prime Minister

Nominated for two reasons. First, he and his party are the only alternative to rule by the Bullingdon Party, and they have exercised under-appreciated restraint on some of their sillier policies. Second, he is here as a protest against the childish and highly personal vilification he regularly receives in the more monocular Tory-supporting papers.

Lily Cole

Model

As the "fourth sexiest redhead of all time", an international supermodel since the age of 14, and the recipient in June of a double first in History of Art from Cambridge, Cole's tireless work on behalf of bookish redheads everywhere deserves a medal. In future she intends to concentrate on acting and environmental and ethical charities.

Brian Cox

TV physicist

Winner of Best Science Natural History programme, particle physicist Brian Cox has helped change public perception of science through his TV programmes. The first episode of his BBC 2 documentary series, Wonders of the Solar System, attracted five million viewers and contributed to the growing numb er of students studying astronomy.

Alex Crawford

Foreign correspondent

The Sky News special correspondent scooped all her rivals when she rode into Tripoli on a rebel pick-up truck in August, broadcasting live coverage of the Libyan revolution from a satellite dish powered by the truck's cigarette lighter socket. The mother-of-four trumped competitors again when she became the first TV journalist to report live from Gaddafi's compound amid sounds of celebratory gunfire.

Luke Donald

Golfer

In a sport as competitive as golf, this clean young Englishman rose to No 1 in the world and the first player in history to head the money lists on both sides of the Atlantic. He did so while preserving a warm yet unhistrionic manner. An ideal role model among sports performers.

Giles Fraser

Former Canon of St Paul's

One of the most unlikely looking of clerics – often to be found dressed in jeans and T-shirt and an ardent supporter of Chelsea FC – Fraser was Canon Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral for three years. He resigned in October after admitting he could not support any move by the Church to move the Occupy protesters from outside St Paul's which could result in violence.

Professors Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov

Discoverers of graphene

The duo, based at the University of Manchester, won the Nobel Prize for physics in 2010 after their discovery of graphene. A microscopic form of carbon a single atom thick, the material – an excellent conductor of electricity - could revolutionise everything from electronics to aerospace manufacturing. In October, the government announced a £50m fund to maximise graphene's potential.

Lord Gould of Brookwood

Political pollster and strategist

The late Labour strategist and peer's dignified approach to death graced the year. His final interviews in the weeks leading up to his passing in November were moving. Lord Mandelson pointed out that Gould turned his illness into something he could share: "When he became ill, instead of retreating into himself, he took it on and, in the process, took everyone along with him."

Great Bustard

The comeback chick

World's heaviest flying bird which, thanks to a remarkable conservation effort, is now again part of the British fauna after an absence of nearly 200 years. Since 2004, chicks from Russia have been released in Wiltshire, some have survived, and indigenous chicks have been born. A few of the birds have been recorded as far away as Dorset and Devon.

Amelia Hempleman-Adams

Antarctic explorer

This 16-year-old Briton is the youngest person to trek to the South Pole. A century on from Scott's heroic feat, she endured searing temperatures as low as minus 50C, and spent 17 nights camping in Antarctica with her father, explorer David Hempleman-Adams. The A-Level student says some of her biggest challenges were her father's snoring and pulling frozen poo in a sleigh.

Yazmin Henderson

Heroic mother

Yazmin Henderson leapt in front of a speeding car as it hurtled towards her two-year-old son. Throwing him to safety, she took the full force of the collision and suffered horrific injuries. Despite being told that she will never again walk without crutches, Mrs Henderson, from Lincolnshire, maintains she would do the same again.

Christopher Hitchens

Iconoclast

As one of Britain's best-known polemicists, Hitchens' narrative of his struggle with oesophageal cancer has been as insightful, personal and witty as anything that has came before it. Upon receiving Richard Dawkins' Freethinker of the Year Award in Texas in October, Hitchens told the audience: "I'm not going to quit until absolutely I have to," before receiving a standing ovation.

Sean Hoare

Journalist and whistleblower

The first named journalist to allege former News of the World editor Andy Coulson was aware of phone hacking by his staff died in July. The former Sun and NOTW reporter blew the whistle on the extent of the press scandal when he went on the record with accusations that his former boss "actively encouraged" his staff to intercept voicemail messages.

