Which one of us has not drawn up a list of favourite pieces of music, tunes or songs that mean something special ? Which of us has not got a particular favourite book, one to hang on to if the bailiffs called, or if a flash flood raged through the house? In 1941 a British radio producer and writer, Roy Plomley, came up with an idea for a programme based on people’s choice of favourites. These were relatively early days for radio; at that time  BBC radio announcers were required to read the news wearing evening dress. The BEEB operated under the principles laid down by its first Director General , Lord Reith– to educate, inform and entertain.

Plomley’s  idea obviously passed and his programme, Desert Island Discs,  first went on air in early 1942, for an eight week run. This was extended, the programme was broadcast throughout much of the war years, becoming, and, after 1951, became a weekly staple feature on the Home Service. On 29 January next it will celebrate its 70th anniversary, making it, after the Grand Ole Opry, the longest radio show on air, anywhere. David Attenborough will be the 70th anniversary  guest castaway.

The programme’s theme is simple, with an obvious and enduring appeal. Participants are interviewed about their lives and are asked to imagine they are marooned on a desert island with eight selected favourite pieces of music for company, on the improbable assumption that the island will have a power source and means to play the music.  This interview-with-music format  has proved enduring, and has been adapted widely elsewhere. The desert island dimension was unique. Listeners bought into the idea, and,  since these would be the ONLY pieces of music the castaway would hear, perhaps forever,  were prompted  to focus on what  they would choose. Additionally, there was the opportunity to listen and  compare individual choices with those of a celebrity.

The format has remained basically unaltered since the beginning, the only refinements   being to allow castaways to take one book and one luxury item to supplement the Bible and Shakespeare kindly provided by the BBC.  In 70 years the programme has had only four presenters, Roy Plomley until  shortly before his death in 1985, then Michael Parkinson, followed by Sue Lawley and current presenter Kirsty Young who took over in October 2006. Over 2500 celebrities have featured since the programme first kicked off with Vic Oliver, an actor and comedian who was also Churchill’s son in law (though later divorced and not a favourite.  At a dinner party attended by both, Churchill reportedly praised Mussolini for “having the good sense to shoot his son-in-law”).

Churchill never appeared on the programme, though six British prime ministers have; only one, however, while in office – John Major on the show’s 50th anniversary.

The list reads like a who’s who of those acceptable to or in vogue with the British chattering classes  and at various times the programme has been criticised as elitist and even racist. Castaways have for the most part been uncontroversial figures with roughly three quarters  associated with one or other branch of the arts, the largest category being actors or producers followed by  writers, poets, singers and musicians.  Such has been the show’s popularity that stories exist of people eager to be selected and at least one Labour politician, later made a peer, actually carried a list. And a quick trawl of the internet will turn up mock and comic celebrity castaways.

In 1989 one controversial participant was Diana Mitford Mosley , widow of Oswald, the British fascist leader, who lived for some time in Ireland after the War. Hitler, whom she described as “fascinating”, was guest of honour at her wedding, which took place in 1936 in Goebbel’s house.  When Sue Lawley asked her  “What about the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis?” her response was “Oh no, I don’t think it was as many as that. I know it was much, much less.” After a long pause, which spoke more eloquently than any words could, Lawley went on “Tell us about your fifth record, Lady Mosley.”

Royalty has been represented by Princess Margaret, who chose War and Peace and a piano. Princess Grace was also a guest. Nine Nobel Prize winners, including Seamus Heaney, and twelve Olympic champions, among them Harold Abrahams, who inspired the film Chariots of Fire, have also given their choices. Lord Killanin actually chose as his luxury an Olympic gold medal.  David Puttnam,  who directed Chariots, chose a goose down pillow. Paul McCartney chose a guitar, Nigel Kennedy a violin and Jimmy Saville a Havana cigar. Annie Lennox chose sun cream.

The Irish have been well represented, with Terry Wogan topping the list with three appearances, most recently this New Year’s Day. Edna O Brien and Sinead Cusack have both featured twice, while others to appear have included Seamus Heaney, Brian Keenan, Paddy Moloney, Christy Moore, Bob Geldof, Maeve Binchy, Bill Cullen and Neil Jordan. Ian Paisley has also been a guest, choosing Foxe’s Book of Martyrs for comfort.

The music chosen has shown a definite bias , with the most popular eight pieces and composers all  classical. Four of the top choices are by Beethoven, with “Ode to Joy” number one. Mozart, Beethoven and Bach head the league table of composers, well ahead of the rest, although none of Mozart’s pieces make the top eight . Not surprisingly the Beatles are by far the best loved pop band, though Edith Piaf’s ”Je Ne Regrette Rien” and Sinatra’s “My Way” were the most requested songs. Interestingly, when 25,000 listeners responded last May with their choices, Queen (Bohemian Rhapsody) and Pink Floyd (Comfortably Numb) broke the classical monopoly at the top.

The choice of one luxury has added spice to the programme. Many have been predictable. Steve Davis chose a snooker table, Jack Charlton a fishing rod, Neil Jordan a typewriter . Christy Moore chose uileann pipes, Paddy Moloney a tin whistle, Simon Cowell a mirror. Sinead Cusack  chose a big hat with muslin, Bob Geldof the New York Metropolitan Museum and Bill Cullen an accordion. Good wine, champagne and lots of booze, even a distillery (requested by Dirk Bogarde), together with fine cigars, have been selected. Dervla Murphy requested a still. David Cameron was one of many who asked for  a crate of Scotch. Bear Grylls chose Robinson Crusoe and a family photo. More unexpected was the Mona Lisa for Arthur Scargill, an egg timer for Michael Tippett, Doc Martens for Seamus Heaney and a woman’s evening gown for Edgar Lustgarten.

Perhaps not so unexpected was Oliver Reed’s request for an inflatable rubber woman, chosen also by Michael Crawford; no one has yet opted for an inflatable male actor! John Major wanted a replica of the Oval and a bowling machine, Alice Cooper a driving range and Rowan Atkinson a car to clean. Pride of place must go, however, to  John Cleese, who in his first appearance, in 1971 asked for two luxury items : a papier-mâché statue of Margaret Thatcher, and a baseball bat; this long before she became Prime Minister!

So, go on; make your choice!

January 2012


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