MY DESERT ISLAND DISCS
'Desert Island Discs' is truly a British institution - an interview and music show which has existed on BBC radio for more than 70 years, and which seems set to continue on for another 70. It's a genuinely winning format - an easy going chat show in which the talk is interwoven with eight records or 'discs' selected by the guest as the ones they would most want to have with them if they ever had the misfortune to one day be stranded on a desert island; it sounds odd, but it's a format which has attracted into the guest's chair some of the most famous names in the world, including all British prime ministers from the past 40 years, archbishops, renowned scientists and a huge array of business leaders, film stars, musicians, sports stars and writers.
And now me. Well, sadly, not really. But this is the 150th article I have written on the Internet, and that is something of a landmark, so I think I'm entitled to treat myself to a fantasy appearance on the show. What follows is a brief explanation of the format of the show and then the eight records (with videos) I would choose to take with me to my desert island and why I would take them if only I could appear for real on this rather eccentric, yet uniquely successful, programme.
For those unfamiliar with it - probably because they live in another country - Desert Island Discs has some of the most impressive credentials of any show, anywhere in the world. It is a forty minute weekly programme on BBC Radio 4 in which the presenter interviews a solitary guest about their life, their career and their philosophy, and invites them to choose the eight records which they would most want to have with them to listen to on this hypothetical desert island.
Desert Island Discs first aired on 27th January 1942. Ever since then, apart from a five year break between 1946 and 1951, it has been a perennial weekly feature on BBC Radio, and is now the nation's longest running radio show. Initially broadcast on the 'Forces Programme' (during World War Two), and then the 'Light programme' and the 'Home Service', the programme has since 1967 been broadcast on Radio 4. In all that time there have been just four regular presenters - the show's original creator and driving force Roy Plomley, who presented from 1942 until his death in 1985, Michael Parkinson, who took over between 1985 and 1988, Sue Lawley from 1988 to 2006, and Kirsty Young from 2006 (though since 2018 she has had to be replaced by Lauren Laverne due to illness). Between them they have interviewed more than 3000 guests from all walks of life.
The Programme Format
Usually the show will start with a very brief biography of the guest or 'castaway' and then the presenter may well ask how they made their selection of discs. Most of course will simply be favourite pieces of music, though not necessarily all. Because of the peculiar nature of the selection (the only comfort the stranded guest might have on a desert island), poignancy and special memories also play a part - music which has meant something very significant in the guest's life.
As the show proceeds, brief excerpts from each record are played, interspersed with passages of conversation as the would-be castaway is interviewed. The nature of the questioning is usually fairly gentle, but obviously that is dictated in part by the kind of life and career being investigated - politicians may get slightly more probing questions than actors for example. But there are also some stock questions which are always asked of the guest, enquiring about their favourite books as well as some other likes and dislikes, and also about their survival capabilities on the hypothetical desert island.
The Desert Island Discs Formula - Why Does It Work?
Desert Island Discs is, on the face of it, a rather quaint and quirky format, and yet it is a format which has worked for more than seventy years. Why? I think it's principally to do with the disarming nature of the questions and musical interludes. Most interviews on television and radio these days are one of three kinds. Firstly there are some - notably serious political interviews - which are highly confrontational and aggressive, forcing the interviewee to put up a barrier of defences. The truth about the person can become hidden behind that smokescreen. Secondly, many interviews are simply lighthearted advertising vehicles to plug a celebrity's latest concert, book, film or whatever. Nothing of real deep interest about the guest is revealed. And thirdly, some interviews are brief 5-minute chats in a magazine-format show which simply doesn't have the time to really explore what makes the guest tick.
Desert Island Discs is a bit different. It's certainly not the place for really hard-nosed tough interviewing, but the relaxed atmosphere and the seemingly innocuous questioning about the guest's favourite music, favourite books, their practical abilities, and their needs and desires, all serves to take them off their guard. It puts them at ease, and encourages them to reveal far more about their character and personality than they would ordinarily choose to do. Although it may not be as aggressively probing as some other interviews, Desert Island Discs does get under the skin of the guest in a benign yet penetrating way.
