BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 10:50 GMT, Monday, 3 August 2009 11:50 UK

10 famous Britons you've probably never heard of

Michael RobinsonDebbie TravisFreddie FrintonCharlie WinstonColin Kazim-RichardsPaul JohnsonChris BirchallJohnny CleggLatif NangarharayRawdon Christie
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

It's 200 years since Lord Byron quit the UK to make his name abroad - becoming a national hero in Greece. The poet also achieved fame in his homeland, but there is a select band of Britons whose talents today are most warmly appreciated outside their home country.

Debbie Travis, Rawdon Christie and Chris Birchall. Know who they are?

When they come home to the UK, they can walk down the street without anyone batting an eyelid.

But in Canada, New Zealand and Trinidad respectively, life for them is quite different.

The trail of modern British celebrities could arguably be traced back to Lord Byron, whose wife Annabella described the hysteria that followed him as "Byromania".

In response to this article, you sent us suggestions of other Britons famous abroad
Read a selection of your nominations here

The poet - currently the subject of a documentary series on Channel 4 - first went overseas 200 years ago, and he went on to achieve great fame in Greece, which has a national day devoted to him.

He spent much of his life abroad, and even turned his back on Britain in later life.

Today, a select band of Britons have achieved success in their adopted homelands, yet remain relatively unknown in the UK.


The host of Debbie Travis' Facelift and Debbie Travis' Painted House has become a star in Canada, where she has lived since the mid-1980s.

Debbie Travis
Travis has been endorsed by Oprah

As well as the television programmes, the Travis empire includes her own line in paint products, several newspaper columns and eight books, mostly on home decorating.

"She can do things with paint that you've never seen before," said Oprah Winfrey, when Travis appeared on her show.

Travis was born in Blackburn and after studying at art college, followed by six years of modelling, she entered the television industry as a freelance editor and producer.

Her career took off after moving to Montreal with her husband, where her paint decorating business attracted media attention.


Every New Year's Eve, half of Germany sits down to watch an English comedy sketch starring a comedian that few in the UK would recognise.

It's one of those historical accidents that somehow become part of the national character
Simon Green
Aston Centre for Europe

The 18-minute sketch, called Dinner For One, features a masterful comic performance by the late actor Freddie Frinton, who plays James, butler to an elderly upper-class English woman called Miss Sophie.

She is celebrating her 90th birthday by hosting a dinner for her close friends. Because she has outlived them all, James impersonates each guest, getting more drunk with each toast.

Originally written in the 1920s, it was recorded in 1963 by a German television station, and has since become embedded in the country's New Year ritual.

Simon Green, co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe, says: "He's part of the ritual of New Year's Eve, which is much bigger in Germany than in the UK.

"A lot of people watch it, like the Queen's Speech in Britain. In that sense, it's a real element of German culture.

"It's on in the early evening, at about six or seven o'clock, so people will watch it while they're having a drink and before they have their dinner."

May Warden and Freddie Frinton in Dinner For One
James the butler gets more drunk as the sketch progresses

The reason why this programme has such appeal is a bit of a mystery, says Professor Green, although farce is popular in Germany and its appeal is helped by the fact that a good knowledge of English is not required (it's not dubbed).

"It's one of those historical accidents that somehow become part of the national character. It's just chance that in September in Britain, there's this fantastic evening of national sentiment, the Last Night of the Proms."

Its catchphrase, "The same procedure as every year", is often referred to in German culture.

The sketch has not been shown in the UK for 30 years, although it is still popular in Australia and Scandinavia.

Frinton found some belated fame in the UK in 1964 as a plumber in the sitcom Meet The Wife, but four years later he died suddenly, aged 59, unaware of how famous he would become.


Michael Robinson
Liverpool supporters would remember Robinson

One of the biggest names in Spanish television, Robinson was for more than a decade the equivalent of Des Lynam.

But he wasn't just the front man. El Dia Despues (The Day After), which dissects Spanish football, was written, directed and presented by him. His foreign language fluency - uncharacteristic for an English footballer - certainly hasn't harmed his ambitions to be big in Spain.

His Spanish adventure began in 1987 when he joined Osasuna following a playing career in England that bagged him a league championship and European Cup with Liverpool.

But the striking pair of Ian Rush and Kenny Dalglish meant he was usually on the substitutes' bench. Although English-born, he was capped 24 times by the Republic of Ireland.


After six years reporting and presenting on New Zealand television news, the London-born journalist and broadcaster has added another string to his bow as an entertainment host.

"Presenting Dragons' Den was when a lot of people started stopping me in the street and recently I did a stint on the news breakfast programme, which means you get a totally different audience," says Christie.

