Desert Island Discs: The Most Important Cultural Archive Of The Last 75 Years

For 75 years the BBC’s Desert Island Discs has asked its guests to think of the songs that they would take with them if they were to be cast away on a deserted island. Their selections are varied, ranging from classical to contemporary, but help to structure a broad interview that also provides insight into their achievements. Through its simple format, Desert Island Discs has created the most important cultural archive of the 20th and now 21stcenturies.
Started in 1942 by Roy Plomley, Desert Island Discs has aired over 3,000 episodes. Plomley and his succeeding hosts Michael Parkinson, Sue Lawley, and Kirsty Young have adopted a firm yet fair approach to interviews.  The program primarily converses with an Anglo-American cavalcade of guests who have often provided overlapping cultural influences that can be appreciated on both continents.
Unlike long-running late night shows like The Tonight Show, each episode allows the audience to feel as if they have a greater understanding of each guest’s life and career. The musical choices are often a way of providing insight into different moments of a guest’s life. Alan Alda’s inclusion of Mozart’s “Clarinet Quintet in A, K 581” ranks among the most revealing choices. The piece was not only an important part of the M*A*S*H finale, but was also included because that song was played by his wife’s chamber music group on the night that they first met.
Many selections, such as Tom Hanks’ and George Foreman’s choices of “Momma Said Knock You Out” are more light-hearted. To date the most requested piece of music has been Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy”. In January Desert Island Discs celebrated its 75th Anniversary by interviewing English football legend David Beckham. While Beckham provided fascinating details about his personal life and playing career, he did not include any music from his wife’s group, The Spice Girls.
Other guests who have provided remarkable tales include Rod Steiger, who provided unflattering thoughts on his working relationship with Marlon Brando. Gene Wilder gave an interesting take on how the meddling of network executives negatively impacts comedy. Host Kirsty Young may have allowed for one of the show’s most uncomfortable moments when she asked Motown creator Berry Gordy how he rated as a husband. Gordy, who has been married three different times, audibly squirmed as he attempted to find an answer that was good enough.
R-L: Hosts Plomley, Parkinson, Lawley, Young
Guests are also asked to choose a book and a luxury item to help ease the burden of solitude on the island. Choices have ranged from toothbrushes to booze. Because the luxury item cannot be a living creature, the most outlandish choice may belong to John Cleese. The comedian could bring fellow Monty Python member Michael Palin with him on the condition that he was dead and stuffed.
Because Desert Island Discs has been broadcast for so long, it has documented an incredible number of important figures beyond their A-listers. Historians, poets, chefs, and guests with careers of public service have been interviewed. Matthew Barzum (while he was the American Ambassador to the U.K.), then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, and even Justin Welby (the Archbishop of Canterbury) have been interviewed on the show. Listening to older episodes that feature members of Parliament reveal an interesting look at the politics of another country. Through this medium it is possible to see how issues in the U.K. can also mirror America’s own political changes.
From Scottish poet Liz Lockheed to Grace Kelly to Ed Sheeran, the depths of important figures featured on the show have resulted in the creation of a valuable cultural archive. The unique constant of being able to learn something about each guest and feel as though you have become more familiar with them is a quality that is unique in any show, but for Desert Islands Discs it is a standard that has lasted three quarters of a century.


Desert Island Discs is currently broadcast on BBC Radio 4. The complete archive of Desert Island Discs is available internationally as a podcast or through the BBC’s website:

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