Anyway, you can judge for yourselves. Listen to my music selections and read my answers to questions on this page, and you'll probably learn more about me than you ever would in an interrogational interview.
Of course the great majority of guests have been British, and mostly from the artistic fields, but such has been the reputation of the show over the past seventy years, that many of the most famous names in the world have been tempted into the castaway's chair. Selected guests have included, in alphabetical order :
Julie Andrews, Louis Armstrong, David Attenborough, Lauren Bacall, Tony Blair, Sebastian Coe, George Clooney, Bing Crosby, Roald Dahl, Judi Dench, Marlene Dietrich, Bill Gates, Guy Gibson (leader of the Dambusters Raid), Whoopi Goldberg, Tom Hanks, Stephen Hawking, Edmund Hillary, Alfred Hitchcock, Dustin Hoffman, Burl Ives, Elton John, Michael Jordan, Aung San Suu Kyi, Jack Lemmon, Norman Mailer, Theresa May, Paul McCartney, Kylie Minogue, Princess Grace of Monaco, Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, Martina Navratilova, Yoko Ono, Paul Robeson, Ginger Rogers, J.K Rowling, Salman Rushdie, General Norman Schwarzkopf, James Stewart, Margaret Thatcher, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Justin Welby (current Archbishop of Canterbury), Tennessee Williams.
My Desert Island Discs
Because this is sadly only a fantasy appearance on the show, I will not imagine all of the questions about my life and career which would be asked during a typical broadcast - this isn't my biography, and frankly, very few would be interested. This article is just about my eight tracks and why I chose them. However, after the eight records have been described and played, I will also answer all those stock questions which I mentioned earlier.
All my eight discs will be among my favourites, but just as is the case with most other 'castaways', some are chosen as much for the memories they evoke. For each song I will give my reasons for its selection, and rather more background about the song and video than is possible on the real programme. In my selections I have been constrained by the choice of videos available on YouTube, but extensive searches have enabled me to choose versions I'm happy with.
So here in the order in which I would like to have them played, are my eight discs.
My Taste in Music
Most - though not all - kinds of music appeal to me, but those who know me well may be surprised to learn that if I were to choose my top 100 discs rather than just 8, perhaps at least a quarter would be songs from the era of rock and pop (the 1960s onwards). They would be surprised because I am better known for my liking of ancient music - particularly simple, melodic folk songs - and so about half of my 100 would probably be music composed more than 100 years ago. And that will be more than reflected in my selection below.
1) The Skye Boat Song - Kathryn Jones
The Skye Boat Song is a well known late 19th century folk song from Scotland which tells the tale of how the grandson of James II, Charles Stuart - 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' - escaped to the Island of Skye after his abortive attempt to overthrow King George II at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. He escaped in a small boat commanded by sympathetic local woman, Flora MacDonald. He was disguised as her Irish maid Betty Burke!
As a child my mother spent several years living on Skye, and I think it was a fond memory for her. Her younger sister Billie was born on Skye, and when Billie - who later migrated to America with her American husband - tragically died young from a brain tumour, The Skye Boat Song was one of five songs chosen for her funeral. When my mother died, I did the same for her. So there's a very strong personal connection with this beautiful piece of music.
The lyrics of The Skye Boat Song are truly famous, and they begin with the classic lines:
Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that's born to be King
Over the sea to Skye
Currently however, YouTube is full of video performances derived from the TV series 'Outlander' which features the song, but with some altered lyrics. Nonetheless, I love this version by Kathryn Jones, even though it has the new words. She has a beautiful voice. Now please can she just record one exactly the same but with the traditional lyrics?
2) In The Bleak Midwinter - Connie Dover
Christmas carols are usually either very holy, solemn pieces sung reverentially by choirs and played by massed orchestras, or they're bouncy, jolly songs intended to appeal to little children. But my second choice is a carol with a slightly different tone. It's hugely sentimental and hugely evocative of wintertime, and I remember it well from my school days when the summers seemed warmer but the winters seemed decidedly colder. I remember as a little boy having to walk a long way home from school on winter days when it was bitingly cold, perhaps trudging through deep snow underfoot. The streets would be dark, and apart from little stars glinting in the pitch black night sky, the only lights would be the welcoming glow from the houses lining the street. And I would think ahead longingly to my own home, where my mother would already be preparing a hot evening meal and I would look forward to getting in to the warm - and out of the bleak midwinter.
