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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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.