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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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Afterword: Playing the discographic self

Afterword: Playing the discographic self

(p.285) 14 Afterword: Playing the discographic self
Defining the Discographic Self

Nicholas Cook

, Julie Brown, Nicholas Cook, Stephen Cottrell
British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

This afterword seeks to put the chapters of Defining the Discographic Self: ‘Desert Island Discs’ in Context into dialogue with one another, drawing out a number of common themes. In particular it develops the idea of the Desert Island Discs interview as a performance of identity, and explores the nature of the social engagement it creates in the studio, through the broadcast, and in the imaginary domain of the desert island. It also considers the current and possible future impact of digitalisation on the programme, and the extent to which the Desert Island Discs archive can support such digital humanities approaches as Franco Moretti’s distant listening.

Keywords:   performance, identity, sociality, digital culture, digital humanities, distant reading

1. From wind-up to website

YOU STAGGER OUT OF YOUR battered rowing boat onto the brilliant white sand, beyond which there are palm trees—while behind them a mountain rises in the centre of the island. Your objective is to reach the mountain and guess ‘Who is on the Desert Island’ before the other players. It’s the board game Desert Island Discs, produced in 1994 by Strawberry Games. As with most board games you have your own token (a brightly coloured plastic palm tree) and you move stepwise along a predetermined path, but the core of the game lies in the question cards: correct answers allow you to proceed. There are questions on literature that have nothing specifically to do with Desert Island Discs the programme (hereafter DID), such as ‘What nationality was Oscar Wilde?’; there are also some questions on music that you might be able to answer without having heard it (‘From which musical was “My Favourite Things”?’). But most of the questions have to do specifically with DID: which of the following three castaways chose this record, book, or luxury item, or which of the following three items did this castaway choose. Could you perhaps answer these questions by guessing what sort of thing a given castaway would be likely to choose, based on occupation, age, or appearance? Not according to Roy Plomley, who said in 1975 that he had long ceased trying to forecast the kinds of discs that castaways would choose. How could you possibly know that Gordon Harker—who specialised in playing cockney roles—would turn out to be ‘a Wagner maniac’, or that Ninette de Valois would choose no ballet music (1975: 95, 117)? The unavoidable conclusion is that, in 1994, you were expected to know who had been on the programme and what they had chosen. Unless you mugged up the spin-off books published by successive presenters, you needed to listen to the programme from week to week—and it says a good deal about the programme that, just six years before the end of the millennium, a board-game manufacturer invested in a product based on that assumption.

There is more to be squeezed out of the game. The cover of the instruction leaflet features a map of the coast of Sarawak—now part of Malaysia but formerly a British crown colony—while that of the box features a 1940s-style radio set, complete with palm motif, set against a colourful background of sea, sand, and palm (p.286) trees. In other words the iconography connotes displacement in terms of both geography and time. As Kyle Devine observes in his chapter in this volume, there was always a strong element of anachronism in the relationship between Desert Island Discs and technology. Perhaps the most remarkable was its association—for example in publicity photos of Roy Plomley—with the wind-up gramophone. It is true that this got over the knotty problem of where you would find a power source on an uninhabited island, though you were still left with the difficulty of securing an inexhaustible supply of needles: that had disappeared by 1994, when Stephen Hawking (1994: 142), himself a former castaway, commented ‘Today a solar-powered CD player is assumed to be the available means of playing the recordings.’ (KPFT Radio’s solution—‘a listening device and an inexhaustible power source’—keeps the options open, in line with Devine’s musical ‘multiverse’.) But the point is that the acoustic gramophone had given way to its electric counterpart in the mid-1920s, so that in 1942 the new programme was based on technology nearly two decades old. And the anachronism continued. In DID’s first year the comedian castaway Arthur Askey told Plomley that he preferred phonograph cylinders, commercial manufacture of which had ceased in 1929, though they had fallen into general disuse long before that. Barry Humphries reinforced the message when, appearing in 1973, he said his first job had been to smash up piles of now obsolete 78s (‘a gruesome job’, Plomley commiserated). As Will Straw observes, the desert island was somewhere you could escape the ‘haste and superficiality of modern life’ (the words are Conan Doyle’s), somewhere beyond the reach of change. The ultimate luxury offered by DID has always been that least inexhaustible of resources, time.