This version of the song In The Bleak Midwinter is sung by my favourite singer Connie Dover, about whom I have written a webpage. It is also the only YouTube video on this page for which I have provided a slide show, using selected images from Wikimedia Commons.
3) Greensleeves - The London Symphony Orchestra
For as long as I can remember, the folk song Greensleeves has been a favourite piece of music. For many years it was my undisputed favourite. I first heard it as a little child, I think in the jingle of an ice cream van, though I also remember it from a Saturday matinee film I saw in a cinema in South Wales (possibly 'The Swiss Family Robinson'?) It has been a part of my life ever since, forever surfacing in films, in TV adverts and in concerts, and each time it brings back memories. And seven years ago when I joined the Internet content creation site HubPages, I chose 'Greensleeves' as my username. No song is more identified with me or my interests, evocative as it is of history, and of folk music, and of the English countryside. The lyrics too (not included here) are of unrequited love, and that is also something I could identify with in the past.
Greensleeves is more than 400 years old and is the subject of a web page by me. In all the intervening centuries since it was first composed it has appeared in many different guises, but perhaps most famous today is the classical 'Fantasia on Greensleeves' by Ralph Vaughan-Williams. This actually includes as its centre section another folk tune 'Lovely Joan', whilst beginning and ending with Greensleeves. It is the 'Fantasia on Greensleeves' which is performed below.
4) Arms Of Mary - Sutherland Brothers & Quiver
I was a bit of a late developer when it comes to the opposite sex. Although there had been girls at school whom I grew quite fond of, it was only when I went to university in Swansea, Wales in the year 1975 that I really developed a deep passion for a girl in one of my classes. Her name was Cathy Hyde, and with me being ultra shy at that time, it was a totally unrequited love - one of which she was never aware. In fact she never became more than a nodding acquaintance, smiling or saying 'hi' when passing in the street. She left after one year - not because of me I hasten to add! I think the course hadn't suited her, but to my intense regret I never did find out exactly the reason why she decided to leave. That is now more than forty years ago. Even now I sometimes find myself wondering what became of her in later life.
Pop music has never been a big thing for me, and as with girls, I really only came to it in the '70s when I was in my late teens.There was a really beautiful song playing in the charts at the time when I met Cathy. It was called 'Arms of Mary'. Pity it wasn't 'Arms of Cathy', but 'Mary' was the best I could do. It made me think of her, and at the time and for a long while after I last saw her, I could still be moved to tears playing it and thinking about the first girl I had ever really wanted, and yet could never approach.
5) Molly Malone - Erin Isle Singers
This one's almost embarressing! A song about a girl wheeling a wheelbarrow whilst selling cockles and mussels sounds more like it should be a children's nursery rhyme than a proper adult song. They just don't write music like this anymore do they, and if I'd told my work colleagues about this one they'd probably have sadly shaken their heads and slowly wandered away! But now I've left work and I'm no longer bothered - if I wanted to sound cool, I guess I'd have picked a recent hit by whoever's hot at the moment. (How can you be 'cool' by liking someone 'hot?' I digress.)
Anyway, in my world it's cool to be independently minded and to not care what anyone thinks. So I'll go with Molly Malone. The truth is, Molly Malone is not so much a children's song, but a truly poignant story of a poor girl who dies and whose ghost now haunts the streets of Dublin. Why do I so much like this kind of song which dates back to at least the late 19th century? I have the ability in my own mind to transport myself back to these past times and to imagine myself in the streets of a much simpler, less cynical, and seemingly more charming age. And the melody of this song is as simple as the times it represents, and to be honest, it is probably my favourite melody in all the world today.
