This article originally appeared in Issue 4 of The Merseysider magazine. Cartoons by Spanner.
Desert Island Hits’n’Picks
A look at 70 years of Desert Island Discs – from a Merseyside perspective
Most of us are ready for it, and when the call finally comes from Desert Island Discs, we know what our eight records will be. Many of us carry the list in our heads and periodically revise it, others have it written down, and a few may even have followed the example of the radio listener from Lincoln, who wrote a letter to the programme’s producer in 1962: ‘I listen regularly to Desert Island Discs, and although I feel fairly sure you would not think me sufficiently illustrious to appear on your programme, I am sending you a rough autobiography just in case the idea might be thought worthwhile.’ He received a polite reply, assuring him his name would be added to the list of possible castaways.
The first edition of Desert Island Discs was broadcast in 1942, when it was presented by Roy Plomley, who’d come up with the idea for the programme himself. Initially the programmes were scripted, and Plomley and his guests would read out their ‘conversations’. The programme was dropped in 1946 but returned in 1951 and has been on air ever since. Asking castaways to choose not only a selection of music, but also a luxury item and a book (other than the Bible and Shakespeare) became an established feature in the 1950s. When Plomley died in 1985 he was replaced by Michael Parkinson, who only stayed for three years before Sue Lawley took over in 1988. She presented the programme for nearly twenty years, eventually giving way to Kirsty Young in 2006.The 70th anniversary of the programme was marked by the recent publication of two books: ‘Desert Island Discs: 70 Years Of Castaways’, which combines a history of the programme with edited transcripts of some of the broadcasts, and the aptly named ‘Flotsam and Jetsam’, a compendium of miscellaneous facts and figures.
The compilers of these books have been helped by the BBC’s amazing Desert Island Discs archive, now available online for all of us to explore. There have been more than 2,800 editions of the programme, and over 22,000 musical choices. Everything has been carefully logged, and you can trawl through the resulting mass of information in a variety of ways: by year, by castaway name, or by choice of music. More than 1,500 programmes can actually be listened to online (the missing ones are generally from the earlier years).
We’ve carried out our own exploration of the archive, looking specifically at people from the Merseyside region who’ve appeared on the programme. Our approach was hopelessly unscientific, and we can’t claim to have tracked down all the relevant data, but we did identify around 50 ‘local’ castaways. Most of these are from the field of arts and entertainment, though there are several who aren’t (such as the geneticist Steve Jones, the war hero Simon Weston and David Sheppard, who was both an England cricket captain and the Bishop of Liverpool). The list mainly comprises comedians (from Arthur Askey and Ken Dodd through to John Bishop and Paul O’Grady); actors (Glenda Jackson – who of course is also an MP – Leonard Rossiter, Alison Steadman, Anthony Quayle and many others); singers and musicians (including Paul McCartney, George Melly, Cilla Black and the conductors Carl Davis and Simon Rattle); and writers (such as Beryl Bainbridge, Jimmy McGovern, Shirley Hughes and Alan Bleasdale). Sport is surprisingly under-represented, though Bill Shankly and the boxer John Conteh both appeared. Some have achieved the rare honour of guesting on the programme twice: Ken Dodd, Beryl Bainbridge, Jimmy Tarbuck, Patricia Routledge, Cilla Black, Dora Bryan and Anthony Quayle. Arthur Askey was on an astonishing four times, appearing with almost mathematical regularity every twelve or thirteen years (in 1942, 1955, 1968 and 1980) – a testament to his enduring popularity and the longevity of his career.
We looked first at musical choices. According to the BBC website, the eight most-requested artists on Desert Island Discs are all classical composers, with Mozart, Beethoven and Bach at the top of the list (Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor ‘Choral’ is the most popular record choice). However, the Beatles are the leading performers, and when a survey of listeners to the programme was carried out, the Beatles again came top (though the most popular record was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending). Needless to say, the Beatles also feature more prominently than anyone else in the list of artists chosen by Merseysiders who have guested on the programme. There is however an incredible range of tracks, reflecting the strength of their repertoire. Castaways who knew the Beatles in the Sixties tend to select early songs: Jimmy Tarbuck and Roger McGough both pick Love Me Do. The writers Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale both chose the lyrically potent In My Life. Elvis Costello is unusual in not selecting a Lennon-McCartney composition; instead he preferred the Beatles’ version of You Really Got A Hold On Me. Two of Kenny Everett’s eight tracks were by the Beatles: Strawberry Fields Forever and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (also picked by George Melly).
