• New Radio 4 interview series will see Martha Kearney speak to leading figures across arts, sports, science and entertainment about their favourite portrait from the Gallery’s Collection and what it means to them
• Guests include Alexa Chung, Arlo Parks, Sir Chris Whitty, Clara Amfo, Edward Enninful, JJ Chalmers, Dame Katherine Grainger, Sir Paul Smith, Simon Singh and Sir Tim Berners Lee.
BBC Radio 4 is launching a new series fronted by Martha Kearney to coincide with the reopening of the National Portrait Gallery. After three years of closure for major refurbishment and expansion, the Gallery, along with Radio 4, has brought together a host of famous faces to select their favourite portraits, and discuss what they mean to them in an exciting new series called ‘Close Encounters’.
Across the ten-part series, Martha Kearney introduces a close encounter between notable names and a portrait of their choice from the Gallery’s Collection. Guests include Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Dame Katherine Grainger, Edward Enninful and Arlo Parks.
In each episode listeners will discover more about the subjects of these specially selected portraits, how and why their image was captured for posterity and the importance of image and identity for those who find themselves in the eye of the nation’s attention today.
For Sir Tim Berners-Lee, his choice falls upon the Suffragette campaigner Christabel Pankhurst; for Dame Katherine Grainger, it is Mercedes Gleitze, the first British woman to swim the English channel, who piques her interest; and for Arlo Parks, 80s punk-rocker Poly Styrene is of particular interest.
Sir Chris Whitty, a household presence during the COVID pandemic, chooses the man who pioneered the Smallpox vaccination, Edward Jenner; British Vogue’s Editor-in-Chief, Edward Enninful, selects a portrait of Naomi Campbell posing for her first British Vogue cover; and former marine and now TV presenter, JJ Chalmers, introduces Martha to Sir Archibald Hector McIndoe, whose surgical work during the Second World War endured to the extent that treatments he developed were used on JJ himself, after being injured serving in Afghanistan.
Sometimes the portraits are lavish oil paintings. Sometimes they’re discrete photographs, never intended for display. That’s certainly the case for mathematician Simon Singh’s choice, Alan Turing, but while the photograph at first feels small and formal, Simon helps expand his story for listeners, with one of the Gallery’s expert curators as guide – Turing’s importance not just to cryptography and the wartime code breaking at Bletchley Park but to modern computing development, is celebrated in the episode for listeners.
In this fascinating new series, listeners will learn more about the many captivating portraits on display at the National Portrait Gallery and the significant stories they tell.
Commissioning executive Tammi Walker says “Close Encounters brings together a brilliant line up of guests from all walks of life. The portrait choices, which showcase the wide breadth of artwork on display, are meaningful and insightful as well as being quite surprising in some cases.”
Presenter Martha Kearney says “The gallery tells the story of our country through the most famous people who have ever lived here from Shakespeare to Stormzy. It’s been exciting to hear inspiring figures from modern Britain choose portraits celebrating ground-breaking medicine and science, sport and dazzling glamour.”
Director of the National Portrait Gallery, Dr Nicholas Cullinan, says: “As Martha and our visiting guests have wandered through the galleries, it’s been wonderful to hear their insights as they’ve made connections and learnt more about the works that make us a living portrait of Britain. I’m delighted to share these with BBC listeners and Gallery visitors as part of Close Encounters, as we ready for reopening on 22 June.”
Producers: Tom Alban and Mohini Patel.
The first episode of Close Encounters will air on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 5 June at 13:45 with episodes broadcast daily. Episodes will be available to listen back on BBC Sounds.
BBC Radio 4