6) Scheherazade - Radio Symphony Orchestra Ljubljana
Scheherazade is my one concession to the fact that I'm being stranded on a desert island with only eight records. The thing is, I don't know how long I'm going to be on this island and even with eight favourite discs, I think I just might start getting bored with them. If they're all about three or four minutes long, I could get through all of them in about 30 minutes, and then I'd have to start over again. So it does make sense to have one really long piece of music I won't ever get bored with - a full blown classical symphony no less, at least 40 minutes in length. The trouble is, I tend to like only the 'best bits' of classical music - those famous and familiar little excerpts from much longer works.
There is just one exception - the Rimsky-Korsakov symphony Scheherazade, which is great from the beginning of the first movement to the end of the fourth. Scheherazade is yet another late 19th century piece of music (completed 1888), but it is based on the much more ancient Arabian tale of the legendary queen and story teller of 'One Thousand and One Nights' (a.k.a 'The Arabian Nights'). As I say, all four movements of the symphony are really very very good, but if I have to pick a favourite, it must be the brilliant third movement - 'The Young Prince and the Young Princess', which is the piece I'll play here.
For the purposes of this page I had two main choices - a dull video of a symphony orchestra and men in black suits and bow ties, or a version with a collage of colourfully romantic images from 'The Arabian Nights' and similar themes. I chose the latter for very obvious reasons. I once met someone with the name Scheherazade. She didn't like it, but I reckon it's just about the most exotic name in the world.
7) The Ash Grove - Nana Mouskouri
Well so far I've had one traditional Scottish song, one ancient English folk tune, and an old Irish song. And now I'm going for a Welsh ballad. If I was a politician you might cynically accuse me of trying to curry favour with people from all four nations of the United Kingdom. But they are all absolutely genuine favourites, and this one is particularly appropriate and special to me as I'm half Welsh (100% Welsh when Wales are playing rugby). And like several of the other tracks, I've loved this one since I was a child. It is called Llwyn Onn in Welsh or The Ash Grove in English. Though the tune may be much older, the first published version of Llwyn Onn was in 1802, and the English translation is known from 1862. Do you recognise the title? Many will not, but I think most will surely recognise the very familiar tune which is just exquisitely beautiful.
Since first publishing this article, I've had a problem deciding on a video to accompany The Ash Grove. None of the available recordings really did the song justice. I really really wanted a version which sent a shiver up my spine - a quality which all beautiful music should possess. Thankfully a new search (2019) on YouTube has now revealed several such renditions, mostly by relatively unknown artists - Shelby Flint, Kellianna, Michelle Amato and Laura Wright - and all are worth checking out. However, I have chosen this recording by Nana Mouskouri, who's about as Welsh as taramasalata! Nana is Greek, and her name may be unfamiliar to some readers. It really shouldn't be. Although it's hard to find unqualified statistical evidence, many authorities argue that Nana Mouskouri - who's been performing since the early 1960s achieving huge popularity throughout Europe and indeed across the world - has more album sales to her name than any other female artist in history . And her rendition of 'The Ash Grove' is beautiful.
8) Auld Lang Syne - Sissel Kyrkjebø
Let's finish in the way all gatherings should finish, with the great song of togetherness and cheer Auld Lang Syne. Each year on New Year's Day, it's played on national UK television after the clock strikes midnight and these days after a seemingly interminable fireworks display. Each year also, its prominence sadly seems to lessen as modern songs with very transient spans of popularity take over. But however much it's shunted into the background, Auld Lang Syne will remain forever the song of companionship. I would play it on my own on my desert island and remember all of the people I've loved, all of my friends, and all the people I would long to see again. I love the melody. As for the lyrics, how many people know what the words written by Robert Burns in 1788 are all about? I don't, but maybe I should learn.
Speaking of the old Scottish dialect of the original poem, the first verse of the video below is sung in English, before the singer Sissel Kyrkjebø turns to what I assume to be her native Norwegian. The images are from all over the world, and near the end the video switches to the Scottish bagpipes and the orchestra of Dutch violinist André Rieu together with the obligatory fireworks display. So - very international - but I had to use this recording because Sissel's is simply the best voice I've heard singing this. And after all - this song today is very much an international song of togetherness.
Actually with thoughts of togetherness in mind, maybe I should have had second thoughts about this one? Maybe hearing it alone on my island without any friends within a thousand miles would be enough to take me literally to the edge. Maybe I'd jump off one of those island sea cliffs and end it all? Anyway, be that as it may, the song ends it all for this selection of my 'Desert Island Discs'.