Paul McCartney was the only Beatle who actually appeared on Desert Island Discs, in 1982. He chose John Lennon’s Beautiful Boy, paying homage to his rock’n’roll roots in several of his other choices, which included Elvis’s Heartbreak Hotel, Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen, Gene Vincent’s Be Bop A Lula and Tutti Frutti by Little Richard. Brian Epstein was a guest in 1964. His selections were mainly classical (Bach, Sibelius, Bruch), perhaps reflecting where his musical preferences really lay. But he also chose the Beatles’ She’s A Woman, and a version of All My Loving by the George Martin Orchestra. When Yoko Ono appeared she (like Paul McCartney) selected Lennon’s Beautiful Boy, a song about their son Sean, whose track Magic she also picked.
Other Liverpool acts, especially those from the Merseybeat era, are also popular with the region’s castaways. The Searchers’ Needles and Pins was chosen by Bill Kenwright, Gerry and the Pacemakers’ How Do You Do It by Ken Dodd and the Merseys’ Sorrow by Jimmy McGovern, who also picked Gerry and the Pacemakers’ You’ll Never Walk Alone. Others who wanted to hear the Liverpool FC anthem included Sue Johnston, Phil Redmond and (of course) Bill Shankly. The Z Cars theme, heard every other Saturday at Goodison Park, was a natural choice for Bill Kenwright. Alison Steadman’s selections included Billy Fury’s Halfway To Paradise, while Alan Bleasdale chose Elvis Costello’s Indoor Fireworks and Beryl Bainbridge picked George Melly’s I Need A Little Sugar In My Bed.
The second most popular artist in the BBC listeners’ poll was Bob Dylan, who was also chosen by several literary Merseysiders: Shirley Hughes (Mr Tambourine Man), Alan Bleasdale (Shelter from The Storm) and Willy Russell (A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall). Elvis was favoured by John Bishop (The Wonder Of You), Jimmy Tarbuck (All Shook Up), Paul O’Grady (Trouble), Glenda Jackson (Hound Dog) and Alan Bleasdale (Are You Lonesome Tonight, also the title of a play he wrote about him). John Conteh and Beryl Bainbridge were both admirers of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, while Kim Cattrall and Elvis Costello both picked Frank Sinatra’s I’ve Got You Under My Skin.
There were of course plenty of classical music choices, and here the Merseyside castaways reflect the tastes of other guests in plumping most often for Mozart (chosen by Leonard Rossiter, Elvis Costello, Simon Rattle, Carl Davis, Shirley Hughes and others), Beethoven (Glenda Jackson, Phil Redmond, Patricia Routledge) and Bach (Cilla Black, Deryck Guyler, David Sheppard). Tchaikovsky was also popular, those selecting him including the comedians Ted Ray and Arthur Askey (who chose a piece by the composer on each of his four appearances). Askey also gave as one of his choices ‘a mixture of all the pop music I’ll be glad to leave behind’.
Moura Lympany may not be a familiar name in too many households, but the pianist has a legendary status among Desert Island Discs aficionados for having chosen eight of her own records when she appeared on the programme in 1979. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf came close, selecting seven discs on which she herself sang. Merseysiders have generally been more modest, though a few have chosen one of their own recordings, including Cilla Black (Anyone Who Had A Heart – she also picked Priscilla, sung by Frankie Vaughan) and Arthur Askey (Bandwaggon). Frankie Vaughan himself perhaps thought that listening to his own We Are Not Alone when stranded on the mythical desert island might stave off insanity. Elvis Costello’s father, Birkenhead-born Ross McManus, was an accomplished singer with the Joe Loss Orchestra, and it’s understandable that Elvis should want one of his records (At Last). Ted Ray chose Jack The Giant Killer, a recording he made with his son Andrew (Ray’s other son Robin was once a guest on the programme himself).