If in the past the programme has had a complex, not to say paradoxical, relationship with technological change, then what of the future? In the age of downloads there are no spinning discs, yet the DID format remains widely admired. Guardian journalist Elizabeth Mahoney wrote in 2011 that ‘When Desert Island Discs excels, there’s really nothing quite like it. Not just on radio: the programme’s format brings a depth to the portrait of the subject that other interviews cannot easily match.’1 Castaways concur. In the ‘personal spin’ he contributed to this volume, Gavin Bryars tells us he is not himself a regular listener, yet writes, ‘I hope and pray they never tinker with Desert Island Discs … I think that the structure they have is so clever. That was Plomley’s one piece of genius, no question.’ (This begs the question, raised in the Chapter 1, of how far the idea—rather than its application to radio—was actually Plomley’s.) Debbie Wiseman, who has listened to the programme for years, concurs: ‘No other interview’, she says, ‘gets under the skin in the same way as Desert Island Discs.’ She puts this down to the format: ‘It’s such a brilliant format that works on so many different levels … (p.287) It doesn’t need changing, anything doing to it, it’s just perfect as it is … I think that’s why it has survived so long and why the nation just loves it.’ Wiseman concludes her spin with a reference to ‘the magic of it’, and Anthony Wall, too, ends his spin by speaking of ‘the main and ultimately unexplainable characteristic of Desert Island Discs—sheer magic’. That, of course, has not stopped people from trying to explain the programme’s resilience over 75 years of change (and counting). In their contributions to this volume, Jo Littler and David Hendy put it down to the way in which as ‘a Zeitgest broadcaster’—a term David Hendy borrows from Alban Webb—the BBC has responded to attitudinal and affective change within society at large. When The Listener—the BBC’s own programme guide—announced the first episode of DID, on 29 January1942, it commented that ‘only the very greatest music of its type can stand the test of time and repetition’, yet Andrew Blake shows how the programme has continued to find a place even as the hierarchical culture of music in the interwar period has been turned upside down to create today’s miscellany culture. And Kyle Devine, who asks what will happen to DID in a world of unprecedented access to internet-based music libraries, replies that its very anachronism will protect it: ‘the foundational material anachronism of DID does not undermine the programme but actually enhances our enjoyment of it’.

Certainly DID is finding a place of its own within digital culture, and the most obvious sign of this is the website established by the BBC in 2011. Contributors to this volume have worked with the audio-visual archive of past episodes, but the website extends further than that. You can access the search interface directly from the home page (‘Find every castaway from 1942 to the present. Listen to over 1,500 programmes’),2 but there are many other ways into the programme content. As well as a page for next week’s castaway, there are direct links to past episodes by particular celebrities: at the time of writing, in late 2016, these are Victoria Wood and Bill Gates. Another link takes you to an information page about the 2015 Great British Bake Off winner, Nadiya Hussain, who appeared on the programme a few weeks earlier, from where there is a link to her episode—but the home page also contains direct links to four selected clips, a minute or two long, of which two feature Hussain. Then there are links to pages where selected episodes are bundled by decade, or to a page called ‘Take a Desert Island on holiday with you’, where episodes are categorised under ‘Beach’, ‘The Great Outdoors’, and so forth. There are also Desert Island Discs Collections such as ‘Olympic Gold Medallists’ or ‘People who’ve appeared on Desert Island Discs twice’.

In addition to these alternative routes for accessing the programme contents, there is a variety of ancillary material. There are information pages—for example, on the history of the programme, its presenters, the most frequently chosen (p.288) composers and pieces—together with photo galleries and spin-off programmes (including ‘Your Desert Island Discs’, two special programmes presented by Kirsty Young in 2011 that were based on listeners’ selections). Again, clicking on an artist’s name in the lists of individual castaways’ selections takes you to the BBC Music page for that artist, which contains a biography and links to recent broadcasts of or about that artist’s music: in this way, the DID web pages serve as a gateway to the BBC’s music content more generally. Finally, you can subscribe to the programme, so that episodes are automatically downloaded to your computer or portable media player. In offering a multitude of ways to navigate the programme material, as well as to listen to it at any time, the website might be said to extend the basic idea of personal choice—what Jenny Doctor describes as the ‘winning BBC programme formula’ of the wartime years—in ways that could never have been imagined in 1942. All the same, the website has not to date made the same leap that YouTube did, from a repository of material to a social media site. DID has toyed with interactivity: in addition to the solicited listener selections that resulted in ‘Your Desert Island Discs’, an internet-based chat session took place concurrently with the Desert Island Discs 70th Anniversary Prom (held in September 2012 at the Royal Albert Hall and broadcast live), to which listeners were invited to contribute via Twitter. But on the DID website, all you can do is add a track to your personal ‘My Music’ listing or share it via a variety of social media platforms. Most strikingly, there is no facility for listener comments.

