Desert Island Discs: History
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Desert Island Discs is a radio programme broadcast on BBC Radio 4. It was first broadcast on the BBC Forces Programme on 29 January 1942. Each week a guest, called a 'castaway' during the programme, is asked to choose eight recordings (usually, but not always, music), a book and a luxury item that they would take if they were to be cast away on a desert island, whilst discussing their lives and the reasons for their choices. It was devised and originally presented by Roy Plomley. Since 2006, the programme has been presented by Kirsty Young. More than 3,000 episodes have been recorded, with some guests having appeared more than once and some episodes featuring more than one guest. An example of a guest who falls into both categories is Bob Monkhouse, who appeared with his co-writer Denis Goodwin on 12 December 1955 and in his own right on 20 December 1998.

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  • 'castaway'

1. Format

Guests are invited to imagine themselves cast away on a desert island, and choose eight recordings, originally gramophone records, to take with them; discussion of their choices permits a review of their life. Excerpts from their choices are played or, in the case of short pieces, the whole work. At the end of the programme they choose the one piece they regard most highly. Guests are also automatically given the Complete Works of Shakespeare and either the Bible or another appropriate religious or philosophical work. They are then prompted to select a third book to accompany them. Popular choices include Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. Actress Judi Dench, who suffers from macular degeneration, was permitted to take an audiobook in place of a printed manuscript.[1][2]

Guests also choose one luxury, which must be inanimate and of no use in escaping the island or allowing communication from outside. Roy Plomley[3] enforced these rules strictly. He did, however, grant a special dispensation to Princess Michael of Kent, who chose her pet cat.[4][5] The rules are, however, less strictly enforced today; for instance, Lawley allowed John Cleese to take Michael Palin with him, on the condition that he was dead and stuffed. Examples of luxuries have included champagne[6] and a piano, the latter of which is one of the most requested luxuries.[7]

After Plomley's death in 1985, the programme was presented by Michael Parkinson and from 1988 by Sue Lawley.[3] Lawley stepped down in August 2006 after 18 years, her final castaway being actress Joan Plowright.[8] She was replaced by Kirsty Young, who interviewed illustrator Quentin Blake for her first show, broadcast on 1 October 2006.[3] On 30 August 2018, it was announced that Young was going on sick leave due to complications of fibromyalgia, and that 6 Music presenter Lauren Laverne would temporarily take over.[9]

2. Notable Guests

The first castaway was Vic Oliver, and several castaways, including Celia Johnson, Arthur Askey, Trevor Nunn, John Schlesinger, Kenneth Williams, Terry Wogan, Brian Rix, David Attenborough and Adele Leigh have been cast away more than once. The most requested piece of music over the first 60 years was "Ode to Joy", the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.[10] One of the most remarked broadcasts was Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's 1958 selection of seven of her own recordings.[11][12] This record was subsequently beaten by British pianist Dame Moura Lympany on her second appearance on the programme on 28 July 1979 when all eight of her selections were of her own recordings.[13] In the early 1970s, Roy Plomley attempted to interview Alistair MacLean, but ended up speaking to somebody else with the same name – and the programme was never broadcast.[14] In January of 1981, Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, appeared as a castaway on the show.[15]

3. Opening Theme

Plomley originally wanted the sounds of "surf breaking on a shore and the cries of sea birds" to open and close each programme. But Leslie Prowne, the head of popular record programmes at the BBC, was concerned that it lacked definition and insisted that music should also be used. Plomley and the series' producer Frederic Piffard selected "By the Sleepy Lagoon", composed by Eric Coates (who appeared on the show in 1951). The tune has been used since the first transmission in 1942. The sound of herring gulls has accompanied the music except for a period of time in 1964 when tropical bird sounds were used.[16]

4. Copyright Status

Until late September 2009, Desert Island Discs could not be heard on the BBC's iPlayer service, which allows most programmes to be heard up to a week after transmission. The programme's website[17] stated that this was due to rights issues, as explained in The Sunday Times in 2006.[18]

It was announced on 27 September 2009 that an agreement had been reached as a result of which the programme would be available to stream via the iPlayer.[19] The first episode available through the iPlayer was with Barry Manilow. Subsequently, the programme was also made available as a podcast,[20] beginning with the edition broadcast on 29 November 2009, which featured Morrissey. However, due to music clearance issues, the music selections on the podcast versions are reduced to only playing for around 30 seconds or so (and in rare instances are unavailable, as mentioned in an announcement made by Kirsty Young at the appropriate point of the programme).

