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Defining the Discographic SelfDesert Island Discs in Context$

Julie Brown, Nicholas Cook, and Stephen Cottrell

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780197266175

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: May 2018

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266175.001.0001

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Introduction: Desert Island Discs in context

Introduction: Desert Island Discs in context

(p.1) 1 Introduction: Desert Island Discs in context
Defining the Discographic Self

Julie Brown

Nicholas Cook

Stephen Cottrell

, Julie Brown, Nicholas Cook, Stephen Cottrell
British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter provides an overview of the long-standing and highly popular British radio programme Desert Island Discs (DID). It sets out the historical contexts in which the programme was established and developed, and interrogates both its changing format and the meanings and values that have been associated with DID over time. Developments in the production process are also assessed, including the impact of various presenters and the selection of castaways, as well as the programme’s place in broader media culture and its relationship to particular national identities. Finally, it considers the potential value of DID to the world of scholarship, particularly following the establishment in 2011 of the programme’s online archive, and the contribution of chapter authors to the realisation of that potential.

Keywords:   Desert Island Discs history, DID history, presenters, castaways, national identity, media culture, Desert Island Discs online archive, DID online archive

IN NOVEMBER 1941, WITH BRITAIN mired deep in World War II, a freelance broadcaster named Roy Plomley pitched an idea to the BBC for a new radio series. The premise was disarmingly simple, as Plomley’s initial letter to the Corporation made clear:

If you were wrecked on a desert island, which ten gramophone records would you like to have with you?—providing, of course, that you have a gramophone and needles as well! Today … will come to the microphone to answer that question.

(quoted in Magee 2012: 2)

Plomley’s submission also suggested a title—Desert Island Discs (DID)—for a series that would go on to become one of the longest-running radio programmes in the world. It remains today a weekly fixture in the schedules of its home station, now called BBC Radio 4, having achieved widespread domestic and international recognition. Its presenters are elevated in the public consciousness through their association with the programme, and to be invited as a castaway is considered a mark of distinction—both by those who appear on the programme and by those who tune in to it. Its popularity is reaffirmed through numerous references in other cultural forms such as stage plays and television shows, and together with another longstanding Radio 4 favourite—The Archers—it has become a symbol of a vaguely conceived sense of middle-class Englishness. And its place in this British cultural imaginary is connoted in the minds of millions of people by the one musical constant in its otherwise permanently revolving discographic carousel: the programme’s signature tune—Eric Coates’s By the Sleepy Lagoon, originally composed in 1930.

Few would have predicted that DID’s formula would be so successful, and it is testament to the programme’s continuing appeal that 2017 marks its 75th anniversary, a period of continuous transmission interrupted only by a five-year break in the aftermath of the war, between 1946 and 1951. Over time the programme has built up a unique archive of information about the role that music has played in the lives of people from Britain and beyond, ranging from changing tastes to (p.2) its social and personal meanings. Yet very little of this has percolated into academia. As recently as 2011, a search on ‘Desert Island Discs’ in the authoritative bibliographic source for music studies, RILM Abstracts, yielded just 21 hits—and they all related to a book that appropriated the BBC programme’s title for a series of essays by rock critics about their favourite records (Freeman 2007). A principal reason for this lack of scholarly engagement was the difficulty of accessing the information. There were a few books published by presenters, including partial listings of castaways and their choices, transcripts or essays based on a small selection of interviews, and a volume of reminiscences organised under castaways’ professions. There were also scripts or transcripts of the broadcasts, plus some correspondence from the early years of the programme, held at the BBC’s Written Archive at Caversham (WAC). But it was hard to access the recordings. That changed when, in 2011, the BBC created a searchable, web-based archive that includes an almost complete set of audio recordings going back (at the time of writing) to the mid-1970s, together with incomplete but still substantial representation of episodes going back to 1957 (plus one from 1951). This is an ongoing project, with new episodes being added to the archive as they are broadcast.

In this way a great deal of unique historical material has become readily available, and this volume offers a first assessment of it by scholars from a range of disciplinary backgrounds across the humanities and social sciences. Some, including the co-editors, come from music studies, others from sociology, media studies, and cultural studies. The range of topical approaches includes, inter alia, institutional histories, history of the emotions, material culture, celebrity culture, class, national identity, and the everyday lives of musicians. But there are clear shared interests, too, especially in how individuals use music, in what it means to them, and in how such meanings are mediated as they are projected into the public sphere. The following chapters probe different ways in which social context throws light on music, and music illuminates social context. The need for such exploration is pressing. In Music in Everyday Life (2000: x), the sociologist Tia DeNora observes that we still have ‘very little sense of how music features within social process and next to no data on how real people actually press music into action in particular social spaces and temporal settings’. Yet issues of social meaning, and of music’s role in identity formation and broadcast media, have moved to the forefront of musicological enquiry in recent years, both stimulating and reflecting a convergence of interests with sociologists. At the same time, the role of recorded music in contemporary culture has increasingly interested not only musicologists but also culture and media theorists. The DID online archive therefore provides a unique opportunity for cross-disciplinary collaboration by focusing on a new source of significant value to researchers in all these fields.

(p.3) 1. Desert Island Discs: the early years

Roy Plomley always claimed to be, and has always been seen as, the creator of DID, consistently maintaining (1975: 25) that ‘the world copyright of the series is my property’ because ‘I was the first to apply the idea to a radio programme’. But the programme did have its precursors, and indeed Plomley’s November 1941 letter had continued, ‘This is, of course, very much along the lines of the old “I Know What I Like” series—except that the choice is limited to ten records and the artists should not be confined only to BBC staff.’1 And back in 1937, Plomley’s friend Spike Hughes had used the same basic idea several times in his column for the monthly pop music magazine Rhythm, analysing his own choice of jazz records for a desert island and then throwing the debate open to his readers, who sent in their own lists of six records (Plomley 1975: 25). Plomley claimed to have had ‘no conscious memory’ of reading Hughes’s column, but admitted that he must have done so, as he was a regular reader of the magazine. He also acknowledged an even longer genealogy for the idea, including the journal The Music Teacher, which in June 1921 asked its readers to imagine that they were ‘about to retire into exile on a desert isle with a gramophone and ten records’. There were in addition musings in A.S. Neill’s 1922 book A Dominie Abroad about people choosing five books and five gramophone records to take with them if they had to spend five years on a desert island. As Will Straw explores in Chapter 2, these were only the latest variants of a much longer genealogy of musical and literary list creation involving desert islands and/or long journeys.

At the same time, there was something very timely about Plomley’s idea in the context of the early 1940s. At that time, Britain, the BBC, and the media landscape in general were all very different from how they are today. DID started on the BBC’s second wavelength, the Forces Programme, which, although conceived as a channel for British Expeditionary Forces stationed in Europe, also served a home audience that could—and did—tune in. It thus appeared at a historical juncture when radio broadcasts were understood to have specific functions for home and ‘forces abroad’ audiences. The Corporation, having been established in 1922, was at the time already in a period of transition. As Jenny Doctor notes in Chapter 3, DID emerged as part of an ongoing cultural shift at the BBC that sought to include the choices of radio guests and ordinary listeners in programme content creation, rather than having such choices determined by otherwise unseen BBC producers. This move from a ‘top down’ to an at least partially ‘bottom up’ programming policy was no coincidence during a wartime (p.4) Britain in which the reinforcement of national unity was seen as essential for the nation’s survival. If World War I had evidenced the gulf between the privileged upper classes who almost exclusively provided military leadership and the many hundreds of thousands of largely working-class soldiers who were sent to their deaths, World War II was fought in a context where these sharp social distinctions were already—to some degree—beginning to break down. New directions in BBC programming mirrored growing demands for greater social inclusivity not only in broadcasting, but also in other contexts such as education, business and commerce, and political governance. Such aspirations were further reflected in the Corporation’s schedules through the growing inclusion of light and popular music, particularly through the development of programmes such as Radio Rhythm Club and Music While You Work. The latter in particular was conceived to provide ‘rhythmical music’, uninterrupted by announcements, and was played—as Doctor points out—at sufficient volume to overcome industrial manufacturing noise in those factories where it could be relayed through loudspeaker systems.