Rawdon Christie
The face of Dragon's Den

"In the summer I fronted the six o'clock news, so that gave me another profile. In the stable of news, I'm probably the number four male presenter in the pecking order.

"I don't mind being spotted, but it depends how I'm approached. Doing Dragons' Den, people come up to me and give me a direct opinion on one of the dragons, and it's often quite a negative one, to which I answer 'Don't shoot the messenger'."

Christie worked for the BBC's Look East before he moved to New Zealand, where he lives with his wife and three children.

Although settled in Auckland, a trip to Lord's in London last month to watch Andrew Flintoff take five wickets in the Ashes had him dreaming of moving home again.

"I was watching the news and thinking: 'I'd like to have a piece of that again', but this is a pretty wonderful place to bring up small children."

Christie also used to front the Sunday morning political programme, Agenda, which is TVNZ's equivalent of the BBC's Andrew Marr programme, and the half-hour primetime news programme, Close-Up.


Latif Nangarharay
A nation inspired by his voice

He works eight hours a day in the London Underground, making sure the trains run on time.

But Latif Nangarharay's voice can be heard on radios on street market stalls in Kabul and his face glimpsed on television screens across Afghanistan.

His music has made him one of the most influential figures in Afghanistan, where his lyrics about peace and reconciliation, offer hope to a country wracked by 30 years of war.

Ten years ago, Mr Nangarharay fled the Taliban and settled in London, but his songs draw on the country's history to send a personal message to fellow Afghans not to lose faith.


Born in east London to a Turkish Cypriot mother and an Antiguan father, Kazim-Richards began his football career 2,000 miles from Istanbul in Bury in 2004.

Four years later, he scored against Chelsea and became a hero among the fanatical supporters of Fenerbahce.

In the same year, he was a member of Turkey's Euro 2008 squad, playing in all five matches as the side reached the semi-finals.

"He has very good technical capacity and I'm trying to give him confidence and strength," said Zico, his former club manager and one of Brazil's all-time great players.


George Bush awards medals
Paul Johnson (third from left) awaits his medal from President George W Bush

When writer Paul Johnson, 81, recently received the highest civilian medal in the US, from President George W Bush, he shared a stage with blues singer BB King, such is the lofty reputation he enjoys stateside.

Readers of the Spectator will know him well from his 28 years of writing for the magazine. He also edited The New Statesman for five years in the 1960s, and later wrote columns in UK newspapers, including the Daily Mail.

But his Catholic conservativism has won him many admirers on the other side of the Atlantic, where he has written in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, and the National Review.


The first white player in the Trinidad & Tobago side for 60 years, Chris Birchall cemented his hero status on the islands when he scored in the World Cup play-off in Bahrain in 2005.

It helped propel the national team to their first World Cup and the supporters made up a rap song in his honour. "The place has gone crazy," he said at the time.

Birchall was eligible to play for Trinidad and Tobago because his grandparents moved to the islands to work and his mother, Jennifer, was born in Port of Spain.

He was selected when the team's Dutch coach, Leo Beenhakker, learned of his eligiblity.

The Stafford-born midfielder was playing for Port Vale at the time, but the attention he drew during the World Cup - especially in the build-up to playing England in the group stages - helped him seal a move to Coventry.

He has now joined LA Galaxy and he replaced someone called David Beckham when he made his debut in May.


"If I never make it big in England it doesn't matter," says Winston, who has become an overnight sensation in France, where he has topped the single and album charts.

Charlie Winston
Winston has outsold Coldplay and U2 in France

The singer-songwriter and former busker recently played to 55,000 people at France's biggest music festival, with the crowd singing along to every word.

His profile in France means he has to travel with a security team, but he could walk down any street in the UK quite freely, especially if he took off his trademark battered trilby.

He spent 10 years playing to tiny audiences in British pubs and clubs, but became fed up with the London music scene. Rarely could a move abroad - to Paris at the end of 2008 - been better judged. But music pundits think the days when Winston could walk the streets of London unnoticed are numbered. A buzz about the 30-year-old Cornishman is now starting to build on this side of the Channel.


The Rochdale-born musician has a career spanning more than 30 years and his political activism combined with his commercial success has made him a very significant figure in African music.

He says his band of black and white musicians, Juluka, broke the law by performing during the apartheid era, and annoyed the authorities with its mixture of Zulu and English influences.

The man nicknamed the "White Zulu" wrote election anthems for the ANC and performed at Nelson Mandela's inauguration in 1994.

He has enjoyed international success, with a Grammy nomination for his band Savuka, and a million-selling album in France.

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