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Monday, 30 November -0001

THE REASON THEY INVENTED RADIO!

Brigitte Bardot got Britain blushing, while Norman Wisdom picked five of his own records. But as much-loved Desert Island Discs turns 70, Beatles biographer Ray Connolly (who’s still waiting for his invitation) argues it’s so good

Written by Ray Connolly
In the wee small hours of the morning, when the whole wide world is fast asleep, I lie awake and... mentally compile my list of eight records for the inevitable day when Desert Island Discs gets in touch. It isn't easy. Getting the balance right can take hours of rumination.

Decades ago I expressed surprise to Paul McCartney at what seemed to be some uninspired choices when he'd appeared on the show, and was disappointed when he just shrugged and said: 'I wasn't going to make it my life's work'.

Well, I suppose he can afford to say that, his musical reputation being fairly secure. But for the rest of us who still harbour ambitions to sit with Kirsty Young and share our favourites with her, it's a bit more important than that. I mean, it isn't just musical taste we're talking here. It's an image thing, too. There are decisions to be made. Do we really want the world to know that we might rather have Benny Hill's Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West) than Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending with us under a palm tree for the rest of our lives?

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Will I, for instance, be eternally written off as an unreconstructed old rocker because I might prefer Chuck Berry's Brown Eyed Handsome Man to absolutely anything composed by Mahler or Wagner? And will it be generally assumed that I'm just thick, if such is my choice? Worse could happen, I suppose. Were I to go for something esoteric or musically unfathomable by John Cage or Stockhausen,would I be mocked as a pseudo intellectual?

It's a regular worry. But if these are the factors to be considered while making only a fantasy list, God knows how difficult it will be when the call from Kirsty finally comes, as surely it must. Whether such mental agonies were considered back in 1942 when a young freelance radio presenter called Roy Plomley thought up this simple and most perfect of ideas for a show, called it Desert Island Discs and posted it to the BBC, I rather doubt. But though he didn't know it, Roy was, at that moment, changing the shape of broadcasting.

Straight interviews had been a staple of radio since its invention. But Plomley realised that, by lacing a conversation with favourite pieces of music, he could plug into not only his guests' memories but those of a mass audience. Nothing opens the way to the emotions so instantly as the right piece of music, be it Elgar or Elvis.

At a time of stiff -upper-lipped, bombed and blitzed Britain, the very idea of a make-believe desert island, with seagulls, a gramophone and a stack of records to while away the years with happy memories, must have seemed like paradise.

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But it touched more than a national nerve of the moment. After a break of five years following the war, it came back in 1951 and on 29 January will have its 70th birthday, making it the second longestrunning radio show in the world (after the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, which is something else altogether). Austrian Jewish band leader Vic Oliver was the guest on the very first show, an inspired choice in wartime Britain, and there have been something like two-and-a-half-thousand others since. Strangely, some castaways, such as Tim Rice and Terry Wogan, have been back two or three times, which strikes me as cheating. How many times in your life can you expect to get marooned on a desert island? Once is unfortunate: three times seems to me you must have been asking for it.

Mind you, the solitary life does seem to have been the best place for some of the guests. The German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was so self-obsessed that she chose seven of her own records to take with her. I suspect her neighbours would have been jubilant had she actually gone; while Norman Wisdom selected five of his, including one called Narcissus. Takes one to sing one, is what I always say. When asked which book he would like with him, in accordance with the rules of one book and one luxury item allowed, Engelbert Humperdinck chose his autobiography. You have to pity any Man Friday who pitches up on one of their beaches.

With BBC producers having booked the guests, the skill of the interviewer in winkling out the subjects' real characters is paramount. Plomley did it in an oldfashioned, gentlemanly kind of way, buying his guests lunch at the Garrick Club before the recording; while his immediate successor, Michael Parkinson, took a more matey approach. Sue Lawley came next and was criticised by Plomley's widow for her excessive interest in people's sex lives, though she did manage to corral Diana Mosley, widow of Fascist leader Oswald Mosley, into admitting that she found Adolf Hitler 'fascinating'.

And then there was Kirsty, and she got it just right, winsome and cunning. When she asked Simon Cowell what luxury item he would like, he chose a mirror. Of course he did: useful to gaze lovingly into, I suppose, but otherwise useless for a castaway.

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The funny men have always had the best of it, of course, in that no one takes what they say seriously. Thus John Cleese wanted a stuffed Michael Palin as his luxury item, publisher Felix Dennis asked for a stainless-steel pole to encourage pole dancing among local mermaids, while Oliver Reed wanted a blow-up doll in the shape of a woman.

It took old charmer David Dimbleby to have the nerve to ask Kirsty Young if she could be his luxury. Obviously he knew it was against the rules, but you can't blame him for trying, can you?

Naturally as a BBC flagship for longer than most of us have been alive, it has usually been an impeccably polite and even dignified programme, although there was one awkward moment many years ago when Roy Plomley was interviewing Brigitte Bardot and asked her what luxury item she would like on the island.

'A-peeniss,' the sex kitten seemed to reply in her heavy French accent.

Totally thrown, Plomley searched for his next question: 'Er... most interesting. Why, may I ask?'

'Well, eet's what ze world needs most – 'appiness.'

'Ah!'

Cue theme music with seagull.

CASTAWAYS' TOP 5 NON-CLASSICAL SELECTIONS

1. Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien by Edith Piaf

2. My Way by Frank Sinatra

3. Mad Dogs And Englishmen by Noël Coward

4. La Vie En Rose by Edith Piaf

5. Underneath The Arches by Flanagan and Allen

  • The Beatles' popularity was dispersed across so many records it pushed them down the charts.

RAY'S DESERT ISLAND DISCS

1. Chanson De Matin by Elgar

2. Mystery Train by Elvis Presley

3. I'll Be Seeing You by Frank Sinatra

4. God Only Knows by The Beach Boys

5. You'll Never Walk Alone by the Kop at Liverpool FC singing along with Gerry Marsden before a European match

6. Love Duet from Madame Butterfly by Puccini

7. Eleanor Rigby by The Beatles

8. Devoted To You by The Everly Brothers



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