DID occupied a rather different space in this crowded radio landscape. If Forces’ Favourites fulfilled the essentially utilitarian function of keeping families in touch with each other across the airwaves, and Music While You Work provided the energetic, rhythmic context for wartime manufacturing, DID provided some idealised escapism: the promise of a sand-filled, sun-drenched island devoid of bombing, rationing, the nearness of death, and the many other horrors of war. Certainly, the castaways on the island were condemned to isolation, cut off from everything and everybody else. But from the perspective of war-torn Britain, itself comprised of islands facing the prospect of imminent invasion, this was surely preferable to occupation by unwanted others. Moreover, a castaway’s isolation could be mitigated discographically, allowing individual control over an environment that might therefore be customised to one’s own taste and preferences. DID provided a metaphor for the hoped-for Britain of the future: a Homeric Ithaca to which soldiers stationed abroad could return after their odyssey, peacefully in control of their surroundings and their destiny, and comforted by music and other artefacts that made them feel at home.

Gaining insights into the musical tastes of a wide selection of individuals was clearly at the heart of Plomley’s original intentions, yet even before the programme first went on air producers started to shape it differently. Assistant Director of Programme Planning J.E.C. Langham’s agreement to the new programme came with the following provisos:

  1. (a) That in each case interesting reasons should be given for the choice of records

  2. (b) That additional colour would be given on occasion by what the listener might consider an unexpected choice (i.e. a comedian who prefers the little-known classic, etc.)

(quoted in Magee 2012: 4)

(p.5) The tenth castaway, Liverpudlian entertainer and comedian Arthur Askey (2 April 1942), seemed to satisfy the latter request when he chose pieces by Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Tchaikovsky. The unexpectedness of Askey’s choices was revealed when he was cast away a second time, 13 years later (21 April 1955). He mentioned that after his first appearance he had received numerous letters from listeners saying such things as ‘Who are you kidding?’ or ‘Be yourself’, assuming that he had only faked an interest in such music. He felt the need to explain, saying that he had studied the piano as a child and had been a boy soprano. But the producers’ desire to confect ‘additional colour’ wasn’t the only such request. After DID’s first month on the air Plomley was asked to ensure that castaways did not simply provide a list of favourites, but also reflected on their discs’ utility in the desert island context, and, as Julie Brown discusses in Chapter 12, the programme has often included conversations along these lines.

Like most radio production at the time, the first two hundred or so episodes of DID were scripted, and this provided further opportunities to shape the output. Plomley’s first contract covered not only script creation and the presentation of the programme, but also his ‘selection and provision of records if necessary’. Certain insights into his interventions emerge in his memoir and in scripts held in the WAC. Plomley constructed a script for Vic Oliver, his first castaway, on the basis of a list supplied by Oliver of his proposed records and reasons for choosing them, and in the case of his third castaway, Commander A.B. Campbell, from ‘notes’ that Campbell gave him (Plomley 1975: 17). Scripts were occasionally edited against the wishes of the interviewee. For instance, when theatre director Ralph Reader appeared on the programme (12 February 1944) he was annoyed to see cuts made to his script, in which he had hoped to pay tribute to ‘the lesser known artists who are entertaining troops abroad’.2 Plomley also reveals examples of helping castaways with their disc choices. A castaway might provide a list of 18 discs that needed careful filtering; they might make vague designations (‘Something by Bach … A Haydn quartet … Has Sinatra recorded anything by Gershwin?’); or they might specify a piece but provide no information about the orchestra or performer, which would prompt BBC staff to bring a variety of recordings of the music in question; or they might not have decided on the two-minute excerpt, and needed help with that (Plomley 1975: 28–31). From the beginning, therefore, while the programme ostensibly set out to project the personal tastes and self-identities of its guests, the production process also shaped those identities and the manner in which the radio audience might perceive them.

(p.6) 2. The presenters of Desert Island Discs

DID has had only four presenters over its 75-year history.3 Each has brought a different interviewing style to the programme, and the changes in its modus operandi, as well as the changing nature of its castaway list, can be in part attributed to their different influences.

Roy Plomley presented the programme from its inception until his death in 1985. His plummy voice, home counties pronunciation, and urbane delivery style register an association with the middle- and upper-class British values that many saw as characterising both BBC management and its presenters at this time (though Plomley’s personal background was actually more modest). Each recording session was clearly meant to be a chummy, convivial occasion, in which Plomley himself acted as a benign and deferential host. As he later recalled:

All those celebrities have been my guests. I have laughed with them, lunched with them, listened to their troubles and their choice of music, calmed them into the relaxed state of mind in which broadcasts are best made … and then shaken hands and said goodbye.

(Plomley 1975: 11)

The pre-recording lunch, which Plomley hosted at his club, the Garrick, became for him an especially valued feature of the occasion: Michael Parkinson, who followed Plomley into the presenter’s chair, later made the acid observation that Plomley had become more interested in this part of the day’s proceedings than in the interview itself (Parkinson 2008: 308).4 The Garrick, then as now, admitted only male guests (female castaways were taken to the Lansdowne), a point that perhaps illustrates the unfailingly polite but slightly paternalistic air that Plomley brought to the programme. In contrast to the more public space of a local restaurant, such clubs undoubtedly offered a degree of privacy welcomed by his more celebrated guests, yet Plomley’s use of them is also symbolic of the particular networks, often arising from public school or university connections, that characterised the BBC for much of the 1940s and the 1950s.

Plomley’s interviewing technique was formulaic, with the pattern of questioning largely unchanging from one episode to the next; David Hendy points out in Chapter 8 that Plomley began to vary his questions only in the mid-1970s, in response to suggestions that the DID format was becoming stale. Ironically, given (p.7) that Plomley focused strongly on the record choices, and clearly conceived of DID as being a programme centred around music, the musical extracts were not played during the interview itself; they were edited in later. Parkinson saw this as further evidence of Plomley’s disengagement (2008: 307), and after he took over the presenter’s role in 1986 the records were played during the recording of the interview.

Parkinson was already a well-known interviewer of celebrities because of his eponymous television show, which had run on the BBC from 1971 until 1982. His distinctive Yorkshire accent, together with a more robust interviewing style influenced by his journalistic background, provided a significant shift for the programme, and one that was not entirely welcomed by a radio audience that had become accustomed to Plomley’s non-invasive suavities. As Sue Lawley put it in her own appearance on the programme during Parkinson’s tenure (8 November 1987), ‘You don’t mince your words, do you, Michael.’ Parkinson clearly ruffled feathers at the BBC. Hendy points out that the assessment of one internal BBC review was that Parkinson’s interest in music ‘was minimal’—an assertion that notably clashes with Parkinson’s own claim, as a DID castaway in 1972, that ‘music is a passion of mine’. Parkinson himself later suggested that the criticisms of his style were ‘a rear-guard action by the establishment against the perceived desecration of an institution by an outsider’.5 Whatever the truth of the matter, it is clear that during his tenure the programme moved away from Plomley’s genteel, convivial style into a more probing, investigative format, in which the musical choices began to be subsidiary to the more interrogative discussion that framed them.

Parkinson’s stint as presenter was comparatively short-lived. He left the programme in 1988, but the new course on which he had set DID was continued by his successor, Sue Lawley, who presented the programme for the next 18 years—perhaps unsurprisingly, given that she has described it as ‘one of the best jobs in broadcasting’.6 Lawley’s own DID appearance, in 1987, reveals her journalistic self-identity: her youthful aspiration, she said, was to be ‘the world’s greatest investigative reporter, on the Sunday Times’. She considered DID more of a current affairs programme, and moved it from a production unit in Radio 3—where it had long resided, notwithstanding that it was transmitted on Radio 4—to the offices of Radio 4 itself, which provided a more sympathetic journalistic orientation for the approach that now characterised the programme. In another break with tradition, Lawley chose not to meet the interviewee beforehand lest it affect the spontaneity of the interview; instead, a researcher would pre-interview the castaway, and so the recorded interview was the first time presenter and castaway met. (p.8) Lawley (1990: 3–6) also reports that under her stewardship the musical extract was not played in full before the interview, because it ‘could spoil the castaway’s reaction’. This remains the programme’s modus operandi today.

