Desert Island Discs is 75: An appreciation.


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I’d like to say I’ve grown up with Desert Island Discs, but the truth is I was a terrible snob about ‘middle class radio’ in my disapproval of it as a youth.  I was brought up in the punk era. DID did not fit with the zeitgeist.  (I didn’t even give Led Zeppelin the time of day then, for God sake.)

I remain a terrible snob in different ways today.

For example, when it comes to class and political affiliations I’m a mess.

I feel like a Liberal but don’t vote Liberal.  I voted Yes for Independence in Scotland but am beginning to mistrust the SNP as they have unfettered power.  I deplore the Tories, but love Kenneth Clark.  I would not vote Labour but hugely admire Jeremy Corbyn.  I love the Greens but they are too hippy dippy for me.

When it comes to music I can’t abide the current state of the charts but am fully doting on BBC Radio 6 and its general output, yet when I open The Skinny to look at their best of the year I barely recognise a band and worry that I am losing touch.

My best of 2016 included David Bowie, Radiohead, De La Soul, King Creosote, Nick Cave, A Tribe called Quest, Massive Attack, Mogwai, Pixies.

Dad Rock (and Dad Hip hop) if ever you saw it.  Not one a day under 50 years old and Seaford Mods are not far off it either.

So where does DID fit in to all this?

Right at the top of the tree.  That’s where.

My aforementioned ‘political disdain’ for Radio 4 has long been eroded and DID sits as the King of the BBC’s castle, patrolling the battlements the real life Queen, Kirsty Young.  Surely the greatest voice and most empathetic interviewer to ever grace the world of radio.

I listen to the archives and cannot bear the sound of the Wicked Witch of the West that preceded her; Sue Lawley.  Where Kirsty embraces, Lawley shunned.  Where Kirsty giggles, Lawley sneered or simply tossed off a harumphlike snort.

Parky was good though and so was Roy Plomley in that so very BBC era.

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The beauty of DID is that it gets under the skin of its interviewees like no other programme.  Sure, the music can be special but the formula (and it’s ingenious mixologist) works at pulling the truth from people.  Not the scandalous truth but the personal truth.

How they really felt about their mum and dad.

Why they were turned from the straight and narrow for a while (no REALLY why).

What embarrassing (but not headline) secrets they have.

How childhood bullying made them.

These sorts of things.

If you want to hear that in an absolute nutshell listen to the enthralling interview with Kathy Burke.  And try not to cry.

Listen to how Atul Gawande saved thousands of lives by creating a checklist for surgeons.  Genuinely inspiring.

I’ve not yet heard the Tom Hanks interview but I understand he was reduced to tears by Kirsty, but in a very nice way.

Lemm Sissey, a poet, was another who brought me to tears as he told his adoption story.

This programme does not tolerate big heads.  How could you show off with Kirsty anyway? Although, there was probably more opportunity in Lawley’s days, because I think she was more in the thrall of her big shot interviewees.  Kirtsty often is too, but in a completely different way.  Like a little girl mouth agape at her first Spice Girls gig sort of way rather than a Lawley “look at me interviewing Henry Kissinger ” way.

The list of the most chosen pieces reflects an aspect of the show that I think represents its strictly middle class past, because over the last ten years this picture must have changed.

Beethoven – Symphony No 9 in D minor ‘Choral’
Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor
Schubert – String Quintet in C major
Beethoven Symphony No 6 in F Major ‘Pastoral’
Elgar – Pomp & Circumstance March no 1 in D Major ‘Land of Hope and Glory’
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No 5 in E Flat Major ‘Emperor’
Elgar – Enigma Variations Nimrod
Beethoven – Symphony No 7 in A major

That’s not exactly Radio 1 (or 2 for that matter) is it?

Interviewees divide, for me, into two groups.  Those that truly love classical music and their list is wall to wall  classical with a token Frank Sinatra thrown in, and those that think a token classical piece or two will make them look more profound.  I’d likely have no classical in my choices but if I were to play that game it would be either Faure’s Requiem or Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

Look. There.  I’ve done it.

Faux Classicist.

But that minor criticism (and it’s of some of its interviewees not the show itself) Desert Island Discs really does deserve the tag “National Institution”.

Here’s to my grandchildren enjoying it at the turn of the 22nd century.

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