Je ne regrette rien: Ed Miliband's definitive statement on Desert Island Discs

The Labour leader spoke openly to Kirsty Young about his relationship with his brother and the "the only time" he ever prayed.

It’s hard to imagine anyone in Westminster listening to music. The place just doesn’t swing. Tony Blair, as we all know, liked to play a bit of guitar. “Dave” used to listen to The Smiths until he was banned. But what does Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party, put on to unwind after a hard day defending his family and his party from the latest smears by the conservative press: Pete Seeger? “The Internationale”? Drenge?

Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs presents politicians with an opportunity to reveal a little character. To point in the direction of a hinterland, a “real me”, apart from the persona which boots up every morning between waking and arriving in SW1.

For some, the melodies that animate the inner life are alarmingly in tune with the ideas that feed the outer one. When Enoch Powell was asked to appear on the show in 1989, he told the producer: “Well, it’s bound to be Wagner.” And indeed it was. Powell chose four Wagner pieces: “Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla” from Das Rheingold, “Winterstürme” from Die Walküre, “Forging Song” from Siegfried and “The Renunciation of Siegfried” from Götterdämmerung (plus three Beethovens and a Haydn).

At least he refused to allow his list to become an instrument for populism: a focus-grouped stunt in which all boxes must be ticked to please voters. He told the truth. But over the years truth-telling has become de rigueur, developing into a fetish for guilty pleasure-ism. It’s hard to shake the image of the Iron Lady grinning senselessly to Rolf Harris’s “Two Little Boys” (which she chose as her favourite record of all time) in 1979. Likewise, it's hard to forgive Jim Al-Khalili, who ought to know better, for grinning senselessly to Rolf Harris’s “Two Little Boys” in 2010. I have little to say about “Dave” picking “Ernie: The Fastest Milkman In The West” as one of eight pieces of music he would hear repeatedly for the rest of his life if he were cast away on an island, other than the choice itself would be the only adequate punishment to suit the charge.

“Be honest” is what Sue Lawley, who presented the programme from 1986 to 2006, used to say to her guests. In 2010 LabourList asked Ed Miliband what he would pick if he were chosen for the show. His list, described as “recherche camp trendy” included a few lefty cap tips such as Paul Robeson’s (genuinely potent) “Ballad of Joe Hill” and Billy Bragg’s “A New England”, plus a couple of contemporary-ish numbers, Robbie Williams’s “Angels” (urgh) and Hard Fi’s “Stars of CCTV” (poseur bloke pop - where did they go?) He decided to take Ulysses in the hope of reading it, the trial thriller 12 Angry Men with Henry Fonda and an iPhone (with no signal, or charger) as his non-musical extras.

So what has three years as chief babysitter at the Labour funhouse done for Miliband’s tastes? Here are those choices in full from this morning’s Desert Island Discs, presented by Kirsty Young:

  1. Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika - From Cry Freedom arr. George Fenton
  2. Jerusalem - Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, words by William Blake
  3. The Ballad of Joe Hill - Paul Robeson
  4. Take on Me - A-ha
  5. Sweet Caroline - Neil Diamond
  6. Angels - Robbie Williams
  7. Josh Ritter - Change of Time
  8. Non, Je ne regrette rien - Edith Piaf

His book was The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, his luxury was an Indian takeaway once a week from his favourite Balti house, and the one record he’d keep, if he had to lose seven, would be “Angels”, to remind him of his wife Justine.

Early on in the programme Young asked whether Miliband regretted including his family (mainly his father) in his campaign speeches. The following half hour seemed to be an intensification of that decision, capped with the assertion that he does not regret it at all. “You can’t understand me without understanding where I come from,” he said. “My dad thought you could abolish capitalism - I don’t.”

He spoke movingly about Ralph Miliband's illness, when Ed was only 24. He recalled driving to the hospital, two days before his father died, as “the only time” he'd ever prayed. “If there’s a God, please don’t let this happen,” he said. “He was a lodestar. He was my father ... It’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to me in my life.” His choice of the hymn “Jerusalem” (from Blake's great poem Milton) was dedicated to his parents, a canny assertion that they loved the country which granted them sanctuary from the Nazis.

Miliband discussed his failed experiments with a violin (“screech city”), was grilled on Falkirk, trade unions and the Blair years, retold the story of his parents’ arrival in Britain, and even admitted to - shall we call it a dry spell? - being unable to find a girlfriend in university. After introducing his fourth choice, he said, “I was pretty square at university ... it’s no wonder I didn’t pull.”

Neil Diamond's “Sweet Caroline” was chosen because of his long-running passion for the Boston Red Sox, who recently won the World Series (“I stayed up until 4 in the morning to watch it!”), Robbie Williams’s “Angels” and Josh Ritter’s “Change of Time” were dedications to his wife, Justine, and the finale, Edith Piaf's “Non, Je ne regrette rien” fed directly into Kirsty's final line of questioning - on his relationship with David.

Young asked how Miliband’s mother, Marion Kozak, reacted to his choice to stand against his brother for the Labour leadership. “She was scrupulously neutral,” he replied. As for that central relationship with the king across the sea, are things now healed? “Healing,” he said.

Ed Miliband tried to play the violin in his youth. The result? "Screech city". Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Photo:Getty
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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.