Kirsty Young acceded to the presenter’s chair in 2006. Like both Parkinson and Lawley she comes from a journalistic background, and has continued the probing, investigative style of her predecessors. But there is again a slightly different approach: Young particularly encourages a confessional dialogue; her relationship with the castaway is not so much that of the journalistic reporter and the interviewee but rather the psychoanalyst with her patient. Her own assessment of the programme (in her foreword to Magee 2012: vi–ix) betrays these empathetic, psychological interests. She observes that castaways may appear different from ‘the rest of us’, but they are also ‘often more insecure’ (vii). Rather than framing the castaway, as Plomley did, as already being ‘on our desert island this evening’, she prefers to present it as a future event, speaking of being ‘about to cast you away’: it would be ‘indefensible’, she writes, to cruelly abandon someone ‘to a life of solitude and sunburn’ (ix). For Young, achieving intimacy with her guests is the overarching aim of the interview, as this encourages castaways ‘to trust me and in turn properly reveal themselves’ (ix). Again the phrase is redolent of the relationship between the psychotherapist and the patient, and the musical interludes chosen by the latter can be seen as having a therapeutic function as the castaway recounts their autobiographical highs and lows. This approach is enhanced by Young’s vocal timbre. She sits closer to the microphone than her predecessors, and her soft Scottish burr is heard as warmer and more intimate—a vocal timbre that brings to mind John Shepherd’s (1991: 167) observation in relation to certain female popular music vocal styles of a ‘rich, resonating sound’ that connotes the ‘woman as nurturer’.

The relationship between the musical extracts heard on the programme and the dialogue framing them is not always smooth, notwithstanding the best efforts of the interviewer and, particularly, the programme editor to make them so. Occasionally the questions preceding the extracts are rather abrupt, and sufficiently discontinuous from the dialogue that it almost appears as though the music is appended as an afterthought; as Simon Frith observes in Chapter 7, DID is more a programme about people than it is a programme about music. This explains why a probing interview is sometimes unexpectedly interrupted with the words ‘and now your next record’, with little or even no discussion of the musical choice being made. But at other times the introduction of the next record appears to deliberately heighten the radio drama that is played out within the show. One of the most explicit examples of this occurs in Sue Lawley’s interview of Lady Diana Mosley, the wife of British wartime fascist Sir Oswald Mosley. At one point Lawley asks, ‘What about the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis?’, to which Lady Mosley replies, ‘Oh no, I don’t think it was that many.’ There is a long pause. ‘Tell us about your fifth record, Lady Mosley.’ When set against the genocide of (p.9) World War II almost any music risks appearing irrelevant or injudicious. But Lady Mosley’s fifth choice is perhaps as dramatic as it could be within the format of the programme: the ‘Liebestod’ from Richard Wagner’s music drama Tristan und Isolde, a selection coloured as much by Wagner’s notorious anti-Semitism as by the love story represented by the music.

3. Castaways and their selection

According to a 70th anniversary book about the programme (Magee 2012: xi), ‘Castaways are not necessarily household names, but each one has played a highly significant role within his or her own field and lived a rich and interesting life.’ Their inclusion is, however, vigorously debated by the production team. But for those who pass ‘a test that is at the same time stringent and subjective, with a strong element of randomness’, Magee continues, when ‘the invitation plops on to your doormat in the same post as notification of your proposed knighthood or damehood, open the letter marked “BBC” first, for whatever that other envelope might contain, being marooned on the desert island is the greater honour’. This only slightly tongue-in-cheek account of the process of selecting today’s castaways touches on a key mystery about the programme: who gets chosen and why. Kirsty Young studiously avoids revealing the answer ‘for fear of never being invited anywhere ever again’ (Young in Magee 2012: viii), but an expansion of the catchment group for castaways has been evident since she took over as presenter. More ‘illustrious’ people now appear from beyond the worlds of media and entertainment, culture, and politics. Some are barely known by the general public at all, but come to be known through their appearances on DID.

While the guest lists in the Plomley era were often rather narrow, the first season line-up in 1942 was in fact quite eclectic. Notwithstanding his initial pitch, in which he stressed that the programme would draw on people outside the BBC, Plomley’s proposed guest list in fact read like an expanded list of BBC employees—namely entertainers and artists, and people already on stage, radio, or film: ‘For example, dance-band leaders, actors, members of the Brains Trust, film-stars, writers, child prodigies, ballet dancers and all sorts of people could be included’ (quoted in Magee 2012: 2).7 As Stephen Cottrell points out in Chapter 13, a key dynamic of the first few seasons was a sustained attempt by Langham to exclude musicians and people in the musical arts from the programme. Since the programme depended upon a constant flow of interviewees and also quickly accrued a certain cultural cachet, it is perhaps unsurprising that both presenters and the written archives testify to direct approaches about potential castaways. (p.10) Plomley (1975: 209–10) records that he was sometimes sent bribes; he welcomed letters from agents but was irritated by calculated fan-club letter bombing. Lawley’s (1990: 2) experiences were not dissimilar: ‘we are always receiving suggestions, from publishers, friends and people we bump into in corridors and at parties, but ours are the final choices’. Correspondence in the WAC dating from 1968 bears witness to such behind-the-scenes approaches, as in a memo from Frank Gillard, director of radio, suggesting Alec Durie, director-general of the AA: ‘I know he would like to be a castaway.’ Though Durie never did appear, Gillard’s memo prompted a reply from Anna Instone, saying that she would pass it on to the producer because it will complement an earlier castaway, the chairman of the RAC.8 Another memo survives from the same year, this time from the then controller of Radio 4 and Music Programme, Gerard Mansell: ‘My spies tell me that Sir Paul Gore-Booth, recently Head of the Diplomatic Service would appreciate being asked.’9 Though Mansell said that it wasn’t an injunction, just a suggestion (for which he listed a number of reasons), keeping BBC seniors happy may partly explain the fact that Gore-Booth was a castaway eight months later. And Godfrey Baseley, the creator of The Archers, actually put himself forward for DID, duly appearing in December 1969.10

Documents in the WAC show that DID’s association with celebrity culture, as explored in Chapter 5 by Jo Littler, started early: from the programme’s second series onwards, Plomley’s contracts referred to ‘interviewing the star artist’.11 Listeners associated the programme with celebrity too. The WAC has preserved a charming exchange initiated by a member of the general public who asked to be considered for DID: Mr Geoffrey Morey wrote to the producers on 14 May 1962 introducing himself as someone who listens regularly to the programme, and outlining a ‘rough biography’, which involved a career in surgery, wide and exotic travel, wartime service in the Air Forces, and a ‘very wide knowledge of classical music’.12 However, he continued, he anticipated that they would ‘prefer celebrities’ and ‘might not think [him] sufficiently illustrious to appear’. He was indeed sent a polite brush-off noting that there was already a long list of possible castaways, and that unfortunately it was ‘rather unlikely that we shall be able to include you in this particular series of programmes as I am afraid we are limited to widely established personalities’.13 Just how quaint the producers and archivist found Morey’s approach is perhaps reflected in the fact that his letter has survived at all.

(p.11) And the association of DID with celebrity culture is not limited to castaways. If, from the perspective of the castaway, appearing on DID both reflects and bestows a certain celebrity status, the cultural significance ascribed to the programme is such that the role of DID presenter also bestows celebrity status on the individual who presents it. This is reflected in the series of publications appearing under Plomley’s and Lawley’s names: their marketable reminiscences reveal an ongoing public fascination with the programme and those seen to play such a pivotal part in it. It is therefore ironic that, while the programme deals with an ever-changing roster of celebrity castaways, its most substantial contribution to the enhancement of celebrity status lies not among the castaways but the much smaller number of individuals who are chosen to interrogate them.

4. Desert Island Discs and media culture

DID provides an interesting case study in the difficulties and paradoxes pertaining to the ascription and defence of intellectual property rights in a media-dominated society. Despite his grudging recognition of its predecessors, Plomley vigorously defended the authorial rights he saw as embodied in the programme, asserting, ‘When I hear of an unauthorized use of my idea it must be dealt with smartly’ (1975: 212). As use of the idea did subsequently prove to be something he could control, copyright law seems to have been on his side in deeming the transfer of an existing paper-based idea into a broadcasting format to be new and unique. All the same, Plomley’s robust attitude to DID is reminiscent of Disney’s aggressive protection of its version of fairy tales that it took from the Grimm brothers. There could be no starker reminders than these of the uneven legal playing field within which ideas are now remediated. For Plomley, any further reworking, even using the idea on stage at a small-scale local event, was a legal violation, despite the fact that the enthusiastic locals would only be doing exactly what Plomley himself had done: taking an existing game with an appealing scenario and reworking it for another medium.

