Conceived in 1941 by Roy Plomley (as the weekly broadcasts still continue to remind us), its reassuringly familiar format has borne witness to changing times and tastes. We can hear 2,360 episodes online:
Over seventy years, the language with which we describe ourselves, and expectations about what it’s acceptable to reveal in the public realm, are audibly mapped.
Plomley was straight-laced, tight-lipped, “congenitally reluctant to pry”, In the early days “the musical choices were criticised for being too highbrow—”no Bing Crosby, Deanna Durbin or Joe Loss”, and this remained so until the 2010s [?].
Desert Island Discs’ biggest ever record is Handel’s Messiah. Until 2010 the most frequently played composers were Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, and the most popular non-classical record was “Je ne regrette rien” sung by Édith Piaf, which hobbled in at 27th in Desert Island Discs’ all-time top hundred. My hunch is that this classical skew came about partly because Stoppard was right—castaways wanted to look cultured—but also because most people’s pool of familiar classical music is much smaller than their pool of familiar popular music, so the same classical tracks have been chosen over and over, while votes for contemporary songs have been more thinly spread across many more records. Only after 2010 did the Beatles enter the top three, largely because, I think, classical music has become less important as a signifier of classiness.
Indeed, the show reflects the society’s whole demotion of WAM and the acceptance of other ways of being. Still, it’s good to find the slow movement of the Schubert string quintet and the Terzetto from Così fan tutte among the most popular classical choices.
When the BBC switched to recording on tape, which could be edited before going out, scripts were no longer needed. “It was a great improvement”, Plomley remarked. At last the series could be put “properly to work to fulfil its function of revealing character”. Not that this actually happened. More space was allotted to speech, and the castaways began to talk about their careers. Yet Plomley, always genial and irreproachably polite, refused to probe. Any sign of emotional revelation sent him charging in the opposite direction. […]
Thatcher : When you’ve problems there’s nothing like close relatives.
Plomley: Your forebears had been craftsmen and tradesmen, one was an organ maker?
And with Liberace, cast away in 1959:
Liberace: I am very happy with my success, but I look back at former times when I enjoyed simple pleasures that I can’t seem to enjoy now.
Plomley: Right. Let’s have record number four. […]
Still in the 1960s,
the audience kept listening, comfortable with the level of formality and lack of disclosure. […] Respondents said they liked Desert Island Discs’ safe atmosphere and lack of aggressive, intrusive questioning. […]
But change did come. Thanks to the archive, you can hear it happening. It was brought in not by Plomley but by the guests themselves, as a new generation of castaways—younger, more candid—began to appear among the worthies and elderly comedians.
As to the luxuries requested, besides booze, inflatable dolls began making an appearance:
Ronnie Scott asked for a Faye Dunaway doll, though Plomley persuaded him to take a saxophone instead.
I note that John Cleese was allowed to take Michael Palin with him, on the condition that he was dead and stuffed.
As the rest of the media became more aggressive in the pursuit of celebrities and their secrets, Desert Island Discs seemed as safe and as relaxed as anywhere on air.
After Plomley died in 1985, Michael Parkinson took over for a mere two years, unjustly criticised for being too intrusive, asking more probing questions and getting more personal answers. This was the first time castaways listened to their choices during the show. Under Sue Lawley the programme
became the most quietly subversive and consistently exposing interview show on TV or radio—a considerable achievement as celebrity was becoming ever more tightly mediated. […] It’s no accident that it was on Lawley’s watch that castaways began to cry.
And she reversed the forty-year policy of avoiding politics and controversy.
Carter considers Kirsty Young, who presided from 2006 to 2018, the best presenter in the programme’s history—more like a therapist. The current incumbent Lauren Laverne is “warm and cheerful”:
A harsh critic might say that the programme is now closer to the Plomleian era than it was under the three presenters in between. Laverne doesn’t challenge her guests’ accounts of themselves; obvious plugging is more detectable. But it may be that this merely reflects another shift in the culture. The celebrity interview is no longer the occasion it once was. The internet has created innumerable routes by which the famous can control and curate their own exposure. One unguarded public comment can result in online pile-on and career suicide. Say the wrong thing on the radio these days, and you may wish you really had been washed up on a desert island.
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Meanwhile Eric Coates’ theme tune By the Sleepy lagoon [Bognor] has remained unchanged, a reassuring comfort blanket.
Over on Radio 3, Private Passions (benignly hosted by Micahel Berkeley) allows for more of both narrative and music—and the range of the latter is almost as eclectic. Among guests whose choices have inspired me are Philippe Sands, Camilla Pang, Piers Gough, Anne Seba, Vesna Goldsworthy, Natalie Haynes, and Mark Padmore (whose own singing, quite rightly, is a popular choice of many guests).