Still making waves

When Sue Lawley announced in April 2006 that she was stepping down as presenter of Desert Island Discs after 18 years of soothing, cajoling and probing nearly 800 castaways, I expected, as then controller of Radio 4, the odd expression of interest from people keen to succeed her.

The programme, first broadcast 70 years ago this weekend when the guest was entertainer Vic Oliver, goes out each Sunday, has 3m listeners and has become part of the vocabulary of middle class Britain. At a certain class of dinner party, asking someone for their Desert Island choices – eight discs, favourite book and one luxury – is likely to get a ready response, not least because your companion may already have worked out their answers in the hope, if not expectation, that the show’s production team will invite them to be a castaway too.

In Tom Stoppard’s 1982 play The Real Thing, one of the characters, Henry, is a playwright preparing for his forthcoming appearance on Discs and agonising over how to balance popular and classical music. The audience understands the code – that Henry has had a uniquely valuable British honour bestowed on him – and also his exquisite dilemma as he attempts to ration his musical passions while simultaneously conveying precisely the right persona.

It’s a simple formula. A simple format too. The programme’s best moments – such as Daniel Barenboim discussing his marriage to Jacqueline du Pré, Vince Cable on racial tolerance, Annie Lennox talking about dealing with fame – easily surpass the celebrity flannel and faux revelations that pour out of most other talk formats most of the time. Desert Island Discs, in contrast to TV chat shows that derive much of their energy from the whooping and hollering of a studio audience, prefers to generate its electricity in a rather more sophisticated way. The revelations come in the confines of a small, nondescript radio studio. The tone is one of reflection and the conversation is enhanced by the welding of biography and music. More often than not it is about a whole professional life, not about a single film or song or TV programme that needs promoting that week. Even apparently hardened professionals are liable to talk frankly. When journalist and broadcaster Andrew Neil, who we might safely call a tough nut, was the castaway in February 2007, I was moved to tears (as was he) as he talked about his parents. A similar thing happened in summer 2010, listening to actor and comedian Kathy Burke talking about her totally miserable adolescence and eventual triumph at the Cannes Film Festival.

So maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised when Lawley’s departure occasioned not just a stream of polite inquiries but an avalanche of pleading. An astonishing array of British presenting talent offered their services – in some cases for free – each hoping to become only the programme’s fourth presenter. Roy Plomley, the programme’s creator, ruled from 1942 until his death in May 1985, chat show host Michael Parkinson took the hot seat until 1988, and former BBC newsreader Lawley reigned from March 1988 to August 2006. Even members of the public threw their hats into the ring, professing their “wide musical taste” and “deep sense of empathy”, as though this of all programmes required no specialised broadcasting skill or experience.

In fact, I decided on Kirsty Young, then presenter of Channel Five News, within a matter of hours, though it took a few months for the BBC to find the right moment to unveil the momentarily shocking truth that someone not already presenting on Radio 4 was going to end up with this plummiest of plum jobs.

In the five and a half years since she took over, Young has done an excellent job, but the appeal of Desert Island Discs is only a small part of UK radio’s contemporary strength. And it is part of a much wider question. In an age of hundreds of TV channels and millions of websites, not to mention bloggers, and microbloggers, how does radio, in particular speech radio, continue not just to attract our attention but to play a significant and influential part in shaping the national conversation?

In 2004, as I prepared to be grilled for the privilege of running Radio 4, I read a paper from some consultants confidently predicting rapid audience decline. It argued that the explosion of media choice would simply be too alluring for the channel’s audience. Even the station’s colossal strength – serious daily news and analysis – could, it envisaged, be satisfied by one of a number of TV channels devoted to keeping you abreast of the world with the apparently special ingredient of ... pictures.

Yet, nearly a decade on, Radio 4’s biggest-audience programme Today has gained listeners and remains, in terms of influence, as strong now as it was before breakfast TV came to Britain in the early 1980s. In broadcasting terms, the journalistic challenge to it largely comes from other radio stations such as BBC 5 Live, not from breakfast TV.

In part, this is a triumph for geriatric medicine. Older listeners tune into Radio 4 on a gargantuan scale and are living longer than previous cohorts. But it is much more to do with this apparently unfashionable medium’s inherent strengths of warmth and immediacy, and the ability of radio producers and commissioners to conjure ideas that chime with the audience.

This is not to say that radio is now home of all broadcast virtue or that TV has gone to the dogs, corrupted by an obsession with ratings and led by channel controllers drugged by reality shows. When I was at Radio 4 I wished I had thought of BBC2’s season on the white working class in 2008 and investigative journalism on TV, such as Panorama’s wonderful savaging of football’s international governing body Fifa in 2010, can generate scoops with an impact that radio finds hard to match. And, every now and then, the moving images really are unbeatable – think David Attenborough’s programmes – and subvert the radio industry’s ageless battle cry that radio has the best pictures. Yet it is also true that speech programmes that might appear to be dead in the ether without pictures do very often work beautifully. And, crucially, these shows could not now be done on television.

Take the marvellous A History of the World in 100 Objects, written and presented by Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, and broadcast on Radio 4 in 100 instalments over 20 weeks in 2010. This would have taken the best part of five years to produce for TV, not to mention necessitating that MacGregor be filmed in front of palaces, monuments and architectural ruins on several continents, and gobbling up the entire BBC Television documentary budget for an age. Instead, the descriptive power of his prose, allied to beautiful programme-making skills, meant listeners did not worry at all about the improbability of the exercise and could immerse themselves in MacGregor’s analysis and context – things TV mostly finds much harder to manage than radio.