Selections don’t have to be musical. Spoken word choices were made by Jimmy Tarbuck (a Brian Johnston cricket commentary) and Frank Cottrell Boyce (children telling the story of John the Baptist, recorded in Dublin in the 1960s). Jimmy Tarbuck also wanted to hear a clip of the comedian Max Miller, as did Leonard Rossiter. Roger McGough asked for a recording of foghorns on the Mersey, explaining that as a child in bed in Litherland he would be mesmerised by the haunting sounds coming from the river. Anthony Quayle wanted the song of a humpback whale.
The BBC website also lists the books and luxury items chosen by the programme’s guests. Some castaways see their time on the island as an opportunity for a bit of self-improvement. Jimmy Tarbuck wanted a set of the Encylopaedia Britannica, Willy Russell a Latin Primer, Pauline Collins Teach Yourself Physics and John Conteh a book on botany. Ken Dodd picked the Times Atlas Of The World, Roger McGough the Times Atlas Of The Night Sky. Others preferred to revert to childhood: Kenny Everett chose an Eagle annual, Cilla Black Alice In Wonderland and Paul O’Grady The Borrowers by Mary Norton. Novels were popular, ranging from the weighty (Jimmy McGovern – James Joyce’s Ulysses, Phil Redmond – Charles Dickens’ Collected Works, George Melly – Marcel Proust’s A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu) to the comic (Leonard Rossiter – a collection of three early novels by P.G. Wodehouse, Dora Bryan – Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat). Elvis Costello also wanted some light relief, opting for James Thurber’s Selected Works. Bill Kenwright’s choice was Everton: The Complete Record. Other selections were more personal: John Bishop wanted to take a family photo album, while Paul McCartney chose a book of Linda McCartney’s photographs.
The ‘luxury’ items chosen by castaways range wildly from the bizarre to the practical, the extravagant to the modest and simple. Rita Tushingham wanted the Albert Memorial, Frank Cottrell Boyce a ferris wheel and Willy Russell an English meadow complete with an oak tree. At the other end of the scale, Alan Bleasdale would have been happy with a pair of nail clippers, and Ted Ray with hairnets (sadly his reason for this choice is unknown, as a recording of the programme has not yet been discovered). A few patterns do emerge. Toiletries are quite common: Ken Dodd chose a box of scented soap, John Bishop a lifetime’s supply of toothbrushes and toothpaste, Paul O’Grady Avon’s Skin So Soft mosquito repellent, Alison Steadman hot lemon flannels of the kind provided in Chinese restaurants. Glenda Jackson opted for a bath, Kenny Everett a bathroom suite. Others wanted to pamper themselves in other ways. Leonard Rossiter’s choice was Moselle wine, Simon Rattle’s an Italian coffee machine and grinder. Patricia Routledge and Ken Dodd (on his other appearance) both chose tea. John Peel and Bill Shankly both wanted footballs, Phil Redmond and Anthony Quayle magnifying glasses. Arthur Askey twice asked for a piano, which George Melly and Elvis Costello also requested. Paul McCartney, John Conteh and Bill Kenwright all wanted guitars. Shirley Hughes chose Titian’s painting Bacchus and Ariadne, Cilla Black the Mona Lisa. Roger McGough wanted a black cab, Deryck Guyler a Roman helmet from the British museum.
Of course, when listening to Desert Island Discs much (most?) of the pleasure is gained not from the castaways’ choices, but from hearing them talk about their lives. Some of the Merseysiders mentioned in this article moved away from the region, but they all talk about their childhoods, often in engaging and revealing ways. And they all went on to have interesting and successful careers, which is why they were on the programme in the first place. Their reminiscences are another reason for visiting the Desert Island Discs website. But be warned: once you start digging, it’s hard to stop.
Cartoons by Spanner.
‘Flotsam And Jetsam’ and ‘Desert Island Discs: 70 Years Of Castaways’ are both published by Bantam Press.