So these are my eight pieces of music, and today they're pretty much set in stone. They've been my eight Desert Island Discs for many years now. All are among my favourites, all have a 'tingle factor', and all mean something to me which other pieces do not.
The Other Questions a 'Desert Island Discs' Castaway is Always Asked :
I mentioned earlier that there are some stock questions which the presenter always asks - simple questions, but really quite revealing about the interviewee. These are my answers to five of these questions. As my choices are not being broadcast I feel I can take a few liberties and meander a little in my answers. The first two relate to the desert island experience and clearly aim to probe the castaway's personality and character in adversity. The next three are intended to discover more about the guest's likes and dislikes - what means most to them in life?
1) How Would You Cope With Being Alone On A Desert Island?
That all depends on the island. A nice dry island albeit with plenty of fresh water and easy to find food and I'd be OK. But it has to be dry because to me, 'do-it-yourself' ends with the ability to wire a plug or knock a nail in a piece of wood. I couldn't easily build a shelter. As far as companionship is concerned, I wouldn't mind being physically alone for a while because I am used to that, though I would certainly be desperate to share my experiences, even if only by carrier pigeon!
2) Would You Try To Escape?
Would I try to escape? Now don't be silly - If I can't build a shelter, do you honestly think I could build a boat capable of crossing an ocean?
3) The Bible And Complete Works Of Shakespeare Are Already On The Island. You Can Take One Other Book?
In the early days of the show, it was anticipated that almost everyone would pick the Bible or Shakespeare, so to prevent the choice becoming all too predictable, those books got banned from the options available to castaways.
If I can take a hypothetical book which may never have been written, I would choose a book on the natural history of the island. I could happily fill my days hunting down and identifying bugs, beetles and birds, and even the barnacles on the beachside rocks. If I have to take a book that's definitely been written, well that's a bit more problematic. I may write a lot, but I actually read very little, and haven't picked up a single novel in the past 20 years. I am really tempted to choose something very erudite like Einstein's 'Theory of Relativity', just to see if I can make any sense of it whatsoever, but in all honesty I think I'd take 'My Family And Other Animals', by Gerald Durrell - an autobiography of the author's childhood on the Greek island of Corfu. Durrell, who later became a naturalist and conservationist, spent his formative days doing exactly what I've described at the start of this paragraph - seeking out the local wildlife and studying it. When I was a child I read his book, and it made me want to do exactly the same thing. I envied him. Now on my desert island, I would have my chance!
4) And You Can Take One Luxury Of No Practical Survival Benefit?
In other words, you can't choose a boat or a distress flare - that would just be cheating. Hosts of the show have varied in how rigorously they have applied this rule, but I wonder would unlimited supplies of ice cream and ice cold banana milk shake be frowned upon? I could live on that and get fat, and nobody would be there to criticise!
If I have to choose something that isn't going to save my life, I would be torn between a camera with endless memory cards to record the scenery and wildlife, or a pen with endless sheets of paper, to record my thoughts and experiences. On balance I would choose the pen and paper, figuring that thoughts and feelings can be transient and need to be written down at the time they happen. Besides, if desperate, I suppose I could always use the sheets of writing paper for another purpose 🙂 After rescue I could make a million selling my Robinson Crusoe story and then I could later return in luxury to the island to take some photos.
5) And If All But One Of Your Eight Discs Were To Be Washed Away, Which One Would You Choose To Save?
Now having allowed me eight records, I think it would be the height of inpoliteness to immediately deny me seven of them. But if they were to get washed away in a catastrophic thunderstorm or a higher than usual high tide, the one that must be left on the beach is 'Greensleeves'. It is, after all, my song.
So these are my eight 'discs' and the choices of books and luxuries which I would make if and when I am considered to be worthy of inclusion on the real life version of Desert Island Discs. I guess it's never going to happen, but if I can't have them ever recorded for posterity on a radio broadcast, at least I can have them recorded here on the Internet. What records, I wonder, would you choose?
I’d Love to Hear Your Comments. Thanks, Alun