In the news · On my radio · Technology

“Desert Island Discs” and an unwanted technical change

The website for BBC Radio 4’s “Desert Island Discs” has changed. Back in 2016 I referred to “the indispensable ‘Desert Island Discs’ archive” in this piece and included a link to it. That link no longer works. It used to direct you to a page where you could search through every episode of the show for castaways’ choices. You could search for a specific performer, band or composer and see how many times they had been chosen, and by whom. You could check through the books and luxuries that the castaways had selected, to see how many times Dickens or Alvin Tofler were being taken to the hypothetical desert island, or how many people planned to take champagne or dope. This is no longer possible through the BBC website.

This Guardian Datablog link from 2012 allows you to view data for luxuries and book choices, but there are gaps. Spike Milligan was on the show in 1978 and chose “Future Shock” by Alvin Tofler as his book (as you can see here) but it’s not listed on the Datablog spreadsheet. Nor is Norman Mailer, who chose a “stick of the best marijuana” in 1979 (episode available here). There is nothing easily available to help you search through the musical choices.

I used the old “find a castaway” link for my piece in 2016 to check how many people had selected tracks by The Clash. There were 12 in all, but I only made reference to six of them and there is now no straightforward way to check who the others were, or if anyone has selected the band since 2016. Like most people who listen to the show I have thought, often, about which 8 tracks would make the final list, and I used that now unavailable search facility to see how many of them had been selected before. None, as it turned out, not even “Harper Valley PTA” by Jeannie C Reilly or Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”. I was convinced that someone had selected the latter.

I know that it’s a naïve thought, but I still expect technical changes to improve things, to deliver more than before. There has been a technical change on the BBC’s website and it has not improved things. It delivers less than before. This is a minor quibble, and it doesn’t detract from the excellence of the show itself. I hadn’t used the search facility for over a year, so have no idea when it was removed. I only discovered it was gone earlier this month when I wanted to check who had selected “Dat” by Pluto Shervington in the last year or so. I resorted to my memory when the web-based option was unavailable, and it came up with the right answer: Anne-Marie Duff. Her appearance on the show is well worth a listen, especially for anyone with West London Irish connections. Her dad worked at the Fuller’s brewery in Chiswick, a fact that I only learnt thanks to “Desert Island Discs”.

The show has been in the news recently for a much more significant reason than changes to the website. As this Guardian piece reports, Kirsty Young is taking time off from presenting it because she has a form of fibromyalgia. Last Sunday’s edition, featuring neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, was her last for a while. From next Sunday Lauren Laverne will host the show in her absence. I wish her well, and wish Kirsty Young a full and speedy recovery. And if either of them could have a word about restoring the old “find a castaway” option I’d be very grateful.



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