The Enduring Appeal of the BBC's "Desert Island Discs" – the Longest Running Interview ShowBreaking News
tags: British history, music, radio, popular culture, cultural history
The idea for Desert Island Discs came to Roy Plomley one night in November 1941 in the aftermath of the Blitz. Plomley was 27, an unsuccessful actor turned slightly more successful radio broadcaster. The fire in his digs had gone out, and he’d just put on his pyjamas when inspiration struck. He immediately typed out his idea and posted it the next morning to Leslie Perowne, a producer in the BBC Gramophone department: ‘DESERT ISLAND DISCS: If you were wrecked on a desert island, which ten gramophone records would you like to have with you? Providing of course that you have a gramophone and needles as well!’
It was brilliantly timed. What could be more appealing in the middle of wartime, when everything was on the ration and the German army was on the outskirts of Moscow, than escape to a sunny, quiet desert island, into music and memory? BBC radio was desperate for good light entertainment. At the start of the war it had become the UK’s sole broadcaster – commercial radio and BBC TV had been closed down – and it had a large, captive, highly critical audience complaining about the lack of cheerful programming.
Plomley had been unsuccessfully touting programme ideas for a while, most recently I Know What I Hate, in which guests chose records they loathed, and This Too Too Solid Flesh, about ‘corpulence’. Perowne admitted he secretly loved the first idea; the second, he tutted, was not ‘up to the Plomley standard. Indeed, we picture all the fat listeners on this island writing rude letters to complain of such a broadcast.’ Plomley wasn’t necessarily wrong, just ahead of his time, as Room 101 (1994-2018) and two decades of fat shows (The Biggest Loser, Shut-Ins: Britain’s Fattest People, Obese: A Year to Save My Life etc) have demonstrated. Mind you, most of them are terrible.
Perowne immediately commissioned six episodes of Desert Island Discs, reduced the number of records to eight and hired Plomley as presenter at fifteen guineas a programme – about £750 in today’s money. Nobody would have been more surprised than Plomley or his boss by the fact that the programme celebrated its eightieth birthday this January. It’s the world’s longest-running interview show, though only the eleventh oldest radio programme: that record is held by the Shipping Forecast, at 98, closely followed by The Grand Ole Opry, broadcast from Nashville, Tennessee since 1925. The format of Desert Island Discs is deeply and reassuringly familiar to its audience, each episode, according to its recent presenter Kirsty Young, ‘a well-tethered hammock’ cradling itself ‘around each highly individual guest’.
For decades the famous and worthy, or would-be worthy, have queued up to appear on it. On his death in 1965, Herbert Morrison, Clement Attlee’s heir presumptive for 25 years, was found to have a list of his eight favourite songs in his wallet in case he should ever be invited on – he never was. In his 1982 play, The Real Thing, Tom Stoppard described the eternal dilemma of choosing records that make you look classy and cultured versus the ones you actually like. (He was rewarded by being invited onto the show three years later.) In 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi (Desert Island Discs 2013), then the world’s favourite democracy activist, mentioned it in her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. The British Academy published a book ‘on the programme’s significance’ in 2017, Defining the Discographic Self. It even has its own urban myth, in which Brigitte Bardot tells Roy Plomley that she wants ‘a peenis’ for her luxury. Choking on his microphone he eventually realises she means ‘’appiness’. Bardot never appeared on Desert Island Discs – but Marlene Dietrich did, shaving seven years off her age and answering Plomley’s ever-courteous, pedestrian questions with a stream of weary, slightly scornful ‘no’s.
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