Island nation

Roy Plomley was getting ready for bed one winter’s evening in rural Hertfordshire in 1941 when he had an inspiration. Though the fire had gone out, and he was already in his pyjamas, he sat down at his typewriter and wrote a letter to the head of programming at the BBC.

That letter led to the birth of Desert Island Discs, booked for an initial run of eight programmes. Sixty-four years on listeners still tune in weekly to hear the famous and the infamous tell the story of their life and the music they would take to a deserted island.

Only two radio programmes have been running longer: The Daily Service (1928) and The Week in Westminster (1929). But none has changed less than Desert Island Discs, whose format has been fixed since its inception. From the first show, listeners have been ushered on to its shores with the sound of herring gulls and Eric Coates’ theme tune, “By the Sleepy Lagoon”. This being the BBC, the island came equipped with a Bible and The Complete Works of Shakespeare. The only additions have been the choice of a luxury to take to the island in 1951, and an additional book in 1958.

The format is the same, but it’s the diversity of the guests and their lives that have made Desert Island Discs into such an enduring institution. And on that template of eight records and 42 minutes of chat we can chart many aspects of British social history over more than half a century. From the types of people invited to be castaways, to the music they choose, the questions they’re asked and the accents they speak in, the programme points to changing norms and shifting measures of achievement.

The desert island is now crowded with the great and (sometimes) good of our time. The Who’s Who of desert island castaways includes Julie Andrews, Peter Ustinov, Margot Fonteyn, Cecil Day Lewis, Noel Coward, Vera Lynn and John Betjeman. Few have refused the invitation - most notable was George Bernard Shaw, who returned Plomley’s letter with a scribble in the margin: “No. Too busy with more important things, G.B.S.”

Plomley started his working life as a copywriter, became an actor and began his broadcasting career with a stint as an announcer for Radio Normandy. Though he worked on other programmes too, he presented Desert Island Discs for 43 years until his death in 1985. Michael Parkinson then took over until 1988. Since then, Sue Lawley has presided with her clipped voice and controlled questions, attracting 2.7 million listeners for each programme. But on August 27, Lawley will cast Joan Plowright away - her last guest on the island. When the show resumes in October, Channel 5 news presenter Kirsty Young will take up the challenge of hosting a show whose birth long predated her own (and Lawley’s).

Until the mid-1950s every show followed a script, which Plomley wrote for both voices. Even after radio-editing technology improved and Desert Island Discs became a conversation, the atmosphere was cosy, almost club-like - Plomley’s resonant voice never faltered from its respectful, soothing, flattering tone. He lunched guests at the Garrick Club (women were taken to the Lansdowne) and walked them around the BBC’s Gramophone Library before the programme; he wanted them to feel comfortable.

This style was in line with the the era, says Professor Georgina Born, anthropologist and sociologist at Cambridge University. “In the early 1940s the BBC was much more deferential, formal, nannyish in the way it addressed the nation. In interviews with politicians it was like the grateful nation asking our leaders to grace us with their answers. It was almost forelock-tugging.”

The interaction between presenter and guest had “an element of patrician condescension to the people listening”, says Born. “The slightly probing and slightly intimate manner of Sue Lawley would have been unthinkable from Roy Plomley.”

The BBC actually tried to get Plomley to update the programme - and his style - in the 1970s. But, as the BBC’s head of gramophone programmes noted in 1976, “he is always very loath to introduce changes. It took many weeks, for example, for me to be able to banish `Ladies and Gentlemen’ from his opening sentence.”

“There was a general sense that he [Plomley] was bowling underarm,” says David Hendy, who is writing a history of Radio 4. “There was a real sense in broadcasting at the time that society was becoming much more fluid with the decline of deference. The interview style on other programmes on Radio 4 was becoming more probing and more spontaneous.”

When Margaret Thatcher was interviewed in 1978 - she invited herself on - the talk was of her favourite school subjects, her holidays in Skegness, and how she loved helping in her father’s grocer’s shop. The political content was negligible.

Plomley died from pleurisy in 1985, and the following year Parkinson was appointed as his successor, adding a spot of television “showbiz” and publicity value to the programme. But this brought its own problems, as, like many television stars, he projected too much of his own personality on to the show, says Hendy.

In the early 1980s there was a general shift in notions of privacy and ideas about what could be talked about on air. “The BBC realised that there was a way to deal with problems and imperfections that was not prying and was not exploitative,” according to Hendy. Desert Island Discs had to catch up with a style of broadcasting that had been heard elsewhere for some time.

Once Sue Lawley took over, Hendy says, “it was pretty obvious pretty quickly that she was after a more bracing interview”.