As explained in Chapter 1 and illustrated by this volume more generally, the archive has opened up new opportunities for scholarship. It has also opened up new opportunities for those who appear on the programme, as evidenced by some of the personal spins in this volume. Nick Hornby—who appeared on DID as long ago as 2003—says that when his episode went online a number of people, some of whom he had never met, got in touch with him on Facebook. And some time after his own appearance, Gavin Bryars checked the archive to see who had chosen music by him, and who else had made the same choices he made. The archive may well exert a further type of influence when prospective castaways do the same. DID interviews take on a new kind of permanence when they can be accessed at any time with a few mouse clicks, and this is likely to affect what at least some castaways choose or say.

2. Just for the record

Desert Island Discs is based on the projection of fantasy, and that is central to the principal commodity in which it deals, namely celebrity. As Jo Littler puts it, DID ‘removes celebrities to a different space and time and brings us “up close” to their star persona’: it enables the listener to penetrate through the media surface to ‘the alleged “real” person “behind”’. As Littler’s scare quotes indicate, tropes (p.289) of appearance and reality are highly problematic in this context. Considered as a means of accessing a reality beyond the show, the DID interviews are—in Stephen Cottrell’s term—‘doubly imperfect’: not only do they combine fact and fiction in the way all interviews do, but on top of that they have been edited into what is, after all, an entertainment product. Tia DeNora makes the same point, and adds that there is no way in which we can tell how far castaways are being sincere either in the music they choose or in what they say. (Academic researchers are unlikely to be in a position to perform what—according to Anthony Wall’s spin—Plomley called ‘the alcohol breakdown test’: take the castaway to a pub and ply them with drinks until they confess that it was ‘the musical brother-in-law’ who had suggested the music.) It is rather like the analysis of studio recordings, where you do not normally seek to recreate the original, often highly fragmented performances and the production processes that have given rise to a commercial release, but rather focus on the recording as it is. That is the approach that Laurie Cohen and Joanne Duberley (2013: 168) take in an article that uses DID as a source for how people represent their careers: ‘it is the program itself that generates the story’, they say, ‘rather than being the mere vehicle through which the story is communicated’.

In other words, as Irving Goffman (on whom Cohen and Duberley draw) would put it, the castaway interview is a performance. Indeed it is clear from the personal spins in this volume that some castaways, at least, think of it that way. On the one hand they are performing their identity (and I will come back to this), while on the other they want to create good radio: in her spin Angie Hobbs says she wanted to ‘share some of my favourite pieces of music and make what I hoped would be an enjoyable programme’, while according to Mary Beard ‘you start to think about how your tracks go together and you hope that it’s not going to be boring: “How am I going to make it feel interesting, how am I going to make it seem as if this isn’t just some academic tosser?”’ And it is as performance that DeNora analyses Margaret Thatcher’s 1978 appearance on DID. By characterising music in terms of ‘depth of experience’ and framing it in opposition to her ‘logical life’ as a politician, DeNora argues, the future prime minister was able to reconcile ‘feminine musical-narrative normativity with masculine political imagery and musical associations’. And her conclusion is expressed in much the same way that a critic might evaluate a concert of contemporary music: ‘this was an innovative and highly complex DID performance’. One can, in short, think of DID episodes as a peculiar form of real-time multimedia, a special kind of dialogue that is structured around the formal and affective blocks of the music, rather like Singspiel, or even film. This is what Julie Brown does in her discussion of Barry Humphries’s 2009 appearance on the show, in his own persona, when he described an unforgettable moment during his first visit to a London theatre. As he recounted, the whole audience joined in when the old stager Randolph Sutton sang his great hit ‘Mother Kelly’s Doorstep’. That was his fourth selection, and (p.290) as Brown says, the programme editors faded in the music as he was speaking his last words. At such points, Brown observes, ‘the programme begins to resemble a radio equivalent of the biopic’.

