On a sparkling evening, the queue snaked out of London’s Mermaid Theatre up through Puddle Dock by the Thames. Hundreds of excited people clutching tickets and cameras, the soft sound of an orchestra tuning up inside.
But we weren’t queuing. In one of those rare moments of shamefully delicious privilege, Saga Magazine’s correspondent had been whisked inside, shown upstairs and bundled into the pre-show reception where, seconds later, we were munching things on sticks in the giddying company of Sheila Hancock, Maureen Lipman and Nicholas Parsons, the latter immaculately turned out in a blazer and gold tie-pin and making the rest of us feel underdressed.
Pouring the fizz
Jo Brand joined our little circle, as star-struck as I was. She pulled a ‘we’re-not-worthy’ face and nudged discreetly in the direction of the people standing next to us. A waiter was topping up the champagne flutes of Celia Imrie, Julian Lloyd Webber and a fun-sized fellow with a blue velvet jacket, purple check golfing trousers and a rich, fruity laugh like a slice of Dundee cake who could only be Ronnie Corbett. He was shortly due onstage to sing Ma Crêpe Suzette and help kick-start the celebrations for 70 years of Desert Island Discs.
The BBC Concert Orchestra was leafing through sheet music, everything from Cabaret and Rhapsody in Blue to Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor (the Lloyd Webber showcase), and the audience was liberally peppered with many other past castaways who’d been marooned on this sea-bound fantasy of the airwaves and told the story of their lives through their favourite music and a carefully selected book. And of course, a luxury object.
The luxury object
This has become something of a flashpoint recently. The show’s inventor and host of its first 1,791 programmes, the great Roy Plomley, had stuck very firmly by the rules he’d invented back in 1942. The luxury object must have no practical value that could possibly assist departure and was solely to amuse the senses. Thus a blizzard of angry emails greeted current host Kirsty Young’s decision to allow Emma Thompson a cooking pot, Heston Blumenthal some Japanese knives, David Walliams a gun and celebrity lawyer Anthony Julius an endless supply of San Pellegrino mineral water. Dame Fanny Waterman, Director of the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition, was even allowed a piano to store food.
Virtually the only inhabitant ever to melt the Plomley regime was Dame Edna Everage who famously requested gormless chum Madge Allsop as her luxury. Roy reminded her that the rules allowed only inanimate objects; the Dame assured him she was one.
Young’s defence is that she occasionally cuts loose to get a bit more out of the programme. Indeed Kathy Burke wanted a laminated full-size photo of James Caan from Dragons’ Den so she could body-surf on him, and George Clooney chose William Shatner’s tooth-grinding version of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds ‘because listening to it is so unpleasant it’d force me to cut off my own leg, hollow it out and use it as a canoe to escape’. And the rules have been bent beyond pure music – Ann Widdecombe, as she was reminded onstage that night, chose the sound of hippopotami.
We settled in the stalls, Kirsty took the microphone and the orchestra sawed into its two-hour live special edition of Radio 4’s Friday Night Is Music Night with, of course, the sand-rippling signature of By The Sleepy Lagoon, the soothing violin excursion that begins each Desert Island Discs and which Eric Coates composed while gazing out at the less than tropical hot-spot of Bognor Regis.
Roy Plomley claimed the idea came to him in a flash one sweltering night at home in Hertfordshire (though he later admitted it might have been sparked by a feature in a Thirties edition of Rhythm magazine). Whatever, it was inspired and perfectly formed, a relaxed and revealing way of bringing out the human side of public figures, with the added bonus that you might feel connected to a celebrity you’d never much cared for on discovering you both loved the same piece of music. The sun-baked haven on which his guests were stranded, he imagined, was somewhere in the Caribbean, uninhabited and furnished only with a gramophone and copies of both The Bible and The Complete Works of Shakespeare to sidestep any dutifully obvious book selections (Encyclopaedia Britannica was later banned, too, as a cop-out).
The same format
And the format’s barely changed since, though there have been some alternations of tone. I still rather miss Plomley’s old-school civility. He took his guests out to lunch before the recording to get to know them a little, explore avenues of conversation and, very often, split a bottle of house red. A touchingly respectful host, he always signed off with the words: ‘Thank you for letting us hear your Desert Island Discs’, and audibly blushed when he thought Brigitte Bardot’s luxury item – ‘a piness’ – was too rude to broadcast (but it was, she’s insisted in her thick French accent, ‘what ze whole world needs most – ’appiness!’).
Michael Parkinson took over when Plomley went to his own desert island in the sky in 1985 and was accused of making it too slick and ‘chat show’. Sue Lawley took up the reins three years later, who I found a little tabloid and pushy – as he was then unmarried, she asked Gordon Brown, was he gay? And Kirsty Young got the dream job in 2006, who’s sparky and sympathetic and has the wit and imagination sometimes to steer off-road.
The first guest, on January 27 1942, was the actor, comedian and Hi Gang! regular Vic Oliver and, glancing through the roll-call since, you can see how perfectly it captured the tone of each decade. The Forties stars included Stewart Granger and Celia Johnson. By the Fifties we had Margaret Rutherford (luxury item a bejewelled golden comb), Ralph Richardson (his pipe), Terry Thomas (a horse saddle) and John Betjeman (the lower half of the west window in Fairford Church in Gloucestershire).
