John Sturgis

The problem with Desert Island Discs

The problem with Desert Island Discs
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It should be the basis for new playlists, exciting discoveries, the leftfield, the overlooked, the forgotten gem. But too often these days listening to Desert Island Discs is akin to being stuck in a minicab with the radio locked to Golden Greats FM, where the hits just keep on coming. It’s not so much that many guests have bad taste but that they have no discernible taste at all, their choices plucked almost exclusively from the canon of the bleeding obvious. It’s Exile on Mainstream Street. 

This week the otherwise estimable and charming novelist Maggie O’Farrell flirted with greatest hits territory with among the better known output of Radiohead (The Bends) and The Cure (Lovesong) before finally going there in earnest: Nina Simone’s Feeling Good, that latter day staple of X Factor auditions and de trop karaoke singers. If it sounded familiar that’s because it was: just last month it was also on the list of Monica Galetti. Ms Galetti is an inspirational woman, yes, but clearly not someone who spends much time browsing Spotify. Her other picks included some real corn - Three Little Birds, Hotel California, Purple Rain. 

Yet mundane Monica was positively adventurous compared to the guest the week before her, astronaut Tim Peake. He may outscore anyone else alive on whatever algorithmic hybrid of physical performance and quantum physics savvy that they use to select spacemen - but it’s plain that having a decent record collection is not among those criteria. Peake’s music choices were so cheesy they would have made North Norfolk Digital programmers blush - Don’t Stop Me Now, It Must Be Love, Waterloo Sunset, Mr Blue Sky and, that contemporary funeral standard, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. The music was so plodding that the only pleasure in 45 excruciating minutes was hearing host Lauren Laverne, whose weekday job is spinning considerably more eclectic fare on 6 Music, being dragged so far out of her comfort zone that she was reduced to saying things like: ‘So the Apache is primarily an attack helicopter’. Two weeks in a row of this, dear God. 

Other recent offenders include: Minette Batters, NFU President, with Eye of the Tiger, The Green Green Grass of Home, The Four Seasons (Vivaldi’s not Frankie Valli’s), The Wind Beneath My Wings. Chris Boardman was also Team Mr Blue Sky, before hitting us with golden greats from Elton John, The Stones, Freddie Mercury and Simon and Garfunkel, after all of which I was left feeling anything but groovy. 

But most appalling of recent guests was Arsène Wenger, who blew an image carefully constructed over decades as a great thinker, with shockers including Imagine, another monster Elton hit, Your Song, another Bob hit, Could You Be Loved, before perhaps the only French song everyone in England already knows, Ne Me Quitte Pas and, finally, inexcusably, Sinatra’s My Way. These things cause me lasting pain. I still remember wincing at Paul Hollywood in 2015 explaining his pedestrian pick Fix You as reminding him of a night seeing Coldplay live in Bolton ‘and bopping around and having a few drinks afterwards’. It made for radio beyond fixing. 

It needn’t be this way. Historian David Olusoga for instance also chose a Bob but instead of something glaringly obvious from Legend, opted for a delightful obscurity, You Can’t Blame the Youth. Actor Mark Strong chose Bowie’s Heroes, but opted for the infinitely more interesting German version. Which was handy as the guest just the week earlier, charity worker Claire Horton, had chosen it too and it saved us from direct repetition. 

I’m not suggesting they should share my tastes: one of the most memorable of the modern era was retired Met Police Commissioner Lord Stevens who, as well as Jerusalem and a reading of Kipling - If, naturally, recorded, for some inexplicable reason, by Des Lynam - also chose from artists of an identifiable school: The Central Band of the Royal Air Force, The Huddersfield Choral Society, The Band of the Royal Marines. Not what I’d have chosen, by any means, but at least it was unexpected, strikingly him, and there was nothing from Legend or Queen’s Greatest Hits. 

Sometimes you get the impression that guests have been assisted by a steering group of spin doctors or stylists: Keir Starmer’s Three Lions choice, say, which felt like a warm-up for his recent Corbynite wind-up flag waving, or David Beckham: does he really listen to and love Sidney Bechet? I’m sceptical. But I’d rather they took advice than took the Three Little Birds path. 

The tendency to the predictable has become so prevalent that I invariably prefer the similar but weightier Private Passions, on Radio 3 on Sundays just after DID finishes on 4; it’s so much more interesting musically. But even here I’d like to ban the big two: Nimrod and The Lark Ascending, as they come up far too often. 

One of the enduring quirks of DID is ‘we’re giving you The Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare’; they don’t do that because they envisage every guest poring over Leviticus and Deuteronomy, or Troilus and Cressida, but to stop guests consistently choosing them for their book, as that would be unlistenably boring. It’s time to extend that logic to the music: ‘As well as the Bible and Shakespeare we’re also giving you Best Ofs by Bob Marley, Elton John, Queen, The Beatles and Abba.’ And disinvite anyone who doesn’t take the hint: if they choose Don’t Stop Me Now - stop them, stop them immediately.