Revisiting the greatness of ‘Desert Island Discs’

BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Disc. Photo: BBC

Much like a periodic viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life, Charlie Brown’s Christmas, Casablana and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I have to revisit the greatness that is Desert Island Discs every so often just to ground myself .

Having celebrated its’ 80th birthday on 29 January, 2022, BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs is perhaps the coolest show on the planet, which premiered on BBC radio in 1942. Created by Roy Plomley, the format is about as simple as you can get. A guest ‘castaway’ is invited to choose the eight records they would take with them to a desert island.

In addition to the 8 records, guests are also asked to choose both a book and a ‘luxury’ item (which must be inanimate and of no use in escaping the island or allowing communication from outside) on the outside chance that would be marooned indefinitely. Since its inception, Desert Island Discs has invited over 3,000 guests to talk about their lives and tell of what would accompany them to a desert island.

Plomley hosted the show until 1985, after which it was presented by Michael Parkinson until 1988 and Sue Lawley until 2006. From 2006 until 2018, Scottish presenter Kirsty Young hosted the program before passing the mic to the hands of current presenter Lauren Laverne where the show continues its reign as one of BBC Radio’s most loved programs with a weekly on air audience around 3  million. Desert Island Discs is also available as a podcast with iTunes and an extensive archive is available online, with episodes dating back to the 1950s available to listen and download.

While the rules are ‘strictly enforced’, there have been exceptions over the years with John Cleese, most notably, being allowed to bring Michael Palin on the condition he was dead and stuffed. One of the most requested ‘luxury’ items over the years has been a piano.

For its’ 75th anniversary celebration, a total eight episodes were restored to the Desert Island Discs archive, including silent movie star Tallulah Bankhead’s interview from 1964, BBC radio presenter Alan Keith’s from 1971, comedian Marty Feldman’s from 1968, and pianist Hephzibah Menuhin’s from 1958.

In the early years of the BBC, programmes were broadcast live and were not usually recorded. This, in addition to the BBC’s policy of only retaining a limited number of broadcasts, means that very few episodes from the first 20 years of the show are known to exist; the earliest episode still in existence was broadcast on 25 April 1951 and features actress Margaret Lockwood.

Over the years, several extracts were preserved for posterity at the request of the guests, such as an extract featuring Alfred Hitchcock where he speaks about his films The Pleasure Garden (1925) and Rebecca (1940), gives his view on the changing landscape of the film industry and briefly discusses his then forthcoming film Psycho (1960)

Amazingly, the British Library discovered over 90 editions of Desert Island Discs in their archive this past year including 67 episodes that were missing in whole or in part from the BBC’s own archive. As they set about the herculean task of digitizing the lost tapes, unfortunately, in some cases, only the speech could been saved.

Working with the BBC’s Desert Island Discs team, the BBC Gramophone Library and the BBC’s written archives at Caversham, where transcripts of each program have been preserved, the restoration process began. Salvaged were some amazing programs featuring Princess Grace of Monaco, Sir Alec Guinness and screenwriter, Dennis Potter.

Here are some of the familiar ‘castaways’ from the world of British comedy that I found digging through the archives…

Dame Judi Dench – wanting something upbeat, found it a nightmare to choose only 8 discs!
Patricia Routledge – varieties of tea and a tea-making outfit
John Cleese – a life-sized model of Margaret Thatcher and a baseball bat
Felicity Kendal – Plays and Prefaces by George Bernard Shaw and Perfume
Terry Jones – The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer and a pencil and paper
Rowan Atkinson – Uncle Fred in Springtime by P. G. Wodehouse and a car
Lenny Henry – Catch 22 by Joseph Heller and graphic novels (comics)
Geoffrey Palmer – a fly fishing rod (having interviewed him twice, this was no surprise)
Dawn French – Her daughter’s teddy bear (Awww….)
Ronnie Corbett – favorite discs ranged from Handel to Frank Sinatra

The archives at the BBC, whether it be radio or TV, is a gift to the world. If you have more than a few hours of spare time, do yourself a favor and peruse the 70+ years of Desert Island Discs archives. It will definitely take your mind off the news….

Here’s to Desert Island Discs! Looking forward to your 9th decade!

In: Odds & Sods