Shortage of desert islands

January 22, 2012

Having blogged about my Desert island sideboard last week I can’t resist returning to the more traditional topic of favourite music. Two very interesting posts about Desert Island Discs by The Cross-Eyed Pianist and The Argumentative Old Git set me thinking. As well as sharing their own marvellous music choices, they drew my attention to the BBC’s highly addictive archive of castaways.

The archive lists every broadcast back to the show’s earliest days in 1942, which to date means there are 2881 editions – the guests being 805 female and 2086 male – including Roy Plomley himself on two occasions, requiring guest presenters Lesley Perowne and Eamonn Andrews to be wheeled in to interview him. The archive tells us that Plomley had a youthful passion for Borodin in 1942, which he had evidently lost by 1958.

Roy Plomley

Roy Plomley

I find the archive utterly compelling, and have spent hours browsing across the decades, enjoying flashes of involuntary memory, wondering what I have actually heard and what I am just inventing, trying and failing to track down the earliest show I can remember.

I’ve never been a regular listener. Desert Island Discs has always been one of those things I listen to quite randomly, idly, often indifferently. It’s not something I think about or talk about much. I’m sure I heard it quite a lot at university, when any time of day and day of week was convenient for idleness, and probably sometimes in the middle of the night while I was travelling in 1995/96.

But perhaps for those very reasons the archive touches on a delicious type of soft memory, prodding at forgotten moments of solitude, distant times when I was fleetingly touched by intimacies and revelations that were meaningful for me, but didn’t form part of the big narrative of life. Listening to the radio generally takes place in the gaps between things – including the big things that are pondered and shaped and shored up into an inner sense of history and self.

A few names that jumped out at me were Nigel Hawthorne (1986), Kenneth Williams (1987), Tony Benn (1989), Dirk Bogarde (1989), Kaffe Fassett (!) (1990), Jeffrey Bernard (1991), Stephen Hawking (1992), Ian Dury (1996) and Clive Stafford Smith (2004). I think I heard all those when they were broadcast.

Thomas Quasthoff

Thomas Quasthoff

There was clearly something potent for me in hearing people describe how they coped with formative aspects of their identity – such as sexuality and disability. But if there was a programme called Desert Island Radio Broadcasts the one I would pick above all would be the exceptionally moving interview with Thomas Quasthoff (2009), sadly recently retired from singing.

There are also many tantalising broadcasts in the archive that I’m keen to download and hear for the first time (e.g. Grayson Perry, Ian Hislop, Brian Sewell, Madhur Jaffrey, David Munrow …) though they are currently only available back as far as 1988.

But moving on … the main impetus for this post was in fact a desire to find out if there are equivalent programmes elsewhere around the world. I assumed the concept of Desert Island Discs would be just about universally interesting to people and, being easy to implement, I would find large numbers of broadcasters offering very similar concepts, probably becoming well-loved national institutions in many countries.

But that’s not what I’ve found, after a few hours research.

The internet abounds with thousands of references to the original. Everywhere you look there are people saying “hey, there’s this great show from the BBC that’s been running since … ” etc.,  but almost never do they go on to comment “just like our … on KFC3”. There are all sorts of discussions, suggestions, blogposts and forums trying to adapt the idea for local groups and communities, types of music, and for other favourite things like movies, clothes – I even found a marketing group debating desert island brands. How wonderful to live out your days joyfully admiring a beautiful Volkswagen logo and catchy HSBC slogan.

There have been quite a few imitators in the UK – Celebrity Choice on Classic FM, Face to Face on Smooth FM, various local and community station shows – mostly now gone, with the exception of Radio 3’s more highbrow offering, the long running Private Passions. But I found very little by way of actually established broadcast programmes in other countries.

Here are the three I did find:

1. SommarSweden.  This is quite distant from Desert Island Discs in format but is certainly comparable in spirit and the only other show I’ve found that seems to have become quite celebrated in its home nation. Every day from June to August a ‘summer speaker’ has 90 minutes to give a monologue about their life, including favourite music. It’s been running on Swedish Radio since 1959 and apparently the announcement of each summer’s line-up of ‘sommarpratare’ is quite an event, given out at a big press conference like a season’s football fixtures.

Lars Ulvenstam

Lars Ulvenstam

The speakers appear to be limited to Swedish people, and for some reason tradition states that author and journalist Lars Ulvenstam is the last speaker every season. I believe there is now also a short Vinter series.

Browsing the lists of recent speakers Björn Ulvaeus (2008) caught my eye – what would he choose?! Well you can listen to the whole broadcast here.  I find his voice strangely compelling in a late-night sort of way. His music choices aren’t surprising – Bowie, The Everly Brothers, The Beach Boys, Sondheim.

Björn Ulvaeus

Björn Ulvaeus

2. My Life, My MusicSlovenia.  “Now it’s time for a musical discussion with interesting characters”. This is very close to Desert Island Discs in format: weekly, with an interviewer (Chris Wherry, though possibly now changed) and allowing 8 music choices.

Chris Wherry

Chris Wherry

I found My Life, My Music thanks to the interesting Argentine blogger Carlos Yoder who was a guest on the show in 2011 – you can listen via a link on his blog.

This show is broadcast on Radio Slovenia International, Solvenia’s English / German language channel, and I suspect there is a limited range of people of international renown available to choose, though I’m sure they are genuinely interesting, and based on my sample of two probably make more thoughtful music choices than many UK celebrities. This week the guest is the second oboe player of the Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra, Marjorie Carrington.

