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Desert Island Discs | Stephen Jones: a weblog


Writing within the LRB, Miranda Carter offers a considerate and entertaining survey of the historical past of Desert Island Discs.

Conceived in 1941 by Roy Plomley (because the weekly broadcasts nonetheless proceed to remind us), its reassuringly acquainted format has borne witness to altering instances and tastes. We will hear 2,360 episodes on-line:

Over seventy years, the language with which we describe ourselves, and expectations about what it’s acceptable to disclose within the public realm, are audibly mapped.

Plomley was straight-laced, tight-lipped, “congenitally reluctant to pry”, Within the early days “the musical decisions had been criticised for being too intellectual—”no Bing Crosby, Deanna Durbin or Joe Loss”, and this remained so till the 2010s [?].

Desert Island Discs’ greatest ever report is Handel’s Messiah. Till 2010 probably the most regularly performed composers had been Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, and the most well-liked non-classical report was “Je ne regrette rien” sung by Édith Piaf, which hobbled in at twenty seventh in Desert Island Discs’ all-time prime hundred. My hunch is that this classical skew took place partly as a result of Stoppard was proper—castaways needed to look cultured—but in addition as a result of most individuals’s pool of acquainted classical music is far smaller than their pool of acquainted in style music, so the identical classical tracks have been chosen time and again, whereas votes for up to date songs have been extra thinly unfold throughout many extra information. Solely after 2010 did the Beatles enter the highest three, largely as a result of, I feel, classical music has turn out to be much less vital as a signifier of classiness.

Certainly, the present displays the society’s complete demotion of WAM and the acceptance of different methods of being. Nonetheless, it’s good to search out the sluggish motion of the Schubert string quintet and the Terzetto from Così fan tutte among the many hottest classical decisions.

When the BBC switched to recording on tape, which might be edited earlier than going out, scripts had been now not wanted. “It was an excellent enchancment”, Plomley remarked. Ultimately the collection might be put “correctly to work to fulfil its perform of showing character”. Not that this truly occurred. Extra space was allotted to speech, and the castaways started to speak about their careers. But Plomley, at all times genial and irreproachably well mannered, refused to probe. Any signal of emotional revelation despatched him charging in the wrong way. […]

Thatcher [1978]: While you’ve issues there’s nothing like shut family.

Plomley: Your forebears had been craftsmen and tradesmen, one was an organ maker?

And with Liberace, solid away in 1959:

Liberace: I’m very proud of my success, however I look again at former instances once I loved easy pleasures that I can’t appear to take pleasure in now.

Plomley: Proper. Let’s have report quantity 4. […]

Nonetheless within the Sixties,

the viewers saved listening, comfy with the extent of ritual and lack of disclosure. […] Respondents stated they appreciated Desert Island Discs’ secure ambiance and lack of aggressive, intrusive questioning. […]

However change did come. Because of the archive, you’ll be able to hear it occurring. It was introduced in not by Plomley however by the friends themselves, as a brand new technology of castaways—youthful, extra candid—began appearing among the many worthies and aged comedians.

As to the luxuries requested, apart from booze, inflatable dolls started making an look:

Ronnie Scott requested for a Faye Dunaway doll, although Plomley persuaded him to take a saxophone as a substitute.

I word that John Cleese was allowed to take Michael Palin with him, on the situation that he was useless and stuffed.

As the remainder of the media turned extra aggressive within the pursuit of celebrities and their secrets and techniques, Desert Island Discs appeared as secure and as relaxed as anyplace on air.

After Plomley died in 1985, Michael Parkinson took over for a mere two years, unjustly criticised for being too intrusive, asking extra probing questions and getting extra private solutions. This was the primary time castaways listened to their decisions in the course of the present. Below Sue Lawley the programme

turned probably the most quietly subversive and constantly exposing interview present on TV or radio—a substantial achievement as superstar was turning into ever extra tightly mediated. […] It’s no accident that it was on Lawley’s watch that castaways started to cry.

And she or he reversed the forty-year coverage of avoiding politics and controversy.

Kirsty Young

Carter considers Kirsty Younger, who presided from 2006 to 2018, the most effective presenter within the programme’s historical past—extra like a therapist. The present incumbent Lauren Laverne is “heat and cheerful”:

A harsh critic would possibly say that the programme is now nearer to the Plomleian period than it was underneath the three presenters in between. Laverne doesn’t problem her friends’ accounts of themselves; apparent plugging is extra detectable. However it could be that this merely displays one other shift within the tradition. The superstar interview is now not the event it as soon as was. The web has created innumerable routes by which the well-known can management and curate their very own publicity. One unguarded public remark can lead to on-line pile-on and profession suicide. Say the unsuitable factor on the radio lately, and it’s possible you’ll want you actually had been washed up on a desert island.

For quite a lot of posts on Watching the Engiish, see underneath The English, house and overseas.

* * *

In the meantime Eric Coates’ theme tune By the Sleepy lagoon [Bognor] has remained unchanged, a reassuring consolation blanket.

I’ve referred to the programmes of Klaus Tennstedt and Sophia Loren, Gary Kasparov and Elif Shafak (extra unlikely bedfellows).

Over on Radio 3, Personal Passions (benignly hosted by Micahel Berkeley) permits for extra of each narrative and music—and the vary of the latter is sort of as eclectic. Amongst friends whose decisions have impressed me are Philippe Sands, Camilla Pang, Piers Gough, Anne Seba, Vesna Goldsworthy, Natalie Haynes, and Mark Padmore (whose personal singing, fairly rightly, is a well-liked alternative of many friends).

I can’t slender presumably down my very own playlist of songs, and it doesn’t even embrace Mahler symphonies or Messiaen


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