Desert Island Discs: 66 years young

Simon Parkin looks back at 66 years of a British institution.

There exists, in some warm yet forsaken ocean, an archipelago that is home to seven decades’ worth of celebrities, overachievers and VIPs, one inhabitant per island. Deposited there by the BBC licence fee payer, these international luminaries have each provided a 30-minute public insight into their personal story in exchange for a lifetime of sun and solitude. As Desert Island Discs long-discarded introduction once explained: “In this programme, a well-known person is asked the question: if you were to be cast away alone on a desert island, which eight gramophone records would you choose to have with you – assuming, of course, that you also had a gramophone, and an inexhaustible supple of gramophone needles.”

The gramophone and its limitless needle stash is gone, and, if "rumours" are to be believed, the copy of the Bible given to every castaway along with a The Complete Works of Shakespeare, a literary work of their choice and a single luxury item may soon follow. But the programme itself has survived more or less intact since its January 1942 debut. In that time it has established the broadest and most enduring catalogue of spoken interviews in the world – especially since more than 1,500 episodes from its archives were made public over the past two years – drawing together the past century’s brightest, best or most notorious actors, novelists, politicians, journalists, comedians, musicians, artists and commentators. 

It is, ostensibly, a music programme and certainly, for the first few decades the interviewee’s musical choices provided the primary topic of conversation. There have been many different approaches to selecting the music, from the fickle (“I ran my fingers down the index very quickly and said: ‘give me 8 of those’” - Spike Milligan, 1978) to the scheming (“I’ve chosen nothing but women’s voices as I have a feeling that’s what I’d miss most” – Clive James, 1980) to the strenuous (“I have just hated it.” – Tim Minchin, 2012). But the shrewdness of the format – and rarely has a format proved so enduring – is that, more often than not, one’s most treasured pieces of music sit close in the heart or mind or gut alongside life’s formative moments and passions.

Music is magic, and in the most literal sense; submit to the spell being cast and it has the power to transform mood and temperature, to conjure not just the emotion of memory, but also its very flavour and experience. It can reorder the mind, raise or lower the blood, produce tears (and a great many of Desert Island Discs’ interviewees have wept at a choice composition, no doubt contrary to their intentions before entering the studio), set teeth on edge or, most impressively, to entirely transport a person to another place. In asking an interviewee to pre-select eight defining pieces, the ground is softened and prepared for the anecdotes that they soundtrack.

Not that the series has always provided the level of memoir-based insight that current audiences yearn for. In his later years, the show’s originator, Roy Plomley, assumed a less formal interviewing stance, but for a long time, in keeping with the broadcasting tone of the day, episodes were stiffly formal and the interviews are often prim and thin, offering little more than a superficial survey of the subject’s career or interests. The contemporary listener can't help but feel frustrated when, for example, Plomley fails to follow up on why Jacqueline du Pré (1977) never saw the "half of her family" who still live in her birthplace of Jersey or, when he neglects to ask why Roald Dahl fell out with Walt Disney (1979). 

The series has since been hosted by three subsequent interviewers, the warm but unchallenging Michael Parkinson (1985-88), the feisty and antagonistic Sue Lawley (1988-2006) and the current incumbent of the interviewer’s chair, genially astute Kirsty Young. More recently, interviewers have grown comfortable with digging more forcefully into their subject’s character. Today, almost every interview contains that most innocuous of requests: "Explain to me what was it like growing up", a simple trick that time and again proves its power to unlock a person. Then there’s its suckerpunch sequel about the parents (Were they cloying? Distant? Pushy? Indifferent?) to find out the myriad ways in which the family helped form the subject and/or, to borrow the poet Philip Larkin’s colloquial, fucked them up (Larkin himself escapes this line of questioning – he appeared on the programme in the easy-going 1970s).