Hobo

Bomb sniffer dog

Great Britons come on four legs as well as two. This black Labrador, who sniffed out explosives with A Company, 2nd Battalion, The Royal Gurkha Rifles, returned to the front line in Helmand province days after being hit three times with shrapnel during a grenade attack from insurgents in July. The life-saving military dog is still on patrol in Afghanistan.

Tom Hooper

Film director

It was a fantastic year for British cinema as British film director Tom Hooper beat Hollywood heavyweights, including the Coen brothers, to take the best director at this years Oscars for The King's Speech. He is to direct the film of the West End musical Les Miserables in 2012.

Tariq Jahan

Father who lost son

He was Birmingham father who lost his son in a hit-and-run at the height of the troubles. His voice cut through the chaos and confusion of August's riots, with the simple, but impassioned plea: "Why do we have to kill one another?" Helping avert a potential race-riot, these were emotional but stoic words which rose above the psychobabble of a thousand pundits and commentators struggling to explain why the riots happened.

Christopher Jefferies

Tabloid victim

Bristol landlord and retired teacher who suffered the year's most shrill media monstering. Questioned by police investigating the murder of his tenant Joanna Yates, he was vilified by the tabloids in full, ignorant lynch-mob mode. They judged him by his unconventional appearance, but he emerged with his innocence established and dignity enhanced. He has now sued them. Good show.

Patricia Jones

Successful litigant

The court case of mother-of-two, Patricia Jones from Essex could change the legal landscape for more than two million cohabiting couples. Jones was awarded a 90 per cent share of the three-bed home she bought with her ex-partner Leonard Kernott in 1985. Kernott received a 10 per cent share of the house after lawyers argued Jones continued to pay the mortgage after the split.

Owen Jones

Author

When the 27-year-old former trade union parliamentary researcher published his first book, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, in June, few people had heard of the Stockport – bred academic. Now, as author of one of the best-selling political books of the year, Jones can pride himself on placing the issue of class firmly back on the mainstream agenda.

Doreen Lawrence

Mother of knife victim

After campaigning for 18 years, the mother of Stephen Lawrence – the British teenager murdered in a suspected racial attack in South London in 1993 – finally saw two men stand trial accused of her son's murder. Having provided so much support to others via the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, Doreen Lawrence never gave up the fight to bring her sons alleged killers to justice.

Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke

Golfers

Winners of the year's most uplifting sporting victories. McIlroy looked to have suffered irreparable psychological damage when he fell apart after blowing a lead in the Masters. Revitalised by a visit to Haiti quake victims, he won the US Open. Clarke, 42, claimed the Open five years after his wife, Heather, died of cancer.

Sonia Mkoloma and Karen Atkinson

Netball players

This year saw the England National Netball team's best yet under the dual leadership of Sonia Mkoloma and Karen Atkinson. The team finished fourth in the Singapore World Championships – the highest since 1975 – and were ranked third in the world by the International Federation of Netball Associations. Despite these achievements, both were overlooked for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

Margaret Paren

Parks campaigner

Campaigner for, and now chairman of, the South Downs National Park, which officially came into existence in 2011. It is Britain's 13th national park, and the largest one since the Yorkshire Dales park was created in 1954. A former civil servant, her expertise and local knowledge was instrumental in making the case for the park.

Brian Percival

Downton Abbey director

He had been an established British television director for a decade, but it was undoubtedly the success of Downton Abbey that brought significant praise for Percival. For his work directing Julian Fellowes script, he's received a Bafta Craft award for Best Fiction Director and more recently, the 2011 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing for a Mini-series.

Maurice Reeves

Riot victim

One of the most conspicuous victims of the August riots, this 80-year-old great-grandson of the founder saw one of the two stores in his family's 144-year-old furniture business burn down. His articulate dignity in the face of adversity was British phlegm at its best, and was rewarded by sterling support from the local community.

Ben Sheward

Cart-wheeling verger

Amid all the esoteric and unpredicted joy of the royal wedding, it was Ben Sheward's dramatic cartwheel down the aisle of Westminster Abbey that captured the mood of the day. Discreetly caught on rolling ITV coverage, the verger's post-ceremonial acrobatics initially enraged senior Abbey staff who threatened action. That stance has since changed and Sheward has become an internet celebrity.