Plomley’s oddly robust defence of his copyright becomes the more problematic when set against a number of radio shows, many of them broadcast by the BBC, that replicate the essential DID idea of disc choices being used to throw light on interviewees’ life stories and musical tastes. Perhaps the clearest example is Radio 3’s Essential Classics. As the programme website says, ‘Rob Cowan and Sarah Walker play definitive recordings of the greatest classical music’, but there is a section of the programme called ‘My Essential Classics’, which presents ‘classical music loved by celebrated guests from all walks of life’.14 Here, then, canonic repertory is presented through the ears of a celebrity guest. And while (p.12) ‘My Essential Classics’ is just one element within Essential Classics, Radio 3 also features another programme that is clearly built around the DID idea: Private Passions, which is presented by the composer Michael Berkeley and has run on Radio 3 since 15 April 1995. Like the DID presenters, Berkeley interviews notable—if usually less ‘glitzy’—people, discussing their life and musical passions, though he generally makes the biography secondary to the music. Often he explores a guest’s unexpected musical interests, in the way Langham had originally envisaged for DID. Indeed, Private Passions could be interpreted as a return to the ‘gramophone’ focus of Plomley’s original pitch, subsequently displaced by the more journalistic interview style begun by Parkinson and formalised in the shift of production from Radio 3 to Radio 4. The only thing Berkeley does not do is cast them away on a desert island. As Jane Shilling has pointed out in The Telegraph, the two programmes are now mainly differentiated by the fact that whole pieces of music are played on Private Passions (which must mean an extremely constrained selection process, given the hour-long format), and by the interview style: the confidential style of Kirsty Young versus what Shilling describes as ‘the grand manner’ of Berkeley.15

Nor are these the only DID derivatives broadcast by the BBC: Radio Cymru has Beti a’i Phobol, discussed by Sarah Hill in Chapter 10. And examples abound beyond the United Kingdom. In Australia, for example, ABC Classic FM has Midday Interview, in which considerations of the music are closer to those of Private Passions than of DID, and form part of ‘an interview with a guest who shares their life stories and a selection of music that means the most to them’.16 But the nearest thing to plagiarism comes from Houston, Texas, where KPFT Radio hosts a ‘long-form interview program’ hosted and produced by Jeff Wax. Inaugurated in 2012, the 70th anniversary of DID, the programme’s name is Desert Island Discs, and the description is ‘If you were to be cast away alone on a desert island, which eight songs would you choose to have with you, assuming of course, that you had a listening device and an inexhaustible power source’.17 That may look like a rather out-of-focus version of Plomley’s original pitch to the BBC, but it is a virtually exact quotation from early programme introductions.18 The only differences are concessions to changing times: the ‘songs’ of the KPFT version stand in for the ‘gramophone records’ of the original, while KPFT’s ‘listening device (p.13) and … inexhaustible power source’ replace the original ‘gramophone and … inexhaustible supply of needles’.

These imitations are one measure of the impact that DID has had on global media culture. Another arises from the extent to which the programme has been name-checked and sometimes spoofed in a range of other contexts, as well as occasionally being subverted by the programme team itself. That the programme can be gently ridiculed in this way is testament to the affection in which it is held by its audiences, as well as the widespread recognition that it provokes. In this it resembles not only similarly longstanding media products—such as The Archers or Book at Bedtime on radio, and Question Time or Top of the Pops on television—but also such other quintessential British institutions as the Royal Family, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, or the BBC itself. When directed towards these cultural icons, the social commentary that such mockery provides reveals an oblique recognition of their perceived importance.

Perhaps because the DID format built on pre-existing formats in other genres, it was comparatively easy for the programme to enter the popular comic consciousness. In April 1943, little more than a year after DID first aired, Tatler magazine carried a cartoon showing a partially clothed man and woman sitting on a tiny desert island; the caption reads, ‘There are times, Miss Armory, when I wish you were a gramophone and eight records.’19 Nearly 40 years later, Tom Stoppard’s play The Real Thing (1982), which explores in different ways the tensions between reality and appearance, foregrounded the dilemma about the presentation of self implied by the musical choices made when appearing on DID. Henry, a playwright, worries about which discs to choose for his forthcoming appearance. Should he choose the music he likes, or the music that will make him look good? As Mitchell Symons (2012: 57) puts it, ‘Can he really maintain his intellectual credibility—critiquing the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre and the postwar existentialists—if he chooses the Crystals singing Da-doo-Ron-Ron?’20 At the heart of Henry’s dilemma are knotty issues concerning the presentation of the self that are extensively considered by Tia DeNora in Chapter 11.

It is the cultural space occupied by DID, its now well-known format and its particular form of self-presentation, that provides the frame for such humour, which in turn also serves to subvert the programme’s earnestness and its place as an icon of a particular form of Britishness. But such subversions have been practised within the context of the programme itself. In 1963, for example, Plomley and his producer Monica Chapman devised an April Fool’s edition. An invented (p.14) castaway by name of Sir Harry Whitlohn, ‘musician, mountaineer, and mystic’,21 was portrayed by Henry Sherek, a theatrical impresario who had appeared on the programme as himself four years previously (15 June 1959).22 Notwithstanding that some fairly incredible dialogue was constructed—including a yarn about how Whitlohn had met Brahms as a child and had provided the composer with a theme for his Third Symphony (one of Whitlohn’s chosen extracts)—about a quarter of the letters Plomley received about the programme were from people who had taken it seriously, asking that their appreciation was passed on to Sir Harry himself.23 Whitlohn’s ludic behaviour demonstrated precisely the interplay on DID between reality and illusion with which Stoppard had also been concerned.

The Australian comedian Barry Humphries—who has twice appeared on the programme as himself—provided a different form of humorous subversion when he appeared in the character of his most well-known comic creation, Dame Edna Everage (17 July 1988). In this guise he makes fun of the programme throughout the interview: he mockingly refers to DID as ‘an historical old programme’; he calls the presenter Susan rather than Sue Lawley (who, in playing her normal role, provides the ‘straight’ foil for Humphries’ gags); the disc choice ‘I Feel Pretty’ (from West Side Story) is cut off immediately after those words, a joke that would have been appreciated by those listeners who were familiar with Dame Edna’s obsession with her appearance; and so forth. Humphries also draws attention to DID’s place in what might be described as a cultural prestige economy: ‘And little, of course, did I dream in those days of early success in London, that I would receive the accolade of being a guest on this show. And believe me, I consider it an honour, Susan.’ As Andrew Blake observes in Chapter 6, there are notable parallels between DID and the award systems that play an important role in many areas of cultural and social life—whether literary prizes, the Grammys, or the British honours system. As Magee implied when he advised opening the letter marked ‘BBC’ before the one offering you a knighthood, an invitation to appear on DID is seen as a plaudit, something like being awarded a public medal. Perhaps the most poignant demonstration of this is a negative one. There are services directed at those who have never had the BBC’s invitation plop on their doormat: for a minimum fee of £950, the London-based firm Lives on Record—founded by an ex-BBC producer—will create a personal programme about your (p.15) life, structured round your six favourite pieces of music, and place it on your own members’ page, where family and loved ones can access it.24

But the perceived parallel with the honours system is a mixed blessing. It is perhaps the cultural authority seemingly invested in DID, and the resonances with those middle- and upper-class public institutions and processes through which British class distinctions are sustained, that account for the absence of certain individuals on the programme. As Magee (2012: xi) says, ‘some are approached but choose not to appear’. We are unlikely ever to know who has actually turned down an invitation, but in the world of popular music alone there are some very obvious British names missing from the roll of castaways: David Bowie, Pete Townshend, and Peter Gabriel, to name just three. And why Keith Richards but not Mick Jagger? We may speculate that these absences reflect declined invitations, and that these in turn stem from a reticence to play the DID game because of the middle-class legitimation it connotes, the implication that you have become part of the British establishment. Such individuals may well be unwilling to see themselves cast away as part of the DID canon.

