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
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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.