My reference to dialogue serves a reminder that the DID episodes are not solo performances: if the DID interview is formed from the interaction of different media, then equally it is created through the interaction of different agents. Drawing on Goffman, Cohen and Duberley think of it as an encounter to which the participants—the castaway and the presenter—bring their own knowledge and experience. ‘In the course of the encounter’, Cohen and Duberley (2013: 169) write, ‘these are confirmed, disconfirmed, challenged and recast’, and ‘[t]his negotiation of meaning is at the very heart of Desert Island Discs’. Lemn Sissay gives a castaway’s perspective on the essentially relational nature of the encounter when he emphasises the importance of trust: ‘if I trust the process’, he says, ‘if I trust the people that I’m going to be working with, then I can really go into my head and my heart and find what is lying around’—and he adds that the whole process would have seemed intrusive if it hadn’t been for the trust he had in Kirsty Young. And the music plays a key role in this. David Hendy explains how, since Michael Parkinson took over as presenter in 1985, the castaway’s discs have been played as the interview is being recorded, not only evoking other times and places—and so stimulating the castaway’s recall—but also creating a mutual affective experience. The music shapes what Daniel Stern (2004: 173) calls ‘shared feeling voyages’, intimate episodes lived out together. This becomes palpable when, after speaking of his trust in Young, Sissay continues, ‘As a broadcaster myself, I know that a good interview comes out of a good interviewer. Kirsty was both clear and empathetic. She had tearful eyes throughout the whole interview, but she never cried. She was amazing.’

And it does not stop with the face-to-face experience of the recording studio. Sissay describes the experience of listening to his own episode by saying it was as if Young was looking out from behind his eyes through the music that he only listened to in his head. And in his chapter in this volume Stephen Cottrell writes of something rather like this: after hearing Lang Lang’s shocking story of what happened when he was thrown out of music school, Cottrell says, he heard the pianist’s fourth choice—Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which followed on directly—in a new way, a way he had never heard it before. Again, Simon Frith coins the phrase ‘the DID effect’ to characterise the way in which the programme leads you to imbue music with the meanings it has for other people. In short, listeners to DID hear the music through the castaway’s ears, and in this way the shared experience of the studio is extended through both space and time. Nor does it stop with the remote but still real-world network of relationships between castaway, presenter, and audience—what Young calls ‘a sort of triangulated conversation’ (in Magee 2012: vii). Music is an agent of sociality even in the fictive domain of the desert island as it emerges from the prospective castaways’ imaginations.

(p.291) Julie Brown emphasises how, in considering ways in which music will help them on the desert island, castaways think through its restorative and therapeutic functions. They think in terms of emotional self-management, what DeNora refers to as ‘care of self’. They consider how, in refreshing memories of past times in which they were valued, music will help them maintain their sense of self-worth. They imagine the social dimension that is encoded in choral singing, as when Eric Sykes explained his choice of Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ (from Messiah) on the grounds that ‘the sound of a chorus of singers might serve as a substitute for a group of people’—and then added that he might join in himself. In all these ways castaways testify to how—in stark opposition to the ideology of ‘possessive individualism’ on which celebrity culture is based—self-identity is a social construct, something that depends on interaction with people. As Cohen and Duberley (2013: 168) explain, citing Goffman, ‘the self is created in negotiation with others’. It is also maintained in negotiation with others, and—apart from the immediate challenges of survival—the most potent threat posed by desert island solitude may be that your sense of who you are fades. Castaways, it seems, believe that music can help with that.

There is a tendency to view the DID archive as a record of what music people have liked, in other words, of changing tastes. It is that, but not just that. As we know from Jenny Doctor’s and Julie Brown’s chapters, within weeks of DID’s first airing producer Leslie Perowne wrote to Plomley that ‘the programme is not just “My favourite eight records” but something much more significant’. Castaways’ positions on this vary. I have quoted Angie Hobbs on sharing ‘some favourite pieces of music’ with Radio 4 listeners, while Uta Frith says that she started by forming a list of ‘at least 20 favourite pieces’ which she then attempted to reduce. But other castaways say the opposite. Mary Beard specifically says that ‘You don’t start with your favourite 20 pieces of music and whittle them down. That wouldn’t make any sense’; Debbie Wiseman says that ‘Pieces weren’t chosen just because I liked the music’ but because they had a particular connection with her life, they were sewn into her heart. And Gavin Bryars says that his choices weren’t necessarily his eight favourite piece of music, adding ‘In fact I’m not even sure that I do have favourite pieces.’ But for most castaways, the crucial factor that governed their selection was how the pieces could be linked into a narrative of self-definition, in other words their desire to say who they were. Even those who said they were choosing their favourites talked about this as well: Frith explains that she whittled down her initial 20 pieces on the basis of how they related to her life story, while Hobbs adds that she wanted her closest friends ‘to hear this programme and go, “Yes. That’s Angie. That’s her.”’