Yet there is a telling difference between the award of public honours and the DID invitation. You can send back an honorary medal in protest at a political decision or other event to which you take exception, as demonstrated by John Lennon and Rabrindranath Tagore, among others. But an appearance on DID cannot be similarly reversed. It is forever a matter of public record, and is today digitally inscribed and globally manifested through being stored on the DID website and thus effectively archived in perpetuity. Only in extraordinary circumstances is a recording removed by the BBC—as happened to former BBC television presenter Jimmy Savile and 1970s and 1980s pop star Gary Glitter after revelations of child sex abuse (although their entries in the archive remain: it is just the recorded episodes that have been removed.) Thus, while the return of a public honour can be a profound statement of self-identity, ironically—for a programme centred around the recognition and examination of just such self-identity—the DID gong cannot be returned by those to whom it is awarded. Only the gong-givers can take it away.

5. Desert Island Discs and national identity

The fictional desert island that provides the frame for DID is not clearly aligned with or even reminiscent of any particular nation state. Part of the programme’s appeal may be that it brackets the complexities of nationhood and the questions of personal identity associated with it. There is perhaps something peculiarly British (p.16) about this. In her chapter, Sarah Hill draws attention to various literary works that evidence, in her words, ‘a long British fascination with people stranded on islands’, including Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (a character whom James Joyce saw as representing ‘the true prototype of the British colonist’),25 Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, among others. To this list might be added Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) which, while imagining a large group of people constructing an ideal island society rather than an individual battling isolation, can be read as a political satire of the early 16th-century English society over which More himself wielded considerable influence. In their different ways, each of these fantasies can be read as a commentary on the islands with which their writers were most familiar: the British Isles. DID, too, can be interpreted in relation to the complex national identities at play in Britain since 1942—particularly since, as noted above and elsewhere in this volume, it is not difficult to read DID’s fantasy island as a surrogate for Britain itself. The overlaying of seagull cries on the Eric Coates piece used as the programme’s signature tune only strengthens the association: seagulls are actually uncommon on tropical islands, and the aural mis en scène is more reminiscent of a British seaside town.

But how representative is this desert island of ‘Britain’ as a whole? Certainly, the programme’s geographical associations are inflected by its iconic position at the heart of the British Broadcasting Corporation schedules, a position it shares—as noted above—with other longstanding radio programmes such as The Archers and Woman’s Hour. But in the country at large there is a sense that much of Radio 4’s output is too frequently aligned with the values held by white, middle-class English listeners residing in London and the adjacent ‘home counties’ (often conceived as ‘Middle England’), and that it does not engage sufficiently with the interests of other demographic groups, other regions, or England’s Celtic partners in the United Kingdom. The BBC itself is aware of these criticisms. As recently as 2015, a BBC Trust report noted that ‘Radio 4 generally still appears to have an English or home-counties focus, which can lead would-be listeners from elsewhere to believe that the station “isn’t for them”.’26 The slippage implied in the phrase ‘English or home-counties’ is telling.

While DID is not alone in reinforcing these perceptions, the programme has been from the beginning constructed around quintessential signifiers of a particular type of Englishness which aligns with this ‘home-counties focus’. In addition to castaways’ disc selections, luxury item, and book of their choice, all are furnished with copies of the complete works of Shakespeare and the King James Bible: it would be difficult to imagine more obvious icons of Englishness than these two (p.17) literary highpoints of the English language. The Englishness of the programme was equally defined by Roy Plomley’s own home-counties roots, the received pronunciation characterising his delivery style, and his enjoyment of his London club. As various contributors to this volume point out, this was for several decades reinforced by a castaway list disproportionately populated by white, middle-class celebrities—of whom, during the 1960s to 1980s, roughly three-quarters were male. It is difficult to avoid the observation that during Plomley’s tenure DID exuded a somewhat paternalistic, Anglo-centric, chummy conviviality of a kind that would not have seemed inappropriate four decades earlier, a time when the notion of ‘being English’ was more easily defined and homogeneously conceived than it was later in the century.

This message was driven home by disc selections that were overwhelmingly drawn from classical music. Just as Shakespeare and the King James Bible provided the religious and literary bedrock for the programme, so the tradition of Western classical music was an integral part of a belief system that many would have seen at the time as an axiomatic demonstration of civilised values and good taste. But over the 75 years of its existence the world beyond DID has changed drastically. The dying embers of the British Empire may have occasionally flickered into life in the latter half of the 20th century, but by and large Britain has had to come to terms with a post-colonial identity in which its global influence and authority have altered significantly. The demography of Britain in general, and of England in particular, is very different from what it was in the war years during which the programme was conceived. Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups play a far more prominent role in British society, and cultural institutions such as the BBC increasingly recognise that contemporary British identity is fragmented, multicultural, and heterogeneous in a way that the ‘home-counties focus’ could never accommodate.

But Radio 4, and with it DID, have evolved only slowly to reflect these changes. The Voice of the Listener and Viewer, a United Kingdom consumer group with a particular interest in public service broadcasting, observed in 2015 that ‘more work needs to be done for the station to reflect the diversity of UK culture and society’.27 Later the same year the BBC Trust similarly found that the Corporation’s radio stations ‘serve BAME listeners less well then they do white listeners’: this, it said, is a particular ‘challenge’ for Radio 4.28 Its audience base tends to be older, arguably a little reactionary, and comprised of listeners who often identify closely with the station, its schedules, and its programmes. It is an audience that does not easily welcome innovation and, as the BBC Trust (p.18) notes, ‘audience perceptions of a well-established station such as Radio 4 can be hard and slow to change’.29 Stephen Fry—a celebrity whom many in Middle England would see as the personification of Radio 4—whimsically observes that ‘Radio 4 … is radically reinvented every five years or so, fortunately with no result whatever.’30

Nevertheless, recent decades have seen some changes to DID. The appointment as presenter of Michael Parkinson, with his gruff Yorkshire accent, and perhaps more particularly of the recognisably Scottish Kirsty Young, may be seen as indexical of the programme’s needs—in common with the BBC at large—to extend its popularity beyond the metropolitan spaces of London and south-east England. In 2010 the programme’s producer, Alice Feinstein, announced that the King James Bible—which Plomley playfully assumed to have been placed on the island by the Gideon Society31—could now be substituted with ‘a religious book of the castaway’s choosing’. Indeed, acknowledging the increasing acceptance of atheism and agnosticism in the UK at large, and following a complaint from the National Secular Society, Feinstein observed that castaways are ‘not forced to take a religious text—many choose not to take any religious book at all. Others do take one, but make the point that they would read it simply as a piece of literature.’32 The list of castaways has also evolved. The guest list in the 1960s, for example, showed an endless parade of (overwhelmingly British) white Europeans only very occasionally interrupted by non-white or mixed-ethnicity superstars such as trumpeter Louis Armstrong, cricketer Sir Leonie Constantine, or singer Shirley Bassey: in contrast, by the first decade of the 21st century, non-white castaways—while still very much in the minority—were regular visitors to the island, and included Whoopi Goldberg, Shami Chakrabarti, Tariq Ali, Hugh Masekela, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and many more.

It may be both simplistic and contentious to correlate Englishness with whiteness, a particular version of the English language, and Christianity, and to contrast it with a more pluralistic and multicultural ‘British’ identity defined in terms of social groups emanating from a variety of national, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds. All the same, the demographic shift in the desert island’s population can be seen as a deliberate attempt to re-engineer the programme’s identity. And it is ironic that the trajectory of both Radio 4 and DID towards greater inclusivity and broader representation—in other words away from being simply ‘English’ and (p.19) towards being more ‘British’—has occurred at a time when increasing numbers of people in England are rejecting a broader ‘British’ identity in favour of a more narrowly nationalistic English one.33

6. Researching Desert Island Discs

Underlying this volume is the idea that, for the last 75 years, the BBC has engaged in a massive research project funded by the licence payer, and that the creation in 2011 of the online archive has created the opportunity for researchers to exploit it. But the process has only just begun, and there is at present virtually no academic literature around the programme.

