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Published: September 11th 2019
Desert Island Discs
, the BBC radio programme, is a British institution. In 2019 a panel of experts named it “the greatest radio programme of all time
”. It has been running continuously since 1942 – a total of over 3200 episodes – with a variety of presenters. The first, and greatest, of these was Roy Plomley, who presented it for 43 years. His plummy well-elocuted voice emanating from the wireless in the corner of our living-room is one of my strongest childhood memories. So is the theme music, By the Sleepy Lagoon
, which is soporific and romantic and has seagulls crying in the background.
The format of Desert Island Discs
has always been the same. Celebrity guests, mainly from the UK but from other places too, imagine themselves cast away on a desert island and choose eight recordings, originally gramophone records, to take with them. Discussion of their choices permits a review of their life. Excerpts from their choices are played. At the end of the programme they choose the one piece they regard most highly. Guests are automatically given the Complete Works of Shakespeare
and The Bible
and select a third book to take with them. They also choose one
luxury, which must be inanimate and of no use in escaping the island or allowing communication from outside.
My parents listened to Desert Island Discs
during the 1950’s and 60’s, when the radio was permanently switched on in our house, in the days before television took over. I liked the theme music and Roy Plomley’s soothing voice. Unlike some of the more recent presenters, he had a very gentle – one might say ‘gentlemanly’ - interviewing style, rarely pressing his guests to elaborate on or clarify what they had just said. The emphasis was very much on the music. I say “the music”, because that is what guests mostly chose; occasionally, however, a guest would choose a spoken word recording. A striking example of this was in 1972, when Hammond Innes, the author, chose John Laurie reading the Scottish ballad Helen of Kirconnell
. At that time I was at university and had been reading and listening to the English and Scottish ballads. This was a ballad I had never heard before, and John Laurie’s rendition blew me away – that lovely crisp Scottish voice and the exquisite emotion he put into the words. Another spoken recording I remember for
a different reason. In 1975 Robert Robinson, the BBC presenter, chose James Joyce reading Anna Livia Plurabelle
. To me this was incredibly dreary and academic, a case of showing off his highfalutin literary knowledge to the world at large. Perhaps I am wrong; perhaps James Joyce’s speaking voice meant as much to him as Sandy Denny’s singing voice means to me.
Most of the time, as I say, the guests choose straight music. I have always been interested in finding out what sort of music my heroes enjoy, so I have combed the archives of Desert Island Discs
in search of my favourite musicians (Eric Clapton, Humphrey Lyttelton, Ronnie Scott, John Lee Hooker, Stan Tracey, Keith Richards), authors (Philip Larkin, Tennessee Williams, Seamus Heaney, Kingsley Amis), movie stars, sportsmen, politicians and so on. A lot of their favourite music leaves me cold, but I am always thrilled when they have chosen something I know and love – for example when Keith Richards chose Like Sugar on the Floor
by Etta James or Philip Larkin chose These Foolish Things
by Billie Holiday. Sometimes, also, they choose a piece of music I have never heard, that I explore in its entirety
after the programme and end up loving.
I love browsing the internet for past episodes of Desert Island Discs
. It is a treasure trove not only of music but also of interesting opinions and facts. I enjoy hearing Seamus Heaney’s reasons for why he would take Ulysses
with him as his third book or Dame Maggie Teyte admonishing Roy Plomley for addressing her as ‘Dame Maggie’ instead of just plain ‘Maggie’. Recently I’ve been reading Strange Places, Questionable People
by the BBC foreign correspondent, John Simpson, and wondered if he’d been interviewed on Desert Island Discs
. Sure enough he had. Listening to him speak confirmed what an urbane, hyper-educated man he is; and listening to his musical choices put me on to a piece of English pastoral music I didn’t know: Norfolk Rhapsody No 1
by Vaughan Williams.
I will never have the honour of appearing on Desert Island Discs
but, if I had, these might be my eight recordings. I say “might be”, because there is so much music to choose from, and what I choose today will almost certainly not be what I would choose in a year’s time. Anyway, here goes:
1. Fantasia on
a Theme by Thomas Tallis – Vaughan Williams
2. The Lark Ascending
– Vaughan Williams
3. Mannish Boy
– Muddy Waters
4. Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues
– Skip James
– Jim Hall
– Alec Guinness and Claire Bloom
7. She Moved Through the Fair
– Fairport Convention
8. Hey Jude
– The Beatles
The first two pieces are exquisite examples of English pastoral music. Listening to those pieces on my desert island would remind me of the rolling hills and countryside of my native land. The next two pieces are blues, a genre I adore. The Muddy Waters track is amazingly earthy and powerful, while the poignant falsetto and delicate guitar work of Skip James conjure up images of downtrodden negroes in Jim Crow America. Concierto
is based on a classical piece by Rodrigo, but, like all good jazz, goes its own way and transcends the original. The solos on it show off the instruments of jazz – guitar, alto sax, trumpet, piano - to wonderful effect, and the rhythm section of bass and drums is outstanding. I would have to take one example of the spoken
word to my island and it would be Shakespeare’s Macbeth
, which contains his greatest poetry. Having the Complete Works of Shakespeare
wouldn’t be enough, because it would be no substitute for great actors bringing the words to life. The recording which I used throughout my teaching career – with Alec Guinness as Macbeth and Claire Bloom as Lady Macbeth – would do me nicely. She Moved Through the Fair
is an Irish love song featuring Sandy Denny. The female voice is for me perhaps the greatest instrument of all, and Sandy Denny's is sublime. The song reminds me of my Irish heritage and is a prime example of folk music, a genre I love. Finally there is Hey Jude, probably my favourite song by The Beatles, a band I hero-worshipped throughout the 1960’s. As well as being a masterpiece, it reminds me of my youth in Reading. If I had to choose just one recording, it would be Macbeth
. That’s it. My chief criterion of selection has been musical excellence, but I have also tried to embrace each of my favourite musical genres – classical, blues, jazz and rock – as well as the spoken word and nostalgia for my
English youth. On that desert island, my eight selections would conjure up a variety of emotions and remind me of my past and the tumultuous world beyond the horizon.
My third book would be The Mayor of Casterbridge
by Thomas Hardy. Tess of the D'Urberbilles
is Hardy’s greatest novel, but I have always been drawn to Michael Henchard, the protagonist of The Mayor
– perhaps because he reminds me of my old dad. I have read The Mayor
five or six times already and would look forward to reading it again.
For my luxury I would take an album of photographs – of my parents, my friends and my wife, Thuy.
If you do not know Desert Island Discs
, I urge you to explore it. All the episodes since the programme began in 1942 are listed on the internet, and many episodes have been digitally transcribed. It is a good way of passing an hour or two – educational and entertaining and, with more than 3000 episodes to choose from, inexhaustible.
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