One of Lawley’s signatures is her interest in the personal crisis - be it drugs, poverty or a death in the family. As the English literature professor John Sutherland says of his own appearance in January, the guest isn’t always comfortable with this line of questioning: “She did press me on my alcoholism,” says Sutherland. “You know the sort of thing, `When you were lying rolling in a gutter in your own vomit, how did you feel?’ And I didn’t really want to talk about that, I wanted to talk about Thackeray’s early work.” But, being the BBC, he says, “it’s all done with exquisite good manners.”

Lawley has courted controversy as Plomley never did. After she asked Gordon Brown why he was unmarried (long before his wedding to Sarah Macaulay), Plomley’s widow, Diana, chastised Lawley for her “extraordinary obsession with other people’s sex lives”. She quizzed Ken Dodd on his tax problems, asked Neil Kinnock if his wife was cleverer than him, probed Charles Kennedy on his drinking and tried to draw David Cameron on his “youthful indiscretions”.

Mark Damazer, controller of Radio 4, says Lawley has found “a tone of voice that is accommodating and doesn’t threaten, and she knows where intervention needs to be a bit more pungent. It’s an interesting chemistry and an interesting balance.”

Desert Island Discs has responded to the long-term ascendancy of news and current affairs programmes on Radio 4. Lawley is a journalist - as is Kirsty Young - whereas Plomley never was. She has a soundbite for each castaway: the television gardener Monty Don was “the rebellious child of an affluent but frugal family”, while John Peel was “the eccentric public schoolboy who conquered his shyness by taking to the airwaves”.

Lawley also interrogates the professional life. She asked the 82-year-old intellectual Isaiah Berlin whether his followers were disappointed that he hadn’t come up with “the big idea” in philosophy. (Few others would have dared meet his response - that he had one big idea and “I’ve had a few others, not very many” - by moving on to the next record.) When Lord Browne, chief executive of BP, was on in July, Lawley of course asked him about his experiences of boarding school and about his mother, who survived the holocaust. But she went on to question him about his business model, renewable energy sources, the burning of fossil fuels and BP’s pension fund. It’s hard to imagine Plomley using the word “hydrocarbon”.

Desert Island Discs is not a vehicle for its presenters in the way that many other interview shows have been - Parkinson itself, for example, or Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, Breakfast with Frost and Kilroy.

But Radio 4 listeners know what they like and they like what they’re used to. Lawley’s poised questioning hasn’t always been popular, but all is forgiven at the “threat” of a new face - voice - of Desert Island Discs. When Young was named as Lawley’s successor in June, the red tops went into a spin about the future of the show: “Desert Island Risk” was the Daily Mail’s headline, while The Sun asked if Young would “dumb down” the nation’s favourite programme.

Young is a similar age to Lawley when she took over - she’s 37, Lawley was 42. She is already known for developing an informal style of news presentation on Channel 5, famously perching on the edge of her desk rather than preaching from behind the pulpit to the television audience.

Through Young’s ascendance you can trace the changing voice of the BBC. Lawley apparently moderated her West Midlands accent to BBC English while at university. Young represents the next age of broadcasting, as the “received pronunciation” of yesteryear has given way to more diverse accents.

The choice of a Scottish host could hardly be called radical, of course. But in some arenas Desert Island Discs has led where other programmes have followed. When it started in 1942, radio was dominated by variety and entertainment shows. Plomley’s programme stood out.

Interview shows are now commonplace, but long before programmes such as This is Your Life or Through the Keyhole, and decades before Nick Hornby’s listmania in High Fidelity, or the White House revealed the contents of George W. Bush’s iPod, Desert Island Discs was giving listeners an insight into the private lives and loves of the famous through their musical tastes.

Earlier this year, Channel 4 created a flurry of excitement when Chantelle Houghton, a blonde unknown from Essex, fooled competitors in Celebrity Big Brother into thinking that she was a “real” celebrity - and eventually won the show. But even she had a role model in the fake desert island castaway of April Fool’s Day 1963: Sir Harry Whitlohn, an 88-year-old “mountaineer, mystic and spy”, claimed to be the only man living who had collaborated with Brahms (his luxury: a baby mountain).

More than 2,500 guests have been marooned on the island since 1942. The only qualification is to be a “person of achievement”. An invitation is a badge of respectability for middle England - but the parameters of “achievement” are ever-shifting.

The cast list is no longer confined to the figureheads of society. While the elite has become more democratic, however, it is still not entirely open. If the list of desert castaways to date tracks the changing shape of the establishment, it is - unsurprisingly - still firmly white and male.

When Trevor McDonald went on the show in 1994, the Commission for Racial Equality noted that he was only the 10th non-white guest the programme had ever featured. Although efforts have been made to redress this, the proportion of ethnic minority castaways still doesn’t reach their representation in the UK population.

