As the radio classic marks a major anniversary, it’s the shared human experience revealed by the castaways that keeps us hooked
A familiar theme tune is playing in my ears as I step out of my front door and start running. It is a cold, frosty day in Cambridge but as I make my way towards Midsummer Common and the River Cam, I am transported to a much warmer climate. A desert island, where I know I will find exactly eight tracks of music, the Bible, the complete works of Shakespeare and an incongruous luxury.
I am, of course, listening to Desert Island Discs, which will celebrate its 80th anniversary next weekend. First broadcast on 29 January 1942, it is the jewel in BBC Radio 4’s crown, to the extent that being on it is “kind of like getting a people’s knighthood”, observes the Observer’s radio critic, Miranda Sawyer. “There is no better radio show,” she says. “And I think, because it’s been for so long, there’s a status attached to getting picked – like, if you get asked to be on Desert Island Discs, that means somehow that you’ve made it.”
There are now more than 2,300 episodes of the show available online from the BBC archive. The oldest available dates back to 1951, when Roy Plomley interviewed the actress Margaret Lockwood and the famous theme tune was heralded by squawking seagulls and the crash of waves.
I became a fan of the show shortly after I started running a few years ago. I’ve discovered that firstly, the interview takes my mind off the boredom – and pain – of pounding the pavements. And secondly, when the music comes on, it feels very uplifting: I enjoy the craziness of trying to find a beat to run to, from whatever random assortment of songs I am confronted with.
Often, I assess the interviewee’s choices and try to predict: which track would they choose to save from the waves? Most people, I have noticed, save the track that reminds them of someone they love – a dead parent, their child, their wedding day. It is not the music they are saving, but the memories.
For Cathy Drysdale, who was the series producer between 2012 and 2020, the programme’s enduring appeal is that it taps straight into the emotions of its guests via their musical choices. “Everyone invited on is asked to chart their life’s journey and they have to really think about music in the context of their life. It accesses parts of their story and what’s important to them that other interview formats and programmes just don’t.” Most people, she points out, have a piece of music that can reduce them to tears or take them back in time. Guests of the programme are no different: “It’s essentially so human.”
“I think, also, it’s about love. It’s really about the people they have loved, what or who they love now and what’s important to them in their lives.”
She remembers the moment the footballer Ian Wright broke down in tears while talking to Lauren Laverne about his former teacher. “He said: ‘I loved that man,’ and it was just an incredibly special moment. When you’re recording something like that, you sort of stop breathing for a bit because you know – you just know – the listeners are just going to absolutely love it and be really moved by it. And it’s really going to cause a stir.”
There was a similar occasion with the actor Tom Hanks, she says, when Kirsty Young asked him to find the vocabulary for what he’d said was “rattling around his head” as a child. “He was stopped in his tracks by his thoughts. There was a really long silence. And he said it was the vocabulary of loneliness.” It was a very special moment in the studio, she said, which she knew would be “radio gold”.
But not all great episodes include a weeping man. My personal favourite is Laverne’s 2020 interview with the indomitable disability rights activist Sinead Burke. At 11, she decided that if the other children didn’t want to be her friend because she was a “little person”, they weren’t the kind of friends she needed in her life. “I told my parents: I’m not getting the surgery. If people don’t like me, that’s their fault. I’m great.”
Sawyer is particularly fond of a 2010 interview with comedian Kathy Burke, in which Burke declared her luxury item should be a laminated life-size picture of James Caan from Dragons’ Den. Burke wanted this, she told an astonished Young, to “body-surf on him”.
A more recent highlight for Sawyer came last month, when the author Richard Osman chose to save an Erasure track from the waves. “I quite liked that his music choice was a bit naff.” He wasn’t interested in pretending to be cooler than he actually is. “That’s quite revelatory.”
Inevitably, one of the biggest difficulties a long-running programme has to face, periodically, is the inauguration of a new presenter. “People get very upset about it, but you just have to get used to the new presenter,” says Sawyer. She has nothing but praise for Laverne, who took over from Kirsty Young in 2018 and was criticised for being “lightweight” shortly afterwards. “Lauren, I think, is very good at making people relax. And that’s really important.” When guests relax, she says, they start to enjoy themselves – and that’s when they let their guard down and those revelatory moments of “radio gold” occur.
By contrast, listening to episodes in the archives, Sawyer is struck by how class-ridden some of the previous presenters have been. In a snooty tone, “they literally ask: how did you make it? As in: how did you, you little pleb, get up to the great height you’re at now?” Unlike these presenters of the past, “the questions Lauren asks are pointed but not disrespectful – I think she’s really good.”
One reason the conversations often feel so intimate and intense is because they go on for a lot longer than listeners realise. It takes about an hour and a half of interviewing to create the 40-minute programme. Drysdale says: “That’s one of the difficult things: what I can I leave out? It’s a hard show to edit.”
Working on a programme that “means so much to so many people”, she found herself protecting the format like a tiger: “I probably made myself a right pain in doing so. But you can’t avoid doing that, because you’re holding it in trust. You’re doing the very best that you can while you’re looking after it. And then you’re passing the baton on.”
Five key shows
Louis Armstrong, 1968
Lost for decades, the recording of Armstrong’s appearance on the show was eventually found in Armstrong’s personal collection in 2015. He chose five of his own discs, including What A Wonderful World, but saved Blueberry Hill from the waves. As for his luxury? “Got to be my horn.”
Spike Milligan, 1978
The great poet and comic told Roy Plomley how after the second world war he drifted into writing. “What did you write?” Plomley asked. “Oh. Cheques,” replied Milligan. He chose Yesterday as his favourite song, and when it finished playing, started singing his own verse: “Yesterday, someone came and took the cat away…” “Don’t go and wreck it,” said Plomley.
Maya Angelou, 1988
Chose Roberta Flack’s song Killing Me Softly, then described being raped by her mother’s boyfriend at the age of seven. He was kicked to death after she revealed what happened to her. “Somehow, with my seven-and-a-half year old logic, I decided that my voice had killed him. I decided I’d better not talk because anyone who heard me might die.” She stopped speaking for five years until a lady called Mrs Flowers convinced her to read poetry aloud.
George Michael, 2007
Cast away to the island shortly after completing his community service for driving while unfit through drugs, he spoke about his self-destructive tendencies, his insecurity, his hunger for fame and the reasons he hid his sexuality during the Aids pandemic. He chose Love is a Losing Game by Amy Winehouse as the track he would save from the waves, praising her talent and stressing that she needed support. Having lost his driving licence, he picked an Aston Martin DB9 to drive in the privacy of the island as his luxury.
Helen McCrory, 2020
Confessed that she “lived life at 150 miles an hour” and cheekily described her husband, Damian Lewis, as “naughty”. She chose the complete works of Spike Milligan and the entire Victoria and Albert Museum in London as her luxury item. “I shall wear all the jewels, all the costumes. I shall take out the samurai swords – some of the greatest swords ever made – to make my hut,” she told Lauren Laverne. “And I shall enjoy myself on my desert island, surrounded by what I love most, which is humanity.” She chose Stevie Wonder’s Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing as her final track, and died a few months later.