Sunday, January 29, 2012

The 70th Anniversary of Desert Island Discs

It was 70 years ago today, 29 January 1942, that Desert Island Discs, debuted on BBC radio. The programme was created by Roy Plomley The concept of the programme was simple, but unique. Each week a guest (referred to as a "castaway") chooses eight works of music, a book, and a luxury item that they would want if they were stranded on a desert island. The luxury has to be an inanimate object that cannot be used for rescue from the island (such as a boat) or used for communications with the world outside the island (for instance, a satellite phone would not be allowed today). During Roy Plomley's tenure as presenter these rules were fairly strictly enforced. Today a bit more leeway is allowed with regards to the rules. At the same time the guest or castaway discusses their lives and the reason for their choices of music, book, and luxury. In the end Desert Island Discs is an odd combination of interview programme and music programme.

Despite its rather singular format or perhaps because of it, Desert Island Discs is the longest running radio programme in British history and the second longest running worldwide (surpassed only by The Grand Ole Opry). In the course of its history it has featured almost 3000 castaways, with very few castaways appearing more than once. The show's very first castaway was actor and comedian Vic Oliver. His first choice of music and hence the first music played on the show as Chopin’s Étude No.12 in C minor played by pianist Alfred Cortot.

Over the year's the show's format has changed very little, although it has changed presenters from time to time. The creator of Desert Island Discs, Roy Plomley, also had the longest stint as its presenter, from the show's debut in 1942 to his death in 1985. Sir Michael Parkinson, best known for his television show Parkinson, took over from Mr. Plomley and served as its presenter until 1988. Sue Lawley, who had served as the anchor of the nightly news show Tonight and an anchor on Nationwide, took over from Mr. Parkinson. She remained with Desert Island Discs until 2006. Kirsty Young, who had worked for BBC Radio Scotland, Scottish Television, and ITV, took over from Sue Lawley and has been with the show ever since.

Although relatively rarely given its 70 years, Desert Island Discs has seen controversy. Perhaps it most controversial guest was Lady Diana Mosley in 1989, who referred to Adolph Hitler as "fascinating" and, when asked by Sue Lawley, "What about the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis," replied with "Oh no, I don't think it was that many." The BBC received hundreds of complaints in response to the interview. In 1996 it was Sue Lawley herself who invited controversy, by questioning then Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown's sexuality. Other times Desert Island Discs has seen less than friendly guests. Roy Plomley made the mistake of stating to movie director Otto Preminger that in growing up in various European cities he must have led "...a rather gipsy existence." Mr. Preminger took offence and proceeded to make insults about Mr. Plomley's appearance. Mr. Plomley also had a difficult time with Lauren Bacall, who seemed to grow more agitated with each time he complimented her.

27 September 2009 was another important date in the history of Desert Island Discs. It was on that date that the BBC reached an agreement with Mr. Plomley's family to stream the programme on BBC's iPlayer online. On 30 March 2011 the BBC made 500 of the older episodes of the show available on iPlayer. It is also available through ITunes.

If Desert Island Discs has lasted seventy years, its perhaps because of its unusual format. In having guests imagine that they are on a desert island, the programme actually allows them to talk about things that they might not on a regular interview show. It was on the show that Yoko Ono revealed she had thought about aborting her son Sean. It was also on the show that TV producer Jimmy Mulville talked about his father's suicide. Of course, much of the show's appeal was also the music. On no other interview show would guests be asked to choose eight songs that they would like to have a desert island. Indeed, the choices of various guests' music was often surprising and often revealed a good deal about them. The unique format of Desert Island Discs allowed it to last seventy years. It seems likely it will last seventy more.

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