Similarly, in Plomley’s era about a quarter of castaways were women (since 1988 this has risen to a third). But whether Radio 4, or society at large, is being discriminatory is a moot point. For Desert Island Discs charts change; few fans, however enthusiastic, would expect the programme to effect it.

Even in our age of supposed youth culture, most castaways are at least 45 before they’re deemed people of achievement, though fewer than previously are “grand old men” by the time they are interviewed. (Jamie Oliver went on aged 26.)

Lawley has made an effort to invite politicians on to the programme - the last five prime ministers have appeared, though only one while in office. Despite the economic boom of the 1980s, the castaways of that time were more likely to be the Arthur Scargills of this world (luxury: the “Mona Lisa”) than figures from the financial arena. Since then, a few more business personalities have crept into the list, including Anita Roddick, Martha Lane Fox and Richard Branson.

It’s the world of books and culture that still dominates, however, contributing nearly two-thirds of castaways. But those from the more populist end of the spectrum get more of a showing now than they once did. As Radio 4’s Damazer says: “Some of the people who are now on would, in a previous era, not have been: Tracey Emin, Hugh Masekela, John Cale, Jarvis Cocker. In its original conception those people would have been less prominent or not on at all.”

Damazer concedes, however, that the choice of castaway is still in most ways within “the realm of Radio 4”, though the station has made efforts to introduce new blood.

Sir Bobby Robson, one of Damazer’s examples, is “not a Radio 4 kind of guy”, and nor is the thriller writer and former SAS soldier Andy McNab. Damazer adds: “We’re not bringing people who are unknown, that wouldn’t be right, but we are sharpening their profile on Radio 4 through Desert Island Discs.”

The vagaries of the British television viewing public are also reflected in the show. Since the late 1990s, for example, the rise of the television chef has been reflected among the castaways with figures such as Nigella Lawson and Gordon Ramsay (luxuries: temazepam and a fresh vanilla pod, respectively).

So can we expect Kirsty Young to sharpen the mix further? “If she had come with a radical prospectus for change I would’ve been frightened back into my rabbit hutch,” says Damazer. “But she’s a woman of a slightly different generation - there are some people she’ll know better than others.”

If the guests have changed, so too has their musical taste. The Beatles are now one of the most selected groups - yet some of the band’s members hadn’t even been born when the programme started (Paul McCartney was Desert Island Discs’ 40th anniversary guest).

Plomley didn’t entirely approve of guests choosing pop music. In his 1975 book on the programme, he wrote: “One can imagine the despair of a castaway who is isolated for years with nothing but the bashing of electric guitars and the frenzied shouting of tin-eared vocalists who, by the time he is rescued, are probably out of the music business and back on their milk rounds. Pop music as a cheerful noise is fine, but for a lifetime’s listening - no!”

The scrutiny of individuals’ choices reached a clamour this May when David Cameron chose Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan and REM, supposedly demonstrating that he was a regular guy.

But the message in the music has always caused a stir. Among Margaret Thatcher’s discs was Mendelssohn’s “Be Not Afraid”; John Major, the first serving prime minister to appear, chose “The Best is Yet to Come” by Frank Sinatra; Salman Rushdie went for “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones; retail giant George Davies opted for “Money Money Money” by Abba; Michael Heseltine bemused everyone with his first record, “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic”; and Enoch Powell confirmed listeners’ worst fears in 1989 when half his choices were by Wagner (his luxury: a fish smoker).

Few now choose their music with the precision of earlier participants. During the early days of Desert Island Discs, the music critic Ernest Newman wrote in The Sunday Times that any proper musician would insist on taking scores rather than the discs. Not everyone was so particular, of course. But Noel Coward was one of many who specified the exact recordings he would like, and Sir Malcolm Sargent even detailed the timed sections he wanted played on air. One of the most infamous desert island guests was the German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who died last week, whose eight records were all of herself singing (Otto Preminger went one better: he took all his music from films he’d made, plus his own autobiography).

Although the music is integral to Desert Island Discs, what we hear on air are snippets amid the speech. Young plans to seize on this moment by tying more explicitly the music with the instant in the life. For it is this choice that is so revealing. As the novelist Alexander McCall Smith once said of the programme: “Talking about music that one loves is like baring the soul. If you choose a piece of music that can bring tears to your eyes, then you are effectively saying what makes you cry. These may be private associations, private pleasures, and it is counter-intuitive to parade them in public.”

Lawley has described Desert Island Discs as a perfect example of radio art. “It marries music with conversation and creates life,” she says. “The desert island is as crowded or as lonely as the castaway wants it to be. One thing, however, is certain. Whether it is noisy or quiet, reflective or brash, serious or comic, it is a place that the radio audience will always want to share.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.