A bibliography would begin with the books by presenters already mentioned: listings of castaways and their choices from 1942 to 1983 (Plomley & Drescher 1984) and from 1988 to 1989 (Lawley 1990); transcripts or essays based on a few interviews (Plomley 1982; Lawley 1990); and Plomley’s Desert Island Discs (1975), which in addition to reminiscences of castaways includes some introductory chapters on the origins of DID, the process of its production, and the books and luxury items which castaways can take in addition to their eight discs. It would continue with Michael Parkinson’s autobiography (2008), which includes four pages on DID; the only published volume of Plomley’s (1980) autobiography stops in 1940, while his promisingly entitled Desert Island Book (1979) is a personal compilation of desert island literature, bearing no direct relationship to the programme. And it would conclude with two volumes licensed by the BBC in the wake of the online archive and targeted at a broad readership: Sean Magee’s Desert Island Discs: 70 Years of Castaways (2012), which consists mainly of synopses of selected DID interviews (the disc selections are listed but otherwise ignored); and Mitchell Symons’s Desert Island Discs: Flotsam and Jetsam (2012), a collection of highly miscellaneous facts about the programmes (there is, for example, a listing of those castaways who have chosen an umbrella as their luxury item).

In terms of academic research, the core value of DID lies in the online archive, and two recent articles have pioneered its use for purposes of social-scientific research. Laurie Cohen and Joanne Duberley point out that, in a time of financial retrenchment, research funders are increasingly advocating the use of publicly available archives rather than the creation of customised datasets. And it is not just (p.20) a question of money. The fact that the data in the DID archive are not customised can be seen as an advantage: as Cohen and Duberley say, the archive is ‘unsullied by the researcher’s own agenda’, and it sets information about employment—which is their specific focus—into a whole life context, with the music in particular eliciting the kind of contextualisation that would normally be neglected in socialscientific interviews (Cohen & Duberley 2013: 166, 174). At the same time, Cohen and Duberley treat the DID archive in the same way as does Ruth McDonald (2014), who used it as the basis of a study of elite medical scientists and class: in each case it serves as a repository of textual data. As with most humanities and much social-scientific research, the approach to the archive is essentially qualitative, and the same can be said of the majority of chapters in this volume.

But, as Kyle Devine mentions in Chapter 4, the archive also holds out the promise of a quantitative approach, and a few of our contributors explore this. At this point, however, it is necessary to be clear about the nature of the data contained within the archive. As explained on the BBC’s ‘Making of the Archive’ webpage,34 the data were sourced from ‘books, ancient paper files, a rusty and rudimentary database, [and] defunct web production systems’, and then cleaned up (including ‘sorting out duplications, anomalies, filling in gaps and cross checking between dusty files and electronic systems’). The potential for inconsistency, error, and omission is self-evident, and a further issue is that the archive is continually evolving (when, for example, Simon Frith and Tia DeNora give different figures for selections of Beethoven’s music, the reason is that DeNora accessed the database three years before Frith did). But there are more basic limitations that affect the kind of searches that can be made. Using the archive search interface, you can easily discover that, of the castaways who chose a piano as their luxury item, 95 were male and 31 female; you can narrow down the selection to those whose occupations are in ‘Art Fashion and Design’ (at which point there are three men and no women), or focus on a particular decade. But there is no direct way in which you can trace the programme’s changing representation of classical and popular music across the decades. This is because the musical information in the database is limited to artist (composer, songwriter, performer) and title, together in some cases with the name of the record from which a track is taken. There is no field for genre in the database, and as a result, researchers wishing to extract information about classical and popular musical genres from the database have to do so in roundabout ways.

The chapters by Cottrell and Frith illustrate this. Cottrell resorts to hand-coding: going through the 656 castaways whose occupation is classified as ‘Music’, he assigns them on the basis of his own knowledge to the categories of classical, jazz/pop/folk, light/theatre, or other, and uses these as the basis for a statistical (p.21) analysis. Frith adopts rather different categories: classical/film/light, pop/rock, jazz/blues/gospel, and folk/country. But he also uses a different procedure. He draws up a list of the artists he considers most important within these genres, primarily (though not entirely) out of his head; matches them up with the archive; and within each category divides them into the Premier League (artists chosen between 100 and 600 times), Division 1 (26 to 99 times), and Division 2 (10 to 25 times). In this way, because of the nature of the information on which it is based, use of the database entails significant personal interpretation on the researcher’s part. But it goes further than this. Tia DeNora, whose analysis of castaway narratives is based on small samples categorised by occupation and gender, writes that ‘simple statistical correlations will not illuminate the ways in which, rather than being fixed objects with fixed meanings, musical works are emergent objects with flexible meanings … [O]ne person’s “Beethoven” is not identical to another’s’. To make sense of her castaways’ narratives, she therefore codes them using interpretive phenomenological analysis, a bottom-up technique through which recurrent themes emerge. In other words, a process of interpretation is again involved, in which both domain and experiential knowledge play an essential role. In all these cases, quantitative analysis functions less as a technique of directly generating meaningful findings than of framing a qualitative study of individual cases.

The aims of Defining the Discographic Self, then, are to set DID into its historical context, situating it within histories framed by different disciplinary orientations; to throw light on the roles music plays in the construction and communication of personal or group identity; and to explore different ways of making sense of the quantitative and qualitative information contained in the archive. The volume takes the form of 12 chapters organised into four topical sections, followed by an Afterword that draws out emerging themes and attempts to put the chapters into dialogue with one another. Interspersed between the sections are ten short contributions which—following the governing fiction of DID—we call ‘personal spins’. Most of these are from former castaways, conveying a sense of the DID experience from the interviewee’s point of view, though two are by people whose involvement with the programme is different: Derek Drescher produced DID for a decade from 1976, while in 1982, as producer of the BBC’s documentary television series Arena, Anthony Wall made a film to mark the 40th anniversary of the programme.

The four topical sections into which the volume falls begin by sketching some of the historical contexts within which DID came into being. In ‘The cultural baggage of the desert island’ (Chapter 2), Will Straw traces what might be called the prehistories of DID. There is an immediate prehistory, going back to the 1920s, in the idea of choosing the discs you would want to have on a desert island: we have already seen examples of this, and record critics used it as a criterion of excellence, prioritising enduring value over passing fashion. But there is also a prehistory that goes back much further, and that concerns not discs but books. (p.22) Straw finds a parallel between DID and the sea voyage: undisturbed solitude created the conditions for both pleasure and self-improvement, and people planned lists of what they would take in the same way as they now plan their DID selection just in case they are invited onto the programme. The principal finding of this comparison is that people for the most part choose books they do not know but wish to read, whereas they choose records that they already know. Even with discs, self-improvement may enter the equation, but the focus is much more on memory of people, places, and times past, and through these memories, the maintenance of a sense of identity. Faced with indefinite solitude, castaways want to be reminded who they are.

In ‘From Forces’ Choice to Desert Island Discs’ (Chapter 3), Jenny Doctor narrates the wartime conditions that conditioned the programme’s development, setting it alongside a number of other, less enduring, radio programmes built around the selection of recordings. Forces’ Music Club featured members of the forces not as individuals but as representatives of their military unit, and—importantly—asked them to give reasons for their selections. Forces’ Choice and Forces’ Favourites placed more emphasis on ‘ordinary’ individuals, with contemporary BBC memos stressing the human interest angle: they were not to be just record shows. DID was different in two ways, first in its focus on celebrities, and second in its escapism, substituting a mythical desert island for the other programmes’ concerns with the all-too-real conditions of wartime. If the war shaped DID, then equally it shaped BBC programming policy. By 1942, as Doctor says, ‘personal choice had become a winning BBC programme formula’, and the new thinking persisted into the post-war period.

History of another kind is represented in Kyle Devine’s ‘Desert island discomorphoses’ (Chapter 4): that of sound reproduction technology. In one sense it is hard to imagine anything more immaterial than DID: a programme transmitted through the ether that revolves around the idea of sounds projected onto a strictly imaginary desert island. Yet the whole concept is built on the affordances of specific technologies—as becomes obvious in the stipulation, in Plomley’s original pitch to the BBC, that the island should be equipped with ‘a gramophone and needles as well!’ By ‘discomorphosis’ Devine means the assemblage of technology, social and institutional structures, and conceptualisation that conditions the experiencing of recorded sound, and he uses the term in its plural form to reflect the changes prompted by successive technological innovations from the 78 rpm disc of 1942 to the contemporary digital download. Yet if DID reflects these changes, it does so in a curiously indirect manner, for—as Devine says—the programme has been anachronistic from the start. Publicity images have always associated Plomley and his programme with the wind-up gramophone—a technology that in 1942 had been obsolescent for nearly 20 years. In line with its escapist ethos, DID has always been conditioned by nostalgia, an aspect that becomes all the more pronounced as the programme celebrates its 75th year.