Agonising about who you are is often seen as a symptomatically modernist condition: according to Charles Taylor (1992: 35), ‘In premodern times, people didn’t speak of “identity”’, the reason being that identity was a function of social position and hence ‘too unproblematic to be thematized as such’. DID is (p.292) a practical demonstration of how, in the modern world, identity is constructed, mobile, negotiated, and discursive. Peter Webb offers case studies of castaways who forged their identity through the encounter with punk and the social groups that formed around it. In particular, Hanif Kureishi felt liberated by David Bowie’s demonstration that ‘you could make yourself up, that identities weren’t fixed … Bowie blew all that up. He said you can do that, you can pretend to be that; identity is just a masquerade.’ But ideas of pretence and masquerade bring us back to the idea of ‘the alleged “real” person’ behind the star persona, as Littler puts it, and that is why it is better to say identity is performed. It is something that we build up, or patch together, through successive acts of consumption, appropriation, or selection: through the clothes we wear, the things we eat, and the music we like, or say we like. We weave our identities out of the connotations that attach to each of these. That is essentially what DeNora is talking about when she speaks of men and women ‘doing different things with Beethoven’s “masculine” affordances’, and—as she explains—that was part of the virtuosity of Thatcher’s DID performance. The future prime minister’s first choice—and the one that she would have taken to the desert island if she was allowed only one—was Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto. But, as DeNora shows, Beethoven’s music is almost uniquely associated by men with such values as ‘assertiveness, robustness, triumph, glory, Napoleon’s guns, the French Revolution, strength and courage’. In this way Thatcher deployed her discs to assert that ‘she feels at ease in the musical presence of what her male counterparts perceive as boldness, assertion and war, strength and courage, musically configured’.

There are of course limits to the performance of identity, at least if one is to live with the results. In the interview on which her personal spin is based, Mary Beard made several references to the way in which another future prime minister, Gordon Brown, constructed an image of himself that was obviously contrived for political purposes (the same has been said of several political castaways, among them John Major—as mentioned in Anthony Wall’s personal spin—and Tony Blair). Of course you have to think tactically, Beard says, just as writing a letter is tactical, but your selection ‘has to be plausibly true, because you know people are going to ask you about it. If you had actually made a complete pretence of listening to the stuff you chose, then that would have crossed a boundary between tactical self-presentation and lying.’ Lemn Sissay casts a particularly vivid light on this. He had a really enjoyable time making lists, he says, then throwing them back, sifting and sifting again—but then ‘I thought, “Jeez, most of my initial choices were based on the impression that I wanted other people to have of me. That is no way to live a life, and that is no way to represent yourself.”’ It is at that point that he speaks of trusting the people he is going to be working with, going into his head and heart to see what is there. And at the end of his spin he says that, through DID, he was able to set the record straight: ‘That was never it, folks. There has been a bigger story in my life than all of the performances, all (p.293) of the books, or the plays.’ He is referring to his search for his African family as documented in his 2005 drama Something Dark, and he concludes, ‘For all the people who I’ve ever worked with over the past 30 years, I was able to say, “So this is who I am”, just for the record.’

Sissay’s story, of course, is far from the ordinary. But one of the reasons why DID has retained its meaningfulness through successive generations of listeners may be that it builds on something ubiquitous. Music therapist Gary Ansdell (2014: 119) was told by one of his clients that ‘Throughout my life I’ve had a sound-track … I’ve woven together this tapestry-like soundtrack of my life—which includes everything from the Beach Boys to Tallis. And it’s both illuminated the way forward and shown me where I’ve already been.’ That’s what people do. Whether or not we project them onto fantasies of being invited onto DID, we all carry our personal playlist within us. We all play our discographic selves.


Bibliography references:

Ansdell, G. (2014), How Music Helps in Music Therapy and Everyday Life (Farnham, Ashgate).

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

Hawking, S. (1994), Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays (London, Bantam Press).

Magee, S. (2012), Desert Island Discs: 70 Years of Castaways (London, Bantam Press).

Plomley, R. (1975), Desert Island Discs (London, William Kimber).

Stern, D. (2004), The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life (New York, Norton).

Taylor, C. (1992), ‘The Politics of Recognition’, in A. Gutmann (ed.), Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press), 25–73. (p.294)