The differences in each host’s approach, and the responses they elicit, make for captivating listening to anybody who works as a professional interviewer. Sometimes Parkinson’s soft approach works wonders with otherwise guarded men (Robert Maxwell, 1987; Kingsley Amis, 1986) while other subjects thrive when faced with Sue Lawley’s wounding vernacular (Armando Iannucci, 2006). At other times, the interviewers clash with their subject: it’s a painful moment when Martin Amis parrots the cliché "And that’s where it all began" back at Lawley or when she rudely asks whether Robbie Coltrane put the three stone he lost that year “back on again” or, most recently, when Kirsty Young counters the columnist Julie Burchill’s assumptions with the knock-out line “you don’t know me”.  

The power of the series is that it manages to make for compelling radio, regardless of the subject’s willingness to bare themselves (the author Bill Bryson, 1999, is unexpectedly guarded while Daily Mail’s editor Paul Dacre, 2004, is expectedly so). It’s always interesting to compare subjects who appear on the series twice, at different moments in their career. Contrast the somewhat dour and self-doubting 1996 version of Hugh Laurie with 2013’s confident, post-House iteration. And while the emphasis, at least on British subjects, remains on white, Oxbridge graduates, Plomley and his successors have managed to welcome a diverse church, from Nicolai Poliakoff (1963) to V S Naipaul (1980).

Nevertheless, the most enduring episodes are those that bring to light the extraordinary stories of less well-known subjects, such as journalist Robert Fisk (2006), who recounts his experiences interviewing Osama Bin Laden (a scenario that ends with a personal invitation for Fisk to join the Taliban), or former MI6 secretary Margaret Rhodes (2012), who recalls, at the age of fourteen, emptying her shotgun at a low-flying German aeroplane during World War II.

Desert Island Discs, as well as providing an extraordinary aural archive of many deceased luminaries, is also a trove of trivia. We learn the music that Arthur C Clark and Stanley Kubrick would listen to while co-writing the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica) – minutiae that would likely stay buried were it not for the series’ unique angle. We discover that Salman Rushdie was the author of Lyon’s advertising slogan "Naughty But Nice" (1988, on the un-anticipated eve of the fatwa), that Roald Dahl invented the word "gremlin" (1979) or that David Attenborough first suggested that the BBC televise Wimbledon.

At the end of each episode the interviewee is asked which of the eight records they would save from the waves if forced to, as well as what purely luxury item they might take. These choices are often quietly informative (“My lucky sixpence” - Chris Tarrant, 2001; “potato chips” - Whoopi Goldberg, 2009; “A cyanide pill” - Stephen Fry, 1988; “Nelson’s Column”-  David Bailey, 1991) but by then, in most cases, we already have the measure of the human, and their selection merely confirms our hopes or misgivings. 

BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs is on hiatus for the next five weeks, during which time a series of "best of" editions will broadcast. The archive can be accessed here.

A desert island. Photograph: Getty Images
Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's half-hearted "reset" is not enough to win back voters to the SNP

Election campaigners report that the doorstep feedback suggests the First Minister is now seen as aloof, with little interest in the average voter’s concerns.

In Scots law, under a charge of robbery, theft, breach of trust, embezzlement, falsehood, fraud or wilful imposition, the accused may be convicted of "reset". It’s not clear which of these particular terms Nicola Sturgeon had in mind this week when she used that word to describe her reformed plans for a second independence referendum. Fraud seems a little too strong. Breach of trust or wilful imposition are perhaps closer to the mark.

It’s been many, many years since the SNP has seemed this unsure of its footing. Fair enough: who in politics isn’t, these days? But the slow-motion car crash that is Scotland’s governing party deserves a prime-time slot all of its own. "The SNP has squandered what was an extraordinarily strong position," says a thoughtful observer from the opposition benches.

If Sturgeon’s authority hasn’t gone – and she continues to rule Scotland’s most popular mainstream party, both at Holyrood and Westminster – it has undeniably taken a shellacking. The aura of invincibility that surrounded the First Minister’s early years in power is no more, both within and without the SNP. "What struck me as she announced her 'reset' was that a woman who was often listened to in respectful silence in the past found herself being shouted at by Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories," says a source. "There was giggling and mockery, which is new. She seemed diminished."

