Desert Island Discs is 75: An appreciation.


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.


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.

A different take on Take Five

Paul Desmond’s Take Five made famous by Dave Brubeck in his 1959 recording is the biggest selling Jazz single in history and is one of my all time favourite jazz standards.  It sounds as fresh today as when it was first recorded.

Here’s an early film of it…

It’s hard to beat but I heard this cover of it on Desert Island discs as the opener from Glaswegian Pakistani poet and artist Imtiaz Dharker.  I would’\t go as far as to say it was in any way superior to the masterful original but it’s certainly entertaining.  I bring you Sachal Studios Orchestra’s sitar rich take on Take Five.  (You’re gonna thank me for this, I promise.)

Take it away boys…

Why Bohemian Rhapsody is the greatest popular composition of all time.

Bohemian Rhapsody is peerless.  I should state that I am not a Queen fan but this song has a preternatural effect on me.  And see doing it on a Karaoke night.  Oh my god.  It’s electrifying

Not one single note is out of place in its 6 minutes or so.

It’s not just a song.  It’s a five act opera with hugely moving moments, total rock and roll and lyrics that both bamboozle and inspire you.

It is complete and utter magic and the voters on Desert Island Discs obviously agree with me because of the top eight compositions chosen for Britain’s Desert Island six were classical and the only two “pop” records to make the top eight were Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd and this (the higher of the two).

So that’s it.

Now enjoy it.  The first ever “Pop Video”.

Did you know why it was made?

Apparently because the song was too difficult to perform live on Top of The Pops owing to the extreme number of overlays and dubs that are in it.

Desert Island Discs. The public vote

Tears streamed down my face as I heard the story of Judith’s song.

A man, 40 years ago wrote a piano piece for a girl in his university year.  Apparently there was no relationship between them but at a graduation party he played it for her.

She was heading home to get married but so moved was she by the piece that she cancelled the wedding and moved in with the compopser.

It was never played again until they retired, 40 years later, to their dream home in France that they had lovingly created and converted from an old barn.

The finishing touch was to instal his piano and as she walked through the door with her daughter he once again played Judith’s Song.

He also played it for us on the programme.