A History of the World, and its accompanying website, cost less than the £1m that it takes to make an hour of high quality television costume drama. Indeed, though radio professionals sometimes look enviously at the budgets of their TV counterparts, the medium’s cheapness has important advantages. A BBC Radio controller can commission many hundreds of hours of programmes every year. Consequently, far more of their ideas are likely to reach an audience.

For a week last autumn Radio 4 turned over every drama slot except The Archers (to have replaced The Archers would probably have led to death threats) to a drama adaptation of the Russian author Vasily Grossman’s largely unknown, and very long, masterpiece Life and Fate, set in the Soviet Union at the time of the battle of Stalingrad. The production team waited more than a year to seduce Kenneth Branagh into playing the lead. The eight hours of drama was thrillingly executed but its impact went further – the book went to number one on the Amazon fiction list for several days. If only for financial reasons, this project would have no chance with TV commissioners.

Radio schedules may appear steady, unchanging, things but it has always been possible to conjure surprises. One of my predecessors, Michael Green, gave over a day in 1995 to a documentary drama of Len Deighton’s Bomber about a British bombing raid on Germany in the second world war. When the Large Hadron Collider at Cern was switched on under Geneva in September 2008, large chunks of the Radio 4 day were devoted to particle physics.

A few years back, a brilliant radio drama script about Vietnam, for one female voice, landed on the desk of the BBC’s head of radio drama. He wanted Sigourney Weaver to play the part. The Hollywood star’s agent asked how much the BBC would pay. The figure of £5,000 was mentioned. Weaver’s agent, not used to dealing with British radio’s minuscule budgets, said she “did not get out of bed for £5,000” – at which the head of drama pointed out that, strictly speaking, she would not need to get out of bed – they could record it in her bed. She agreed. It was a triumph – recorded in a studio.

Risks are important. When I am in the US I tune into Radio 4’s equivalent, NPR (National Public Radio). It is full of good, high-fibre things but its laudable high-mindedness lacks any light and shade, the production values are stripped back and the range is narrow. There is no I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, no News Quiz, no Just a Minute, no The Now Show. I am not saying there are no flops on UK radio but certainly there are no triumphs without the risk.

As a whole, the British radio industry still faces stiff challenges. Younger listeners to both BBC and commercial radio’s music stations are proving more susceptible to the delights of the iPod than Radio 4’s older audience. Also, despite radio’s apparent simplicity, the transition to digital technology has been more painful than for TV. And, for the younger audience at least, radio sets themselves will soon need to be able to do more things than they do now.

The bigger truth is that for much of radio, content is king, queen and joker. As for Desert Island Discs, it too has gone digital and is, predictably, a podcast hit. As a result, I have updated my dinner party strategy. When a former castaway comes to dinner, I look up their musical choices and compare them with others who have chosen the same song. Who would have thought, for example, that Shami Chakrabarti, the epitome of a liberal human rights lawyer, would share a taste for David Bowie’s “Heroes” with none other than Jeremy Clarkson? (She, in case you’re wondering, was the one who came to dinner.)

Mark Damazer, master of St Peter’s College, Oxford, was controller of Radio 4 from 2004 to 2010.

The 70th anniversary edition of ‘Desert Island Discs’ is broadcast on Sunday at 11.15am with Sir David Attenborough as the castaway

‘Desert Island’ favourites

Most frequently chosen composers:

1. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

2. Ludwig van Beethoven

3. Johann Sebastian Bach

4. Franz Schubert

5. Giuseppe Verdi

Most frequently picked discs:

1. Beethoven, Symphony No 9 in D minor “Choral”

2. Rakhmaninov, Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor

3. Schubert, String Quintet in C major

4. Beethoven, Symphony No 6 in F Major “Pastoral”

5. Elgar, Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 in D major “Land of Hope and Glory”

Most frequently picked non-classical discs:

1. Edith Piaf, Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien

2. Frank Sinatra, My Way

3. Noël Coward, Mad Dogs and Englishmen

4. Edith Piaf, La Vie en Rose

5. Flanagan and Allen, Underneath the Arches

Most frequently picked Beatles tracks:

1. Yesterday

2. Hey Jude

3. A Day in the Life

4. Penny Lane

5=. Eleanor Rigby/Help!

Most frequently picked Bach pieces:

1. Concerto for two violins in D minor

2. Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring

3. Toccata and Fugue in D minor

4.Goldberg variations

5. Brandenburg Concerto No 5 in D major

Five most-picked Frank Sinatra tracks:

1. My Way

2. You Make Me Feel So Young

3. Well, Did You Evah!

4. One For My Baby

5. A Foggy Day

Political choices

Margaret Thatcher, cast away in February 1978, when leader of Conservative party

Favourite disc: Beethoven, Piano Concerto No 5 in E flat major “Emperor”

Book: survival manual

Luxury item: photo album of her children

John Major, cast away in January 1992, when Conservative prime minister

Favourite disc: Donizetti, O Giusto Cielo (from Lucia di Lammermoor)

Book: The Small House At Allington by Anthony Trollope

Luxury item: Oval cricket ground replica and bowling machine

Tony Blair, cast away in November 1996, when Labour leader

Favourite disc: John Williams, Recuerdos de la Alhambra

Book: Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

Luxury item: guitar

Gordon Brown, cast away in March 1996, when Labour shadow chancellor

Favourite disc: Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No 3 in G major

Book: The Story of Art by Sir Ernst Gombrich

Luxury item: tennis ball machine and racket

David Cameron, cast away in May 2006, when leader of Conservative party

Favourite disc: Bob Dylan, Tangled Up in Blue

Book: The River Cottage Cookbook by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Luxury item: a crate of Scotch whisky

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