(p.23) The three chapters that make up the second section of the volume, ‘Cultural ideologies and the politics of sound’, range across more or less the entire history of DID but interpret it in terms of particular cultural and ideological formations. Jo Littler’s ‘Adrift or ashore?’ (Chapter 5) charts the programme’s symbiotic relationship with celebrity. It is not just that DID featured celebrity castaways from the start. The media format is inherently celebrity-friendly, on the one hand emphasising the remoteness of the island-bound star, while on the other hand bringing him or her into an intimate relationship with the listener in the way that only radio can. If DID has an aura of nostalgia, it has also—in Littler’s words—‘adapted to changing social demands for inclusion and representation [and] surfed the waves of change in celebrity culture’, and she sees this as a principal reason for its enduring success. At the same time, Littler is acutely conscious of the pernicious aspects of celebrity culture and the neo-liberal ideology that underpins it. DID may be beholden to celebrity culture, she says, but it also has the potential to challenge it.

If Straw’s chapter considers DID’s origins, then Andrew Blake’s ‘Playlists and prizes’ (Chapter 6) focuses on what has come out of it. His subject is the construction and expression of self-identity through musical selection—in short, the discographic self. He begins with the culture of music appreciation that developed in the interwar years and survived into the 1970s: this was a hierarchical culture where critics, writing in newspapers and record guides, were the arbiters of taste. The development of serious rock criticism from the 1970s did not challenge that hierarchy but rather replicated it. It was only with the technological and commercial upheavals resulting from digitalisation that a new, non-hierarchical culture developed, in which the ultimate arbiter was personal expression: record guide recommendations were replaced by the playlist and ultimately by fans’ shares and likes. For Blake, the personal choice and miscellaneous castaway selection of DID’s first season prefigure what he terms today’s ‘miscellany culture’. Yet the social and cultural prestige that DID has acquired across the years has turned it into a source of cultural authority in its own right, and so it now ‘preserves the notion that music—all of it—is more than a mere commodity … [This] is the obverse of miscellany culture.’

In ‘What does it mean to be cultured?’ (Chapter 7), Simon Frith’s starting point is the predominance, while Plomley was presenting DID, of a particular castaway profile that encompassed the establishment, showbiz, and the BBC itself: the result was a singular absence of the music that Frith, listening as a teenager in the 1950s and early 1960s, wanted to hear. Investigating the DID archive confirms his childhood memories as regards the domination of classical choices, although there was a distinct decline after Plomley’s death in 1985; a clear pop elite developed, but genres such as folk, jazz, soul, and disco remained remarkably under-represented. A further distinction emerged between the classical and popular spheres with respect to the selection of castaways. The representation (p.24) of classical musicians more or less conformed to their status within the classical music world; the representation of popular musicians, by contrast, was thoroughly hit and miss. Frith puts this down to the BBC’s longstanding categorisation of music as either classical or entertainment—a distinction that made sense up to the 1960s but broke down with the rock generation, since when DID has maintained an uneasy relationship with popular culture. All this underlines the fact that, as a Radio 4 programme, DID is not really about recordings, or even about music: ‘it is, in fact, a programme about people’.

That resonates with David Hendy’s ‘Desert Island Discs and British emotional life’ (Chapter 8), which initiates a group of chapters exploring aspects of British identity through the lens of DID. The programme is commonly viewed as unchanging, he says, but this is not in fact the case. Just as DID trades on nostalgia but in reality—as Littler observes—reflects changing social demands, so Hendy shows how it responded to the more overtly emotional patterns of behaviour that developed in the 1960s and 1970s. By around 1980 there was a widespread feeling that Plomley’s style of interviewing was insufficiently penetrating, and the result was the appointment as his successor of first Michael Parkinson and then Sue Lawley, both—unlike Plomley—with backgrounds in journalism. The change was underlined by the transfer of responsibility for the production of DID from Radio 3 to Radio 4. As Hendy says, this could have resulted in the downplaying or even elimination of music’s role within DID, but in fact the opposite was the case: the length of the programme was extended, specifically to allow for more music. Hendy explains this in terms of the particular role music plays within DID. It acts as a prompt to castaways’ memories, especially when the music is played during the interview, and helps disclose what Hendy calls ‘the emotional and intellectual self’. That echoes Frith’s claim: DID is not a programme about music but about people. Music plays an essential role in it, but as a means rather than an end.

DID is generally assumed to be as much a byword for British middle-class values as Radio 4 and classical music, and the next two chapters interrogate these associations. In ‘Punk, class and taste in Desert Island Discs’ (Chapter 9), Peter Webb spotlights castaways whose choices have included music by punk bands. While there are exceptions, these castaways have predominantly working-class backgrounds, and those origins feature strongly in their narratives. The actress Kathy Burke, for example, had a difficult childhood, and by the beginning of her teens felt alienated from her social surroundings: she found an affinity group and extended family in punk, and so, as she said, ‘this music … changed my life’. Of Webb’s four case studies, another concerns the writer and film-maker Hanif Kureishi: his family background was in fact middle-class, but as a mixed-ethnicity child in Enoch Powell’s Britain his experience was ‘confusing, disorienting and alienating’ in much the same way as the other three castaways. In his case the key influence was David Bowie, from whom Kureishi learned that identity is not imposed but performed: as Kureishi puts it, ‘you could make yourself up’. For all (p.25) these castaways, punk was less a matter of taste than of identity construction, a means through which they were able to gain confidence, a sense of self-worth, and incorporation into a group within which they felt valued.

With Sarah Hill’s ‘Peripheral identities on Desert Island Discs and Beti a’i Phobol’ (Chapter 10), British identity itself comes under scrutiny. DID presenters have a record of stereotyping their Welsh castaways: as Hill shows, Plomley did it with Welsh rugby (or, as he called it, rugger) players, and Lawley with Bryn Terfel. In some ways Beti a’i Phobol, the Welsh-language music and discussion show aired since 1984 on Radio Cymru, is the inverse of DID: where DID embodies the British establishment, Beti a’i Phobol is informal, egalitarian (you don’t have to be a celebrity), and at times oppositional. Hill complements her study of Beti a’i Phobol by examining how expatriate Welsh castaways have presented themselves on DID. She comments that some of their selections—for example, George Guest’s choice of the complete works of Saunders Lewis, the Welsh nationalist poet and founder of the political party Plaid Cymru—probably went over Plomley’s head, as did the sentence that rugby player Barry John spoke in Welsh when Plomley interviewed him.

The final set of three chapters focuses more closely on the role of music within the narratives through which castaways present and represent themselves. In ‘Public and narrative selves in Desert Island Discs’ (Chapter 11), Tia DeNora approaches DID as a particularly recalcitrant form of the qualitative interview familiar from social-scientific research: as she says, you cannot tell how far castaways are being sincere, but by comparing different interviews you can establish common themes and relate them to such variables as occupation and gender. As an illustration of the kind of analysis this makes possible, DeNora observes that, regardless of occupation, men speak of Beethoven’s music in terms of such characteristics as power and assertiveness, while women speak of it in terms of what DeNora calls ‘care of self’, for example describing it as ‘optimistic’ or ‘good for keeping the chin up’. In this way ‘men and women are doing different things with Beethoven’s “masculine” affordances’. All this provides a set of normative patterns against which individual castaway performances can be interpreted.

Julie Brown’s ‘Desert island dislocation’ (Chapter 12) takes seriously an aspect of Desert Island Discs that commentators tend to overlook, but to which castaways often devote considerable thought: the utility of music as a means of coping with the pressures of desert island life—the time to be whiled away, the solitude, the fading sense of who you are. This brings her to consideration of the ‘care of self’, as DeNora calls it. Like the prospective sea voyagers discussed by Straw, prospective castaways consider what music will cheer them up and renew their spirits, and what music they will be able to listen to repeatedly—pieces ‘that last’, as David Attenborough put it. But they also choose music that will answer to their human need for sociality. Eric Sykes, for example, chose the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ (from Handel’s Messiah) on the grounds that ‘the sound of a chorus of (p.26) singers might serve as a substitute for a group of people’. Inevitably, the desert island becomes a site of nostalgia, but then, as Brown says, nostalgia is a restorative emotion. And when she writes of the need ‘to protect positive feelings of the self via memories of experiences that assure them they are valued’, there is an echo of how music helped Webb’s punk-loving castaways to construct a secure sense of self in the first place.