3. The Morning Interview with Margaret ThrosbyAustralia. This is broadcast on ABC Classic FM as well as the Radio Australia shortwave network. It also has the familiar life-story interview and music choices format, but with a looser interpretation of the rules. I do have a suspicion that there’s something particularly British about the preciely disciplined structure and no-you-mustn’t-be-naughty closing minutes of Desert Island Discs.

Margaret Throsby

Margaret Throsby

The programme has been hosted by Margaret Throsby for more than 15 years. Heston Blumenthal was a guest recently, interviewed in Dinner rather than having to travel to Australia. The discussion was very interesting, but accompanied by some pretty dull music choices (O Fortuna, Concierto de Aranjuez, etc.) plus a heavy duty plug for Heston’s latest book that would have been out of the question on Radio 4!

And that’s really all I found. Does anyone have any stories from other countries? I would love to hear.

I expect there are quite a few more loose variants on the interview-plus-music format around the world that have been hidden from me by use of a wide variety of programme names. I did find slight evidence of something in Canada but couldn’t verify its existence – perhaps it was in the distant past before everything was documented on the web.

I’m left wondering if the absence of obvious Desert Island Discs copies is mostly about commercial restrictions or about culture. I suspect there must be some specific issue preventing the show being licensed around the world, but is that all there is to it, or is there also something about Britain that makes this concept particularly popular here? I would be delighted to hear any opinions!

Of course, having got this far, I can’t resist adding my own list.

When I went travelling for 18 months, before internet cafés and mobile phones, I knew my Sony Walkman was going to be crucial to staying sane, so I had to do this for real. I gave myself the luxury of filling ten 120 minute cassettes, and I’m sure I spent weeks choosing.

TDK AD-120

TDK AD-120

But I haven’t thought very hard about the list below – it applies for today only, and is slightly distorted by what I could find on Spotify, as I wanted everything to be freely available to try. But it does include some of the more radically life changing pieces I’ve encountered over the years – and that’s a topic deserving a separate post.

Machaut – Messe de Notre Dame

Bach – St. Matthew Passion

MozartLe Nozze di Figaro

BeethovenSymphony No. 7


Brahms – Double Concerto

Bartók – String Quartet No. 5

ShostakovichCello Concerto No. 1

Messiaen – Catalogue d’Oiseaux

Boulez – Dérive 1


8 Responses to “Shortage of desert islands”

  1. Desert Island Discs is one of those lovely, comforting institutions, as British as wasps at a picnic and rain at Wimbledon. I love the variety of it – not just the musical choices (obviously) but the guests who, under gentle yet probing questioning, can reveal some fascinating things about themselves. One of my favourite recent castaways was the author James Ellroy (2010): 6 out of 8 music choices were Beethoven. He also claimed Beethoven talked to him – he offered this nugget without irony: he truly believed the composer spoke to him. And then said “I answer him back, but he can’t hear me because he’s deaf”. Priceless.

    Danny Baker (summer 2011) was also surprisingly engaging, honest, funny and intelligent.

    For me, it represents the very best of Radio 4. Long may it continue!

    • mangofantasy Says:

      Priceless indeed! Some of my closest personal connections are with the (mostly) dead gentlemen in the list above. I don’t believe they literally talk to me but there’s not a lot of difference. I wish they weren’t all men, but that’s where we are.

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. Nessa Says:

    I’m surprised that all your music choices are classical, Tim. I guess these pieces have more memories and meaning for you than the many non classical CDs we own. x

    • mangofantasy Says:

      It’s a good point. When I went travelling I filled 2 of those 10 tapes with pop and jazz. And I would definitely do the same again, but I find it hard to choose individual songs. And there’s also the aspect of being alone. In a way I would rather have a really good dance mix full of tunes I don’t even know!

      I might do a separate post sometime on favourite songs, as they touch on very different parts of life than classical music.

  3. JK Says:

    Today’s Desert Island castaway was especially apposite: the author Vikram Seth.

    I found his novel ‘An Equal Music’ a moving and evocative account of classical music, the London concert scene – crucial events happen at Wigmore Hall – and a certain disability.

    • mangofantasy Says:

      It didn’t even occur to me to listen in today when I was half way through writing. Crucial events occur at the Wigmore Hall indeed, I agree! Thanks.

  4. Well – if you ask me, it’s cheating to include ten choices rather than the allotted eight! And the rules of Desert island Discs are such that you’ll be forced to pick only one aria (or chorus, or whatever) from St Matthew Passion, or Le Nozze di Figaro, and only one bleeding chunk from Parsifal. (Parsifal is a work I have, I admit, never really come to grips with: I love the sound it makes, but have yet to probe beyond that.) great choice, though: the Boulez piece you choose I don’t know.

    The whole thing is such a simple idea, and so very revealing. i too find the Desert Island Discs archive addictive.


    • mangofantasy Says:

      Thanks! Having listened to all those foreign programmes in slightly different formats I felt rather indifferent to the rules. And to paraphrase Hans Sachs, “make up your own rules, then follow them”.

      Choosing whole pieces (as I could when I went travelling) is vastly different from choosing 78rpm size chunks, and if forced into the latter I would change my choices quite a lot. Probably no opera at all.

      The Boulez is a very simple piece basically built on one chord – it unlocked his world for me.

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