On my radio · Projects

“Desert Island Discs”: the year so far

[There are over 1,000 words in this post]

I am a big fan of the “Desert Island Discs” archive and recommend it to everyone. [NOTE: the link in the last sentence, which previously took you to the “Find a Castaway” page, is now broken; this link will take you to the new Home Page for the show.] As I wrote on my Projects page, it’s a remarkable resource. For many years even the most recent episode of the show was unavailable on their “Listen Again” or iPlayer service. Now we can go back and catch up on almost anything. I have gone back to episodes that I first heard over 25 years ago, and many more that I have never heard. When I was growing up the radio was only ever set to BBC Radio 1 or 2, and to the commercial station Capital. I only discovered where Radio 4 was in late 1970s so that I could listen to “Weekending” on a Friday night. I first heard “Desert Island Discs” around 1986.

Since the show became available as Podcasts I have batched up and listened to old episodes while gathering paperwork for my accountant in time for tax returns and the deadline of 31 January. It has become part of the process. There have been many January weekends over the years sorting through what I can loosely call my “filing system”, trying to hunt down receipts, bills and statements and wondering why I didn’t do it earlier in the tax year. I do listen to the show at other times of the year, otherwise whenever the theme tune (Eric Coates’s “Sleepy Lagoon”) starts up I might go into a tax-return-induced panic wondering which pile of papers contains that receipt for professional indemnity insurance.

I have downloaded hundreds of episodes and since the start of the year have listened to dozens of them, chosen according to how I felt on that day. I have also, for a change, heard all of the latest shows within a week of broadcast: Colm Toibin, Alex Crawford, Sir Anthony Seldon, Sigrid Rausing, Bill Gates and Professor Dame Carol Black.

It sometimes seems a little too soon to hear these interviews. Going back through the archive, and knowing what happened next in many cases, gives many of the editions a completely different slant. George Michael (in 2007) and Boy George (way back in 1989) both discussed recent personal troubles, and being over the worst of them, but both editions pre-dated their spells in prison. George Michael chose Amy Winehouse, and his words have a very different resonance these days:

“This is the best female vocalist I have heard in my entire career, and one of the best writers. So all I can say is please, please understand how brilliant you are and I wish her every, every success in the future, and I know she can get past the media. I don’t know if she can get past other things, but she’s a fantastic talent and we should support her.”

Here’s a list of the archive editions that I have listened to since the start of the year. (A year after a name indicates that the guest has been on more than once and specifies the year the episode was originally broadcast.)

Writers: Val McDermid; Andy McNab; Ian Rankin; Thomas Keneally (2007); David Starkey; John Fowles; Julian Barnes; PD James; Salman Rushdie; Philip Larkin.

Actors: Geoffrey Palmer; Jane Horrocks; Sir Michael Hordern; Terence Stamp (2006); Felicity Kendal; Ralph Fiennes; Shirley Maclaine; James Bolam; Stephen Berkoff; Dustin Hoffman; Goldie Hawn; Robert Hardy.

Music people: Bob Geldof; Jarvis Cocker; Simon Rattle (1978).

Film and theatre people: David Puttnam; Powell & Pressburger; Frank Oz; Fluck & Law; Jonathan Miller; Sir Peter Hall; Patsy Rodenberg.

Artists: Peter Blake (1979); Sam Taylor-Wood.

Others: Les Dawson; Gary Lineker; Rabbi Lionel Blue; Robin Cook; Sir Edmund Hilary; Robin Hanbury-Tenison; Sir Alfred Ayer; Sir Christopher Ondaatje.

I often listen on my Mac Book Pro, on iTunes (I don’t use iTunes any other way, and haven’t bought any music that way) and after the end of an episode the software will choose something else from my library, typically an episode I heard some other time over the last three years. I say “the software will choose something” but it sounds more like Kirsty Young has made the choice. She introduces every show with “Hello, I’m Kirsty Young, and this is a Podcast from the “Desert Island Discs” archive …”

There is a kind of randomness about the choices that I like, and I’ll listen to at least of whatever the software (or Kirsty) has chosen, so I have heard at last part of shows featuring Alan Jay Lerner, Elton John, Bob Harris, Peggy Lee, Herbert Kretzmer, Ben Elton, Hanif Kureishi and dozens of others.

Looking at those lists of names I have a familiar feeling: how difficult it is to pick out a handful of memories, insights, things that struck a chord at the time, from so many names.

The first thing that comes to mind is Dustin Hoffman, drinking with an old acting buddy at the end of a film shoot in New Orleans. (It was either Robert Duvall or Gene Hackman – Hackman I think; he knew them both when he was starting out as an actor.) They realize that they both have the same feeling when they come to the end of a project, the thought that this might be their last job, that there might never be another one. I know how they feel.

I also like the way that small themes run through some of the episodes. Robin Cook talks about the effects of being an only child, as did Elton John and Bob Harris.

Terence Stamp and Felicity Kendal both chose Tim Hardin, an artist I know very little about. And a high proportion of the guests in my unplanned selection chose Kathleen Ferrier: Christopher Ondaatje, Ralph Fiennes, Colm Toibin, Patsy Rodenberg (and also John Graham and Pat Barker, whose episodes I heard late last year). Thomas Keneally, Philip Larkin and Felicity Kendal all chose the plays of George Bernard Shaw as their book.

And the other thing that comes to mind repeatedly is how good Sue Lawley is as an interviewer. I didn’t realize it so clearly at the time (and, yes, all the other presenters are good – Kirsty Young, Michael Parkinson and Roy Plomley) but she did a fantastic job. I look forward to hearing many more of her interviews. You could do the same.


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