In ‘Musicianly lives musically told’ (Chapter 13), Stephen Cottrell focuses on what the DID archive can tell us about the practices and life experiences of musician castaways. For Cottrell, the archive’s core value is as a resource for oral history—an approach that compensates for the narrow concern with ‘the music itself’ characteristic of traditional musicology. This ranges from insights into such realities of musicians’ lives as guitarists’ chronic anxieties about broken finger-nails to the persistence of racism at the most elevated levels of the operatic world. But perhaps most striking is the ever-present association between music and mythology of one kind or another. Lawley’s incredulity at the idea that there could be racism in opera is one example; others include musicians who describe Bach as God or play his music first thing each day as a ritual of purification, or Lang Lang’s construction of his own life story around the notorious incident when his father urged him to commit suicide after being thrown out of music school. Hearing Lang Lang’s next choice—Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1—in light of that story, Cottrell says, made him hear an intensity of pathos in the music that he had never heard before: ‘musical sounds … accrue different meanings for us through their close association with somebody else’s lived experience’.

In leading us to hear music through other people’s ears and experiences, DID reminds us that music never was just a matter of sounds. The point is made most poignantly when Frith tells the story of journalist Jonathan Freedland’s dying sister, who asked him to record her own farewell Desert Island Discs, with Freedland taking the part of Kirsty Young. ‘To listen to Freedland’s programme’, Frith writes, ‘was to be moved not by the music chosen but by how much the choices meant to the person choosing’. Yet, as Cottrell’s testimony avers, being moved by what music means to other people can also change what it means to us. In that sense DID is about people, but it is about music too.


Bibliography references:

Cohen, L. & Duberley, J. (2013), ‘Constructing Careers through Narrative and Music: An Analysis of Desert Island Discs’, Journal of Vocational Behavior, 82: 165–75.

DeNora, T. (2000), Music in Everyday Life (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Fowles, J. & Drazin, C. (2003), The Journals (London, Jonathan Cape).

Freeman, P. (2007), Marooned: The Next Generation of Desert Island Discs (Philadelphia, PA, Da Capo Press).

(p.27) Lawley, S. (1990), Sue Lawley’s Desert Island Discussions (London, Hodder & Stoughton).

Magee, S. (2012), Desert Island Discs: 70 Years of Castaways from one of BBC Radio 4’s Best-loved Programmes (London, Bantam Press).

McDonald, R. (2014), ‘“Bourdieu”, Medical Elites and “Social Class”: A Qualitative Study of “Desert Island” Doctors’, Sociology of Health and Illness, 36: 902–16.

Parkinson, M. (2008), Parky: My Autobiography (London, Hodder & Stoughton).

Plomley, R. (1975), Desert Island Discs (London, Fontana).

Plomley, R. (1979), Roy Plomley’s Desert Island Book (Newton Abbott, David & Charles).

Plomley, R. (1980), Days Seemed Longer: Early Years of a Broadcaster (London, Eyre Methuen).

Plomley, R. (1982), Plomley’s Pick of Desert Island Discs (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

Plomley, R. & Drescher, D. (1984), Desert Island Lists (London, Hutchinson).

Shepherd, J. (1991), Music as Social Text (Cambridge, Polity).

Symons, M. (2012), Desert Island Discs: Flotsam & Jetsam: Fascinating Facts, Figures and Miscellany from one of BBC Radio 4’s Best-loved Programmes (London, Bantam Press). (p.28)


(1) According to Radio Times, 28 June 1940 (p. 10), I Know What I Like was first broadcast on 30 June 1940 on BBC Home Service Basic: on it ‘the owners of radio’s most familiar voices—the announcers—are going to be heard introducing the records they like and giving their reasons for liking them’.

(2) Memo from Godfrey Adams, Director of Programme Planning to ‘MRL’, 12 February 1944, in BBC WAC R21/49 Gramophone Correspondence/Desert Island Discs, File 1 (1942–54).

(3) Technically there have been six presenters of the programme, since on the two occasions when Roy Plomley was himself cast away he was interviewed first by Leslie Perowne, the Head of Popular Record Programmes at the BBC at the time (7 May 1942), and then Eamonn Andrews, a fellow BBC broadcaster (12 May 1958).

(4) The novelist John Fowles, who appeared on DID on 10 January 1981, wrote in his journal about his experience of this Garrick lunch, noting that Plomley had been ‘fastidious, overpolite, I suspect a touch bored; tout vu, tout lu and also tout interviewé’ (Fowles & Drazin 2003: 250).

(6) www.theguardian.com/media/2006/apr/12/bbc.radio, accessed 23 September 2016.

(7) The Brains Trust was then a new informational BBC radio programme, a little like today’s Any Questions, but with questions about practical and moral, rather than political questions.

(8) Frank Gillard, 19 January 1968 to Head of Gramophone Programmes (HGP); reply 29 January 1968 from Anna Instone (HGP).

(9) G. Mansell (Controller of Radio 4 and Music Programme) to A.H.J.P., 3 April 1968.

(10) Clare Lawson Dick (Acting Controller Audio), 15 August 1969.

(11) ‘Ten guineas (£10.10.0) inclusive, for preparation of the script and interviewing the star artist.’ Contract dated 27 July 1942.

(12) Letter, Geoffrey Morey, 14 May 1962.

(13) Monica Chapman to Morey, 28 May 1962.

(14) www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b014r87y, accessed 10 December 2016.

(15) ‘Desert Island Discs vs. Private Passions: Radio Review’, The Telegraph, 3 July 2013, www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/10155910/Desert-Island-Discs-vs-Private-Passions-radio-review.html, accessed 23 September 2016.

(16) www.abc.net.au/classic/program/midday, accessed 23 September 2016.

(18) Though Plomley’s original letter did not include ‘inexhaustible’, the introduction to many early programmes did. See for instance http://gregsonimages.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Transcript-DI-discs.pdf, accessed 25 September 2016.

(19) Cited in Magee 2012: 20. A number of other cartoons concerning DID are reproduced in Plomley 1979.

(20) Although there are some biographical parallels between Stoppard and the character of Henry, the playwright was not drawing on his own experience as a castaway: he appeared on DID in 1985, three years after the play was premièred.

(21) Cited in Magee 2012: 94.

(22) In fact the original name for this fictitious character was Sir Harry Whitlow, but this became somehow changed to Whitlohn both on the bogus contract that was circulated within the BBC to underpin the joke, and in the Radio Times listing for the broadcast (see Magee 2012: 95). The latter orthography appears today in the DID archive, and is retained here.

(25) ‘Daniel Defoe by James Joyce’, translated from Italian manuscript and edited by Joseph Prescott, Buffalo Studies, 1/1 (December 1964): 5–25, at 24–5. Plomley (1979: 28) calls Crusoe ‘the grand old man among castaways’, and adds that as a young actor he played in a pantomime version at the Wimbledon Theatre.

(26) BBC Trust Service Review: Radio 4, Radio 4 Extra, Radio 5 Live, Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, 2015, 15.

(27) Response by the Voice of the Listener and Viewer (VLV) to the BBC Trust Service Review of Network Speech Radio: BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio 4 Extra, BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC 5 Live Sports Extra, February 2015, 5.

(28) BBC Trust Service Review: Radio 4, Radio 4 Extra, Radio 5 Live, Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, August 2015, 16.

(29) BBC Trust Service Review: Radio 4, Radio 4 Extra, Radio 5 Live, Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, August 2015, 15.

(33) The National Centre for Social Research 2014 survey on British Social Attitudes notes: ‘In 1992, 31 per cent [of people in England] described themselves as “English” when asked to choose which national identity best described them, now 41 per cent do so (47 per cent describe themselves as British, down from 63 per cent in 1992)’. See www.bsa.natcen.ac.uk/latest-report/british-social-attitudes-31/key-findings/britain-2014.aspx, accessed 1 December 2016.