Britain Celebrates 70 Years of Being Stranded on an Island



News Hound
Britain's longest running radio show, Desert Island Discs, celebrated its 70[SUP]th[/SUP] anniversary this past Sunday. The show, which first aired on January 29[SUP]th[/SUP], 1942, was the brain child of novelist and playwright, Roy Plomley, who was also the original host of the show. A simple format that has remained almost unchanged over time, the show simply features notable people and asks them to choose eight pieces of music they'd take to a deserted island. This opens up the discussion of what these tracks mean to them. In 1951, the question of what luxury item and what book they'd take along with them was included into the interviews.

“It’s a very clever formula. It’s an absurd formula, but it works,” said Sue Lawley, who is the show's longest serving host right after Plomley himself. Lawley did 773 interviews or “castaways,” including five prime ministers, on Desert Island Discs. In 1988, she'd take over Sir Michael Parkinson, who was Plomley's successor when he retired in 1985. Parkinson's stint as host was short lived because Plomley's widow believed he wasn't “civilised enough,” and BBC management took note that not only were most of his guests from Yorkshire, but that he'd also said a few unkind words about the show's creator. Parkinson later admitted that hosting the programme was never a “career move” for him anyway.

Featuring movie stars, philosophers, poets, prime ministers, royalty, and scientists, Desert Island Discs has had nearly 3,000 guests; a number even more impressive when you consider it's only had four hosts in seven decades. Few refuse an invitation, Mich Jagger is one of the few who have never been on the show, and many tend to be invited back, such as actress Joanna Lumley. Some, like Terry Wogan, have been on the show three times. Only two have been on the show four times, and they are Arthur Askey and Sir David Attenborough, who guested for the 70[SUP]th[/SUP] anniversary show.

With almost three million tuning in each week, Desert Island Discs has proven time and time again that radio is still quite popular. Especially when it's a show whose interviews often make the headlines, such as when Lady Diana Mosely, widow of Fascist leader Oswlad Mosley, said Hitler “was of course extraordinarily fascinating and clever” and that less than 6million Jews died during the holocaust. “ I know it was much, much less,” she'd said.

George Clooney also made the news during his stint as a guest when he encouraged his fellow Americans to “question the actions of your government” in light of the United Sates' impending invasion on Iraq.

It shouldn't be a surprise really, as a show this long running as this is definitely without controversy, both from their guests and their hosts. Yoko Ono revealed that she'd though of aborting her son, Sean. Debbie Harry admitted that she regretted not having children. Jimmy Mulville spoke of his father's suicide.

“In an ideal world, the music that the castaway chooses reflects moments in their life,” said Joanna Lumley. “And that therefore sheds light on people – in an ordinary journalistic interview, you wouldn’t know how to shed that light, because you wouldn’t know the questions to ask.”

The current host, Kirsty Young, took over in 2006 and told Radio Times that being host of Desert Island Discs is probably the “best job in the world” and that she intended to do it till she's 85. In a special edition of Radio 4's Archive Hour, she spoke about the show saying: “For me, the programme’s strength lies where it always has – in the unique blend of a castaway’s life and their music... At best it displays the frailties and strengths of the human condition - how our creativity, grit and humanity can see us through.”

Talking about her interviewees, Young admits that politicians are “awful, especially when they have the responsibility of office, because they have to be careful.” She prefers scientists, who have often not been interviewed before. Despite having a preference, Young did remark that “Although the premise is phoney - sitting in a studio talking to each other - I don't think I'm deluding myself when I say you can establish connections. I'm constantly surprised, and delighted, by their frankness and honesty.”

Young has gotten some great reviews as host of the show. Sir Terry Wogan said: “I had Plomley, and then Sue Lawley, and then the wee Scots girl. If anybody’s going to worm your more intimate secrets out of you, then Kirsty is the girl.”

Dame Joan also said “She’d done her homework, quite extensively, but then she’d given it some thought. Perhaps it was empathy with another woman. But then, when I hear her interview other castaways, I’m always impressed with the way she seems to evoke from them things that are of interest, and that might not have occurred to just a routine interviewer. And it made the actual course of my interview very revealing for me, talking about myself.”

“She’s a very warm person in that little booth, and she listens to what you’re saying,” reveals Jimmy Mulville. “You do feel as though you’re being listened to, and so it’s very comforting and warm, and I felt very safe with her, which is probably why I spilled the beans.”

BBC's Radio 4 special reveals some facts about the programme. For example, the most popular song choices have been Ode to Joy from Beethoven's 9[SUP]th[/SUP] Symphony and Edith Piaf's Je Ne Regrette Rien. Among the luxury items, guests have commonly chose the piano, but others have been more unique, such as a cheeseburger machine. Simon Cowell chose to take a mirror along with him, while Norman Mailer wanted a “stick of the best marijuana.”

The special, which was simultaneously broadcast on all 40 local radio stations, Radio Scotland, Radio Wales, and a few others, reminded many that the programme isn't just a radio show, but a British institution. Many consider it an honor to have been invited. Joanna Lumley said she “ felt as though some glittering coronet had been placed on my head,” while Paul Gambaccini, US-born music broadcaster admitted that being invited is like being “honoured to be part of this strange national club. To be welcomed into something so quintessentially British as Desert Island Discs means I've made it, I'm welcome, I'm home,” he said.

Some of the more notable personalities and their song choices include:

Princess Margaret – Chose Rule Britannia and Sixteen Tons by Tennessee Ernie Ford
Margaret Thatcher – Chose Beethoven
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf – Chose her own recordings
Paul McCartney – Chose John Lennon's Beautiful Boy, Bing Crosby, and Alice Cooper
Tony Blair – Chose Spanish guitar music
Gordon Brown – Chose Bach
David Cameron – Chose Bob Dylan's Tangled Up in Blue
Michael Caine – Chose Frank Sinatra's My Way
George Foreman – Chose The Beatles' All You Need is Love