In the Sixties we got Kenneth Williams (Michelangelo’s Apollo) and Beryl Reid (lipsticks). In the Seventies Ludovic Kennedy went for tartare sauce and Geoff Boycott for a direct telephone line to a sports newspaper, but Margaret Thatcher’s choices were widely viewed to be two of the dullest on record – her book was a survival manual, her luxury item a photo of her children.
The Eighties featured two of the programme’s rare controversies – Pamela Stephenson’s experiences on LSD were edited out, and there was an awkward exchange with Diana Mosley, wife of notorious fascist Oswald, after she’d described Adolf Hitler as ‘fascinating’. What about the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis, asked Sue Lawley? ‘Oh no, I don’t think it was that many!’ Long pause. ‘Tell us about your fifth record, Lady Mosley…’
In 1992, Desert Island Discs threw a special 50th anniversary show when John Major requested a life-sized replica of the Oval cricket ground and a bowling machine.
Since then the luxury items washed ashore by the sleepy lagoon include theatrical impresario Michael Bogdanov’s 50lb jar of Marmite, Richard Curtis wanting the Pizza Express in Notting Hill (presumably to guarantee a lifetime of free local food), Margaret Atwood putting in for a huge vat of Culpeper’s Rose Geranium Bath Salts, environment-troubling Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson insisting on a gas-guzzling jet-ski, and loose-living millionaire publisher and former Oz magazine luminary Felix Dennis requiring ‘a very long stainless steel shaft to encourage pole-dancing mermaids’.
An interactive website
As demonstrated at the reception, the BBC now runs a highly efficient and addictive DID website where you can key in any book, object or piece of music and discover which unlikely bedfellows all chose it. It’s weirdly fascinating, for example, that Gary Lineker, Piers Morgan, crime writer Minette Walters, footballer Tony Adams, Cath Kidston and John Cleese all went for Monty Python’s Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. And who’d have thought that there would be any connection between Phil Collins, David Puttnam and Arthur Askey – but they all chose All My Loving by the Beatles. Askey, I also discovered, holds an extraordinary record in the programme’s history – he’s the only artist to have been on the show four times (though David Attenborough is hot on his heels, having appeared in 1957, 1979 and again in 1998).
Back onstage, it was getting close to curtain-time. Sheila Hancock recalled slight domestic tension when she was invited on DID before her husband John Thaw – ‘He took it incredibly seriously. “You couldn’t possibly listen to that for ever!”’ Maureen Lipman brought the house down – ‘times haven’t changed that much, it’s just one’s neck that changes’ – and Little Britain star Matt Lucas led the band through Lullaby of Broadway. ‘There’s a lot the radio audience is missing,’ he winked at the end. ‘The conductor’s naked for a start – and I like the way he’s holding his baton!’
‘I’ve done a lot of live programmes and I’m not a razzle-dazzle presenter,’ Kirsty Young told me in the bar later, ‘but that really was a thrill.’ Long may its seabirds sing, its coconuts fall and its castaways fail to escape. Here’s to the next 70 years.
Desert Island Discs is on Radio 4 on Sundays at 11.15am, repeated the following Friday at 9am. Tune in to your local BBC radio station at midday on Jan 29 for special editions of Your Desert Island Discs featuring listeners’ castaway choices. For details, visit bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/desert-island-discs
Desert Island Hits
Top 8 classical selections (chosen by castaways)
- Beethoven Symphony No.9 (Choral)
- Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No.2
- Schubert String Quintet in C Major
- Beethoven Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral)
- Elgar Pomp & Circumstance March No.1 (Land of Hope and Glory)
- Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 (Emperor)
- Elgar Enigma Variations (Nimrod)
- Beethoven Symphony No.7
Top 8 non-classical selections (chosen by castaways)
- Edith Piaf - Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien
- Frank Sinatra - My Way
- Noel Coward - Mad Dogs and Englishmen
- Edith Piaf - La Vie en Rose
- Flanagan and Allen - Underneath the Arches
- Judy Garland - Over the Rainbow
- Louis Armstrong - What a Wonderful World
- John Lennon - Imagine
Top 8 all-music selections (chosen by Radio 4 listeners)
- Vaughan Williams - The Lark Ascending
- Elgar - Enigma Variations
- Beethoven - Symphony No.9 (Choral)
- Queen - Bohemian Rhapsody
- Pink Floyd - Comfortably Numb
- Elgar - Cello Concerto in E Minor
- Handel - Messiah
- Holst - The Planets
And two little-known facts
Along with the violin and sounds of lapping water in DID’s theme tune By A Sleepy Lagoon is the clearly identifiable sound of herring gulls. After complaints from ornithologists it was briefly re-recorded with tropical birds’ calls, but the old version was reinstated after a listener revolt.
Only four people have ever turned down an invitation to be on the programme – Sir Laurence Olivier, Albert Finney, The Prince of Wales and George Bernard Shaw, who was ‘too busy with more important things’.