My own judgement is that the reset proposal, which amounts to little more than extending the deadline for a second indyref by six months to a year, will do almost nothing to woo back the half-million voters who deserted the Nats between the 2015 and 2017 general elections. In my experience, these people don’t want the referendum delayed for six months, they want it off the table. They also want the SNP to shut up about it, and they want to see the public services and the economy given full attention. That is the challenge they have set the First Minister in the four years left of this Holyrood parliament. In an enlightening article in the Guardian this week, Severin Carrell quotes voters from the "Tartan Tory" areas that recently unseated Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson. "Fed up with the SNP, simple as."

Fed up. Sturgeon’s greatest error – a charge levelled by internal critics – was to force and win a vote at Holyrood on the holding of another referendum, after the Brexit decision but before Article 50 was triggered. In the minds of voters already worried about leaving the EU and looking for what we might call strong and stable leadership, this merely confirmed the SNP’s monomania: that it saw literally everything as a pretext for independence. The step looked cynical, it looked rushed, it looked, well, desperate.

To be fair to the First Minister, she was playing a double game. Obviously, she supports breaking up the UK and needs to continually feed the beast that is the separatist movement, but she also hoped the looming threat of another referendum would give her leverage as the UK negotiated Brexit, perhaps to secure a distinct deal of some kind for Scotland. She was wrong. "Theresa May would show up for meetings with the various leaders of the UK’s nations, read from a script and then refuse to take questions," says an SNP insider. "The whole thing has been a shambles. The British government just isn’t interested."

This deliberate mutual misunderstanding is a problem not just for the SNP, but for the smooth running of the UK. Pre-devolution, a deal such as that struck with the DUP would have been discussed in Cabinet where powerful Scottish and Welsh secretaries would demand and usually emerge with some goodies for back home. Now, each nation is run by a different tribe, the relationships are oppositional and antagonistic, and no side wants to make things easier for the other. Britain has stopped talking to itself, and stopped trading with itself. We have spiralled off into our own mini-cultures, which often bear little resemblance to each other.

Ultimately, though, Sturgeon looks like the author of her own misfortune. Her tone in Holyrood as she announced the ‘reset’ was unapologetic and belligerent. There was no real humility or admission of error, and no sense that an indyref was in any way off the table. Election campaigners report that the doorstep feedback suggests she is now seen as aloof, with little interest in the average voter’s day-to-day concerns or in listening to them. Her team seem unable or unwilling to absorb this. "They’re still pushing far too hard," says one Tory source. "The only way I can make sense of it is that they’re playing it like a poker hand. They’ve come too far and feel they have no choice but to go all-in. But it’s a losing hand."

There are only two routes I can see that might, perhaps, make something of a difference. The first is a comprehensive reshuffle that brings some of the smarter, younger MSPs into the government. Many of them, as newcomers to the cause, speak differently about independence and their reasons for joining the SNP than do the generation of Sturgeon, Salmond, John Swinney and Mike Russell.

The second is to return to the debate about devo max or federalism. Again, in conversation with the new generation of Nats you are more likely to discuss these options. A number of them are technocrats who have a view of the way Scotland should be governed. They might see independence as the best way to achieve this, but they are also open to a looser relationship within the UK, one that might involve greater powers around taxation, spending and borrowing. With every UK region outside London running a chunky deficit, Scotland could set its own deficit-reduction target and develop a plan to get there. Not only would that be good for the UK economy, it would also allow the SNP to demonstrate that a separate state could work - and indeed, would work.

In short, the SNP will not whine its way to independence. Its best option now is to do what the Scottish people are asking it to do: make a better job of running the place, and stop talking about independence for a while. First, though, that requires the party to listen.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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