Junior Smart

Young offenders charity leader

In 2001, Junior Smart was sentenced to 10 years for drug offences. Today he is the leader of the SOS Gangs Project, a charity he started from prison, aimed at helping young offenders break out of gang related crime. In the wake of the London riots, the project celebrated its 5th anniversary in October, and has helped 300 current and ex-offenders since its origin.

Meet the plonkers of the year...

BBC Sports Department

The anonymous suits and faces who decided it would be a really good idea to compile a list of ten contenders for BBC Sports Personality of the Year which included not a single woman. This, of course, was wrong and crass, because there is no shortage of prime female candidates (see our 50 Greatest Britons). All that expensive gender awareness training, all those BBC compliance managers, and it comes to this.

Sally Bercow

Wife of Speaker John Bercow who clearly thinks this achievement entitles her to fancy herself as a bit of a media player. Her contribution to the national body politic was to compete in Celebrity Big Brother, and pose for photographs clad in only a bedsheet.

Rebekah Brooks

Presided, with spectacular lack of grip, over the corporate debacle and amoral journalistic culture that ended with the hasty closure – provoked by over-reaction to a false story in the Guardian – of Britain's top-selling newspaper. Some 200 people lost their jobs. She got a mega pay-off.

Ryan Giggs

Manchester United footballer, philanderer, and betrayer of his wife who not only tried to keep his monkey business quiet with a super-injunction, but, in order to win it, claimed that his lover was trying to blackmail him with threats to go public. This, he has been belatedly forced to admit, was not true.

Mike Hancock

Paunchy, grey-haired lascivious MP who was among several gentleman callers of a young Russian woman who crept like a Dickensian fog along the corridors of power. He either possesses qualities not visible to the naked eye, or was taken for a mug. Or both.

Dave Hartnett

Head of Revenues and Customs who proved there is one rule for the super-rich, another for ordinary taxpayers. Described as 'the most wined and dined civil servant', he will retire next year with an over-flowing pension pot after revelations that he excused tax-minimising US bank Goldman and Sachs from £10m in interest charges.

Johnny Marbles

Anarchic, totally unfunny 'performer' who thought it a great idea to squelch a custard pie in the face of Rupert Murdoch when he was questioned by MPs. He thus, with one idiotic stunt, succeeded in the seemingly impossible: garnering widespread sympathy, albeit briefly, for the old money-grubber.

Sebastian Marsh and Harry Fildes

Pair of ex-public school plonkers whose misogynist emails drooling over a female friend were intended to be private – until one of them inadvertently copied her in. Mr Fildes passed the correspondence onto friends, and this spring they went viral. One was suspended at work, the other lost his job and has now set up an internet dating site.

Mike Tindall

Rugby player, and consort of the Queen's grand-daughter, he was one of the leading dipsomaniacs in England's team who performed so triumphantly in the Boozers' World Cup, staged recently in New Zealand. He and his colleagues were, however, rather less successful in the Rugby World Cup, held at the same time.

Steph Warren

Chief examiner in geography for Edexcel who was caught on film by the Daily Telegraph boasting to a teachers' seminar that "you don't have to teach a lot" for our tests. She was also captured saying she did not know "how we got it through" the regulators. Despite her apologies, she is now the shabby symbol of Britain's hopelessly discredited exam industry.

Quotes of the year: Wit, wisdom and would-you-believe-its

"I was gay when I woke up and I still am. It sounds strange, but when I came round I immediately felt different. I wasn't interested in women any more."

Chris Birch, a 26-year-old former rugby player who claims his sexuality changed after a stroke

"I have been looking through my Farrow & Ball colour chart to select which colour of teak I'm going to go for."

Jason Donovan opens up about his Strictly Come Dancing spray tan

"I think that because I am rich, handsome and a great player, people are envious of me."

Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo explains why he gets fouled by other footballers and booed by fans. Jealousy is a terrible thing....

"I told them I was very busy painting England actually. Her country."

What the artist David Hockney said when he was asked to paint the Queen. He told Radio 4's Front Row programme that although Her Majesty would be a "terrific" subject, he'd rather paint people he knows

"Dealing with Gordon Brown is like having dental treatment with no anaesthetic."

How Tony Blair described the sheer giddy fun of working with his Chancellor, according to Alistair Darling's memoirs

"We thought it might be a hoax, so we checked all the way down the line that it was real. It's been going on so long."

