Churchill is crowned the greatest Briton, but don't expect much celebration from his society

Julia Stuart
Monday 25 November 2002 01:00 GMT

Quite whether Churchill would have found it cause to light up a celebratory cigar is in question. As the statesman was declared the greatest Briton who ever lived last night, thoughts were turning to what he would have made of the BBC poll, which has been marred by criticism of its shortlist and accusations of vote-rigging.

"I don't think he would have given it any credence at all," said Norman Harvey Rogers, the founder of the Churchill Society.

Until Friday, the statesman was in third place behind Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Diana, Princess of Wales. By the close of voting last night, he had leapt to the top of the rankings with 447,423 votes, beating Brunel by more than 56,000 votes. Diana came third with 222,055 votes. The surge of support for Churchill was largely due to the screening of a programme about the Second World War leader presented by Mo Mowlam, a former Northern Ireland secretary. The campaign for Churchill had been further helped by the International Churchill Society. Nigel Knocker, chairman of the society's UK branch, sent e-mails to its members in Britain, America, Canada and Australia urging them to vote. The practice is not banned by the BBC rules. "We must adopt a Churchillian approach. No doubt he would have come up with devious tricks to claim victory," Mr Knocker said.

Last year, the public cast 35,000 votes nominating their greatest Briton. When the BBC released the top 100, it placed the names of the first 10 in alphabetical order. It is they who were the subject of the public vote, which began five weeks ago to coincide with Great Britons, a BBC2 series devoted to the contenders, each fronted by a high-profile advocate.

The polls have caused considerable controversy, much to the delight, one suspects, of the BBC. Eyebrows were raised as to its merits as soon as the top 100 was published. The list included Michael Crawford, an actor best known for the lament of his one-time character, Frank Spencer, about his cat having done a "whoopsie" on the carpet.

More than 1.5 million people voted, making Great Britons the most successful public participation factual series in the history of television. Mark Harrison, the series producer, said: "We have proved that factual television creates as much passion as entertainment."

But Mr Harvey Rogers and his members will not be celebrating Churchill's victory. "The whole thing has been turned into entertainment and Churchill is not entertainment," he said.

Dr Mowlam said: "Churchill was the greatest ­ and I'm absolutely delighted that the public agree with me."

Jane Root, controller of BBC2, who had the idea for the series, said: "I'm really pleased this series has so captured the public's imagination and have been delighted by the level of interest and debate generated."

The final placings in the BBC's Great Britons poll were:

1 Winston Churchill, who polled 447,432 votes

2 Isambard Kingdom Brunel

3 Diana, Princess of Wales

4 Charles Darwin

5 William Shakespeare

6 Sir Isaac Newton

7 Elizabeth I

8 John Lennon

9 Viscount Horatio Nelson

10 Oliver Cromwell

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