Shakespeare voted greatest Briton

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"I HAVE tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me," wrote Charles Darwin. Unfortunately for the originator of the theory of evolution, nearly 12,000 people disagreed with him and elected William Shakespeare as British personality of the millennium in a BBC Radio listeners' poll. Darwin came fourth.

The poll was organised by Radio 4's Today programme, which asked listeners to vote on their choice of personality. A shortlist of six was drawn up and the results were announced yesterday.

Winston Churchill, a man who insisted on victory at all costs, was narrowly beaten into second place with nearly 11,000 votes, and William Caxton came third. Following Darwin were Isaac Newton and Oliver Cromwell.

Although the poll is certain to have sparked lively debate in many households, the final shortlist did more to reveal the conservative nature of the average Radio 4 listener.

With barely a glance towards women (Queen Elizabeth I managed 11th place), and given the choice of 1,000 years of British history, the voters plumped for six dead white English men. And the value of their achievements could be open to dispute.

Caxton did not invent printing, he merely imported it and Cromwell, a man whose defenders claim was the key figure in establishing the world's first parliamentary democracy, is viewed by others as a ruthless tyrant who slaughtered thousands of Irish people.

Where were the women? What of Emmeline Pankhurst, the suffragette, Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th-century feminist, and the Countess of Lovelace, the poet Lord Byron's daughter, who has been described as the first computer programmer?

Nor was there any space for Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, or Alexander Graham Bell and John Logie Baird, the inventors of the telephone and the television.

There were, however, a number of votes for Peter Mandelson, the former secretary of state for trade and industry, the - French - footballer Eric Cantona and the Muppets character Miss Piggy.

Rod Liddle, the editor of Today, said he was overwhelmed by the number of calls that the competition had generated. "Even though many thousands of listeners voted for other nominees, I think most people would agree that Shakespeare should be there or thereabouts."

The actress Dame Judi Dench told the programme that she was particularly glad that Shakespeare had won.

In her household, she said, he was known as "the gentleman who pays the rent".

For many years in her early career, she had played nothing but Shakespeare, she said and her favourite play was Twelfth Night: "It's wonderfully constructed, so beautiful."

Dame Judi plays Queen Elizabeth I in the new film Shakespeare in Love, in which the monarch goes to a production by Shakespeare, played by Joseph Fiennes. Professor Stanley Wells, of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, said that he was delighted with the result and added that the Bard "would very much have enjoyed the moment".


11,717 VOTES

1564-1616; England's greatest

poet and dramatist


10,957 VOTES 1874-1965; statesman and author; heroic leader in Second World War


7,109 VOTES 1422-1491; first English printer; publisher of The Canterbury Tales


6,337 VOTES 1809-1882; naturalist, famous for his theory of evolution and natural selection


4,664 VOTES 1642-1727; mathematician, physicist; regarded as world's greatest scientist


4,653 VOTES

1599-1658; soldier and statesman, Lord Protector of England