Entertainer Bruce Forsyth, 83, on hearing about his knighthood in the Queen's Birthday Honours (after a successful IoS campaign)

"Whenever he pays a visit to one of our stations, Boris [Johnson] always insists on sliding down the fireman's pole."

Chairman of the London Fire Authority, Brian Coleman

"I look back at that and think, with hindsight, that probably wasn't the best use of our money."

Helen Boaden, BBC director of news, on sending Huw Edwards to anchor the news from Portugal after the disappearance of Madeleine McCann

"There are things happening in Libya and Ivory Coast, and we are talking about Wayne Rooney swearing at a camera."

Rio Ferdinand in April

"There was a period of remorse and apology; that period needs to be over."

Bob Diamond, Barclays' chief executive, on bankers' bonuses

Those we lost in 2011

Trevor Bailey, cricketer and broadcaster, 87: England all-rounder famed for his resolute defence. George Baker, actor, 70: best known as Inspector Wexford in The Ruth Rendell Mysteries. Trevor Bannister, actor, 76: long-running star of small screen and Mr Lucas in Are You Being Served? John Barry, composer, 77: five-time Oscar winner for scores to films such as Out of Africa, Born Free and James Bond. Janet Brown, comedian and impressionist, 87: best remembered for her true-to-life impersonation of Margaret Thatcher. Sir Henry Cooper, boxer, 76: legendary heavyweight champion. David Croft, writer, director and producer, 89: the man behind of some of Britain's best-loved sitcoms including Dad's Army. John Howard Davies, BBC executive and former child actor, 72: Fawlty Towers producer, also remembered for his role as Oliver Twist in David Lean's 1948 film. Betty Driver, actress, 91: soap-star queen as stalwart of Coronation Street's Rovers Return. Lucien Freud, artist, 88: illustrious painter and grandson of Sigmund Freud. Michael Gough, actor, 94: Tim Burton favourite, best known as Batman's butler. Brian Haw, activist, 62: tireless anti-war campaigner, a familiar face for his occupation of Parliament Square in protest at the Iraq war. Richard Holmes, military historian, 65: best known for presenting TV documentaries such as the War Walks series. Kathy Kirby, singer, 72: singer and 1963 Eurovision Song Contest entrant, conspicuous for her voice and liberal use of lip gloss. Patrick Leigh Fermor, soldier and author, 96: celebrated writer, remembered for his exploits in the Second World War against German-occupied Crete. Nat Lofthouse, footballer, 85: formidable centre-forward known as the Lion of Vienna after he starred in England's 3-2 win over Austria in 1952. Ted Lowe, snooker commentator, 90: the voice that launched a thousand breaks. Ginger McCain, racehorse trainer, 80: the man who gave the world the legendary Grand National champion Red Rum. Anna Massey, actress, 73: Bafta award-winner, best known for her role as a spinster in the TV adaptation of Hotel du Lac. Dame Barbara Mills, lawyer, 70: first female boss of the Crown Prosecution Service. Pete Postlethwaite, actor, 64: described by Steven Spielberg as "probably the best actor in the world". Gerry Rafferty, singer-songwriter, 63: famous for hit singles "Baker Street" and "Stuck in the Middle with You". Robert Robinson, broadcaster, 83: renowned host of quiz shows including Call My Bluff and Ask the Family. Ken Russell, film director, 84: inventive creator of such films as the The Devils, Women in Love, and The Who's rock opera, Tommy. Sir Jimmy Savile, broadcaster and charity supporter, 84: treasured for such catchphrases as "how's about that, then?". Gary Speed, football manager, 42: won 85 caps for Wales as a player and went on to manage the team. Eddie Stobart, entrepreneur, 56: mastermind behind Britain's most recognised lorries. John Sullivan, writer, 64: creator of the immortal Only Fools and Horses. Elizabeth Taylor, actress, 79: screen siren, multiple wife, and diamond collector. Amy Winehouse, singer, 27: winner of five Grammy Awards. Googie Withers, actress, 94 :best known for her performance in Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes. Susannah York, actress, 72: vivacious performer and anti-nuclear campaigner.

Compiled by Paul Bignell, Matt Chorley, Eleanor Dickinson, Kunal Dutta, Katy Guest, Sarah Morrison, Celestina Olulode, Jonathan Owen, David Randall, John Rentoul, and Kate Youde

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