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Desert Island Discs

Desert Island Discs
Desert Island Discs logo used on the BBC website
Genre Biographical, Factual
Running time 43 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language(s) English
Home station
Creator(s) Roy Plomley
  • Gillian Hush
  • Olivia Seligman
  • Angie Nehring
  • Miranda Birch
  • Leanne Buckle
Recording studio Broadcasting House
Air dates since 29 January 1942 (1942-01-29)
No. of episodes 2,992
Opening theme By the Sleepy Lagoon by Eric Coates
Website BBC website

Desert Island Discs is a biographical and factual radio programme, broadcast on BBC Radio 4. It was first broadcast on the BBC Home Service on 29 January 1942.[1]

Each week a guest, called a "castaway" during the program, is asked to choose eight pieces of 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 show 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.[2]


Guests are invited to imagine themselves cast away on a desert island, and to choose eight pieces of music, 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. They are then asked which book they would take with them; they are automatically given the Complete Works of Shakespeare and either the Bible or another appropriate religious or philosophical work.

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 the rules strictly,[4] but they are less strictly enforced today. (For example, Plomley would not allow his guests to take another human being with them to the island; however, under the rule of Lawley, John Cleese was allowed to take Michael Palin with him, on the condition that he was dead and stuffed.) Examples of luxuries have included champagne[5] and a piano, the latter of which is one of the most requested luxuries.[6]

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. She was replaced by Kirsty Young,[3] who interviewed illustrator Quentin Blake for her first show, broadcast on 1 October 2006.

Notable castaways

The first castaway was Vic Oliver, and several castaways, including Arthur Askey, Kenneth Williams, Terry Wogan, 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.[7] One of the most remarked broadcasts was Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's 1958 selection of seven of her own recordings.[8][9] 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.[10]

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 would 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 was used on the very first transmission in 1942, and has since remained the signature opening and closing theme of the programme. The sound of herring gulls also accompanies the tune to put emphasis on the desert island. Some listeners later pointed out that herring gulls live in the northern hemisphere; therefore it would not have been a tropical island as intended. The gulls were temporarily changed to tropical birds in 1964, but eventually the sound of herring gulls was restored.[11]

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[12] explained this was due to rights issues, as explained in The Sunday Times in 2006:

Because Plomley was a freelance, Desert Island Discs became his copyright. After his death in 1985 it went to his wife, Diana Wong. She still owns it but is now in her eighties and their daughter, Almond, acts for her. Mother and daughter and the BBC agree on the need to have Plomley mentioned in the credits and the corporation pays Wong an annual sum (£5,000 in 1996, so probably more now). However, the family and the BBC cannot agree on the availability of the show after its weekly broadcast. This is why it is not available to listen to via the BBC’s website.[13]

It was announced on 27 September 2009 that an agreement had been reached with the family that the programme would be available to stream via the iPlayer.[14] The first castaway available through the Player was Barry Manilow. Subsequently, the programme was also made available as a podcast,[15] 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 thirty seconds or so (and in rare instances are unavailable, as mentioned in an announcement made by Kirsty Young during the appropriate point of the programme).

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

In the early years of the BBC, programmes were broadcast live and 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 and Rebecca, gives his view on the changing landscape of the film industry and briefly discusses his then upcoming film Psycho.

Appearance in fiction

  • In Tom Stoppard's play The Real Thing, the playwright protagonist, Henry, frets over his forthcoming appearance on Desert Island Discs, worrying about whether he should be honest and admit his admiration for pop music (particularly pop music derided by critics) or pretend to favour more conventionally admired music.
  • In the 1979 British comedy film Porridge (based on the BBC TV series of the same name), criminal boss, and avid Radio 4 listener, Harry Grout stated that it was an ambition of his to one day appear on the programme. (As of 2014, Peter Vaughan, the actor who portrayed the character, has not appeared as a guest on the show.)
  • The programme is mentioned by Bender in the Futurama episode "Obsoletely Fabulous".
  • In Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question, Finkler is invited to appear on the programme.
  • In the third series of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, antagonist Jeffrey Granger (played by Bill Nighy) claims he "has been asked to appear" on the show.
  • The 1996 Absolutely Fabulous episode "The Last Shout" featured the character Edina Monsoon (played by Jennifer Saunders) being interviewed by Sue Lawley (in an off-camera cameo) for Desert Island Discs. All of Edina's music choices were songs by Lulu.
  • For the "Dibley Live" (1998) episode of The Vicar of Dibley, in which the characters are generating programming ideas for the village's one-week radio station, the chronically dull Frank originally proposes a programme called Desert Island Desks, in which he would recount his favourites from the many desks at which he has sat during his lifetime. Instead, he opts for An Hour of Frank Talking, in which he unexpectedly reveals how he came to discover his – hitherto undisclosed – homosexuality; however, none of the locals turns out to have heard the show, having anticipated a boring hour and chosen not to tune in.[16]
  • The 2015 National Theatre production of George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman featured an opening sequence in which the lead character Jack Tanner is on the show being interviewed by Kirsty Young and selects Mozart's Don Giovanni.[17]

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)[18]
  • Desert Island Discs: Flotsam & Jetsam (2012, by Mitchell Symons)[19]


  1. Midgley, Neil (29 January 2012). "Desert Island Discs: Britain's longest-running radio show". The Telegraph (London). 
  2. "Desert Island Discs – Find a castaway". BBC Online. Retrieved 29 August 2014. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 "Desert Island delights". BBC. 29 January 2002. Retrieved 15 November 2007. 
  4. Lister, David (30 January 2002). "'Desert Island Discs' enjoys luxury of a 60th birthday". The Independent (London). Retrieved 24 July 2009. 
  5. "John Stevens". Desert Island Discs. 17 November 2006. BBC Radio 4. 
  6. "Shirley Williams". Desert Island Discs. 29 January 2006. BBC Radio 4. 
  7. "Beethoven tops island hit list", BBC News, 18 March 2002
  8. Roberts, Laura (2 March 2011). "Desert Island Discs' most popular requests". The Daily Telegraph (London). 
  9. "Elisabeth Schwarzkopf". Desert Island Discs. 28 July 1958. BBC Radio 4. 
  10. "Dame Moura Lympany". Desert Island Discs. 28 July 1979. BBC Radio 4. 
  11. 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. 
  12. "Desert Island Discs - Home". BBC. Retrieved 2014-07-28. 
  13. Bremner, Charles (2 July 2006). "How a man in his pyjamas invented a radio classic". The Sunday Times (London). Retrieved 25 February 2011. 
  14. "BBC - Radio 4 Blog: Desert Island Discs comes to iPlayer". BBC. Retrieved 27 September 2009. 
  15. Plunkett, John (28 September 2009). "BBC launches Radio 4's Desert Island Discs on iPlayer". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 28 September 2009. 
  16. "Vicar of Dibley Series 2", British Comedy Guide.
  18. "Desert Island Discs: 70 years of castaways". Amazon. 13 September 2012. 
  19. "Desert Island Discs: Flotsam & Jetsam". Amazon. 25 October 2012. 

External links