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Radio - Laurie Taylor on why a banal format can be the key to success

Radio 4 producers still chatter nostalgically about the times when you could have a bright idea for a programme, pop into the controller's office, make a brief pitch, and then walk away with a straight yes or no. That was long before the invention of the new commissioning process, which involves sufficient paperwork and layers of decision-making to suggest that one is not so much asking permission to make a short series on Britain's remaining lighthouse keepers as tendering for a new nuclear power station. (Two years ago, I spent a happy fortnight compiling just such an extended submission, only to have it returned three months later with a chilling note, advising me that it was "insufficiently genre focused".)

Whenever malcontents gather in the eighth-floor canteen to complain about the failure of their latest proposal - failures that nowadays can mean the non-renewal of a short-term contract - they find mutual consolation in concocting fictional scenarios involving the rejection of some of Radio 4's most successful strands. "I regret that your suggestion for a programme in which people are required to speak for one minute without hesitation, deviation or repetition has been rejected by the commissioning panel because of its failure to meet the appropriate demographic profile." Desert Island Discs is a particular favourite: what exactly are the "six key goals" to be met by a programme involving nothing more than random celebrities choosing the eight records they would most like to take with them to a desert island?

But, in one way, our fatuousness is inappropriate. Desert Island Discs is now safely established as one of Radio 4's all-time favourites because it often delivers so many more psychological goodies - key goals, if you must - than its banal format promises. These rarely derive from any dramatic contrast between the celebrities' known personae and their choice of music: proper celebrities now know better than to admit to a passion for Mantovani. Neither can it be attributed to the depth of the programme's biographical insights. Questions are routinely asked about feelings and emotions, but we rarely gain access to anything much more than "hidden shallows". When guests stutter or hesitate on Desert Island Discs, it is not a prelude to a cathartic moment but the perfect opportunity for the presenter to cue the next record.

What does give the programme its peculiar fascination is the way in which the presenter demands an extremely unusual ingredient of contemporary interviews, extreme politeness. When its deviser, Roy Plomley, was in charge he gave the impression of being a benevolent uncle organising a very serious game at a children's tea party. If the participants in the game behaved badly (as when Norman Mailer dedicated each of his records to a past mistress or wife and asked for a marijuana plant as a luxury), Plomley ploughed ahead imperturbably, as though witness to nothing more consequential than a lapse in manners.

Sue Lawley may have a more informal and engaging manner but she is as insistent as Plomley that her guests sit up straight and tuck in their napkins. Michael Parkinson's failure in the presenter's role was predictable. He was altogether too pleased to meet his guests. Unlike Lawley and Plomley, he never sounded as though he had rather more adult matters to attend to after the game was over.

A couple of weeks ago, Sue was confronted by a particularly difficult child, the Rolling Stones drummer, Charlie Watts. Right from the start, he showed signs of slouching in his seat. "Your head sank when I said that you would be 60 this year?" "No, I'm quite comfortable with age," said Charlie. "You like jazz because it is more difficult to play than rock." "No, a Motown record is as hard to play as Ellington." Then there was the awkward question of drugs: "You've said that you didn't take advantage of the groupies. But the drugs?" This was one polite phrase too far for Charlie. "Take advantage of them? Drugs?" For a second, Sue was on the back foot. "Well, what else am I supposed to say?"

All went smoothly after that until Charlie began to describe his dislike of anyone touching his possessions. "I live in hotels but I hate maids coming into my room. I put out the 'Do Not Disturb' notice for two weeks." "What is it you hate?" "Touching things I have." "Have you always been like that?" "I suppose I have." A laugh from Charlie. A pause. And then their eyes must have met across the table. "You're looking at me," he complains gently. "No, I'm just trying to work it out. But I can't. Come on, let's have another record."

Of course, Sue could have worked it out. But it would have been so damned impolite to do so.

Laurie Taylor is the radio critic of the NS

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