On 30 March 2011, the BBC placed more than 500 episodes from the show's archive online to listen to via iPlayer. Other episodes have since been added, both new and old.

In the early years of the BBC, programmes were broadcast live and were generally not recorded. This, in addition to the BBC's policy of wiping that was applied during the 1950s and 1960s, means very few episodes from the first 20 years of the show are known to exist; the earliest episode still in existence is from 1951 and features actress Margaret Lockwood. Several extracts were preserved for posterity at the request of the guests, such as an extract featuring Alfred Hitchcock where he speaks about his films The Pleasure Garden (1925) and Rebecca (1940), gives his view on the changing landscape of the film industry and briefly discusses his then upcoming film Psycho (1960).

5. List of Publications

  • Desert Island Discs (1977, by Roy Plomley)
  • Plomley's Pick (1982, by Roy Plomley)
  • Desert Island Lists (1984, compiled by Roy Plomley and Derek Drescher)
  • Desert Island Discs: 70 Years of Castaways (2012, by Sean Magee, foreword by Kirsty Young)[21]
  • Desert Island Discs: Flotsam & Jetsam (2012, by Mitchell Symons)[22]

The content is sourced from:


  1. "Desert Island Discs racks up a milestone of delights". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2016-04-15. 
  2. "BBC Radio 4 – Desert Island Discs, Dame Judi Dench". 2015-09-25. Retrieved 2016-04-15. 
  3. "Desert Island delights". BBC. 29 January 2002. Retrieved 15 November 2007. 
  4. "BBC Radio 4 – Desert Island Discs, HRH Princess Michael of Kent". 1984-02-03. Retrieved 2016-04-15. 
  5. Lister, David (30 January 2002). "'Desert Island Discs' enjoys luxury of a 60th birthday". The Independent (London). Retrieved 24 July 2009. 
  6. "John Stevens". Desert Island Discs. 17 November 2006. BBC Radio 4.
  7. "Shirley Williams". Desert Island Discs. 29 January 2006. BBC Radio 4.
  8. "BBC Radio 4 – Desert Island Discs, Dame Joan Plowright". 2006-09-01. Retrieved 2016-04-15. 
  9. "Kirsty Young to take time out from Desert Island Discs". 30 August 2018. 
  10. "Beethoven tops island hit list", BBC News, 18 March 2002
  11. Roberts, Laura (2 March 2011). "Desert Island Discs' most popular requests". The Daily Telegraph (London). 
  12. "Elisabeth Schwarzkopf". Desert Island Discs. 28 July 1958. BBC Radio 4.
  13. "Dame Moura Lympany". Desert Island Discs. 28 July 1979. BBC Radio 4.
  14. Pile, Stephen. The Book of Heroic Failures (1980 ed.). Futura. pp. 29–30. ISBN 0-7088-1908-7. 
  15. "HRH Princess Margaret, Desert Island Discs - BBC Radio 4". 
  16. Magee, Sean (13 September 2012). "Chapter 2:1940s". Desert Island Discs: 70 Years Of Castaways. Bantam Press. p. 8. ISBN 978-0-593-07006-2. 
  17. "Desert Island Discs – Home". BBC. Retrieved 2014-07-28. 
  18. Bremner, Charles (2 July 2006). "How a man in his pyjamas invented a radio classic". The Sunday Times (London). Retrieved 25 February 2011. 
  19. Mark Damazer (27 September 2009). "BBC – Radio 4 Blog: Desert Island Discs comes to iPlayer". BBC. Retrieved 27 September 2009. 
  20. Plunkett, John (28 September 2009). "BBC launches Radio 4's Desert Island Discs on iPlayer". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 28 September 2009. 
  21. "Desert Island Discs: 70 years of castaways". Amazon. 13 September 2012. 
  22. "Desert Island Discs: Flotsam & Jetsam". Amazon. 25 October 2012. 
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