80 years of Desert Island Discs
It was cold November evening in 1941. The Second World War was raging, blackout restrictions were in place, and Roy Plomley's fire had gone out.
The 27-year-old broadcaster, who had been forced to flee his job in Paris in the wake of Hitler's invasion, could have been forgiven for wishing he was on a desert island in the sun, rather than in his chilly rented digs in Hertfordshire. But as he typed furiously away in a letter to the BBC's head of popular record programmes, Leslie Perowne, a great broadcasting institution was taking shape.
Plomley's idea for a programme was swiftly accepted, and on January 29, 1942 – 80 years ago tomorrow – the first edition of Desert Island Discs was broadcast. The format was simple: each week, a well-known guest would be invited to choose eight gramophone records they would take with them if they were castaway on a desert island, and at the end they would be asked to pick a favourite. The now-popular section where the guest is invited to choose a book – in addition to the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare – and a luxury item, was a later addition, not introduced until 1951.
Today, an appearance on Desert Island Discs is today considered one of the greatest accolades in public life – Joanna Lumley said her first appearance, in 1987, “felt as though some glittering coronet had been placed on my head”. But it certainly wasn't glamorous to begin with. The first edition, featuring the popular Viennese comedian, actor and musician, Vic Oliver, was recorded amidst the wreckage of the BBC’s bomb-damaged studio at Maida Vale. It was recorded two days before transmission on the Forces Programme. The first piece of music to be played was Chopin’s Étude No.12 in C minor, played by pianist Alfred Cortot. During these war years, every BBC Radio show was scripted and Plomley and his guests would 'read' their answers.
Occasionally, guests egos appear to have got the better of them in the choices that they made. Eartha Kitt's book choice was her own autobiogaphy. When soprano Elisabeth Schwarzpopf appeared in 1958, seven of the eight records she chose were of herself.
One interview which was never broadcast was with Alistair MacLean, in the early 1970s. But while Plomley had intended to interview Alistair MacLean the popular adventure novelist, best known as the author of The Guns of Navarone, he actually questioned an unknown member of the Ontario Tourist Board with the same name.
Plomley presented the programme until his death in May, 1985, when Michael Parkinson took over. Parkinson's tenure was relatively shortlived, lasting for just two years and 96 castaways, and not without controversy. Plomley's widow Diana Wong was among his critics: “I don’t think he’s civilised enough,” she said. The BBC was also concerned, observing that a large number of his early guests were from Yorkshire.
Then again, Parkinson was not exactly complimentary about his predecessor.
“The thing about Plomley was, because he had been doing it so long, he’d become very, very bogged down in the job,” he later said. "And he never was a very good interviewer. He took it for granted – it needed a change. It needs that refreshing every so often, but the format will remain – it’s a wonderful format.”
Among Parkinson's guests was former Dudley schoolgirl Sue Lawley, who went on to succeed Parkinson and become the show's longest serving host, apart from Plomley.
Appearing as a guest in November, 1987, Lawley chose Henry Purcell's Sound the Trumpet as her first piece of music, saying it brought back memories of singing as a pupil at Dudley Girls' High School. She spoke how she dreamed of becoming a singer as a youngster, performing at The Palace in Willenhall after responding to an advertisement in the Express & Star. She chose French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David as her book choice, and an iron and board – for her freshly laundered bedsheets – as her luxury item.
Lawley presented the series for 18 years, from 1988 to August 2006, and interviewed a total of 773 castaways, including five prime ministers.
She said: "It’s a very clever formula. It’s an absurd formula, but it works.
“In an ideal world, the music that the castaway chooses reflects moments in their life. And that therefore sheds light on people – in an ordinary journalistic interview, you wouldn’t know how to shed that light, because you wouldn’t know the questions to ask.”
Lawley was replaced by Kirsty Young, who presented the show for 12 years, before being succeeded by Lauren Laverne in September 2018.
Aside from Lawley, a number of prominent figures from the West Midlands have appeared on the show over the years, the most recent being the Staffordshire businessman John Caudwell, who was last week's guest. He chose a survival manual for his book, and sun block for his luxury item.
In 1989, Lawley interviewed fellow Dudleian Lenny Henry, who reminisced about buying Northern Soul records from Graduate Records in the town in his youth. He chose Catch 22, by Joseph Heller as his book choice, because "I've read it four times and still don't know what it's about", and said he would choose some adult comics as his luxury item.
Former West Bromwich MP and speaker of the Commons Betty Boothroyd chose A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth as her book choice when she appeared in 1993, and the House of Commons mace as her luxury item. By contrast, former North Shropshire MP and cabinet minister John Biffen said he would take Wisden's Cricketer's Almanack for reading material, and a rain gauge as his luxury.
Wednesbury-born actor Richard Wattis chose The Life of Disraeli by Andre Maurois as his book, and a bed as his luxury item when he appeared in 1964. Perhaps reflecting the changing nature of postwar society, comedian Tony Hancock declined to choose a book, but said he would want to take a television when he was on the show in 1957.
Guest from the West Midlands on Desert Island Discs
January 13, 1955 – Sir Cedric Hardwicke, film and stage actor from Lye, Stourbridge. Book – none; Luxury – a newspaper.
August 5, 1957 – Tony Hancock, actor and comedian from Birmingham. Book – none; Luxury – television
December 11, 1961 – Sir Michael Balcon, from Birmingham, creator of Dixon of Dock Green. Book – Oxford English Dictionary; Luxury – wine.
December 24, 1962 – Clarkson Rose, comedian from Dudley; Book – History of the English-Speaking People by Winston Churchill; Luxury – writing materials.
June 1, 1964 – Richard Wattis, comedy actor from Wednesbury. Book – The Life of Disraeli by Andre Maurois; Luxury – a bed.
November 8, 1987 – Sue Lawley, broadcaster from Dudley. Book – French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth Davids; Luxury – iron and ironing board.
May 7, 1989 – Lenny Henry, comedian from Dudley. Book – Catch 22, by Joseph Heller; Luxury – comics.
March 25, 1990 – John Biffen, MP for North Shropshire. Book – Wisden Cricketer's Almanack; Luxury – rain gauge.
June 13, 1993 – Betty Boothroyd, MP for West Bromwich West and first female Speaker of the House of Commons. Book – A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth; Luxury – the House of Commons mace.
June 21, 2009 – Martin Shaw, actor, from Great Barr. Book – Post Captain in the Aubrey–Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian; Luxury – a synthesiser to make up his own music.
January 23, 2022 – John Caudwell, Staffordshire tycoon. Book – a survival manual; Luxury – sun block.