Desert island discs

The problem with Desert Island Discs

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)

Lauren Laverne is a national treasure

Change, for some people, is difficult. Hearing voices on the BBC that differ from the Etonian baritone of old must rankle for some. Lauren Laverne, who took over Desert Island Discs (DID) is about as different from a stuffed shirt as one can imagine. Bright, lively, and witty, her fabulous north-east accent makes Laverne a timely and refreshing addition to Radio 4. Some of the more traditional radio critics have, in the past, expressed doubts about Laverne’s role as presenter of the iconic programme. But in The Spectator this week, Melanie McDonagh added her voice. “There’s no getting away from it,” wrote McDonagh, “Lauren is lightweight and uncerebral. Her capacity

Funny is dangerous

‘I’m off now,’ says Michael Heath, signing off from his selection of Desert Island Discs on Radio 4, ‘to go and do a gag about God knows what. I haven’t the foggiest idea.’ You’d think at 80 he might want to stop, or have to give up because he’d somehow lost his touch. But not the cartoon editor of this magazine, and chief creator of wicked skits on the idiocies and affectations of contemporary life. What’s it like working as a cartoonist after the attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo? asked Kirsty Young. ‘It adds a certain frisson to your drawing,’ Michael replies. ‘But I never wanted to be

Cast astray

There’s a cultural problem at the BBC, isn’t there? The Corporation is trying to attract under-35s — the sort who don’t really listen to scheduled radio programmes and who probably listen, if to anything from the BBC at all, to Radio 5 Live. This is the most obvious way to explain what’s happened to Desert Island Discs. It’s the only possible reason why Lauren Laverne, DJ, pop musician, a face for television rather than radio, replaced Kirsty Young for her sick leave. The bad news is that Kirsty isn’t coming back. She was good: she knows everyone, she’s probing and she’s sympathetic. Given that the programme, with its brilliantly simple

Poet’s Notebook | 21 February 2019

At the end of January, I had the honour and pleasure of being on Desert Island Discs. I liked Lauren Laverne and enjoyed talking with her. Afterwards I wondered if I’d been careful enough about what I said. Had I made a fool of myself? As the transmission date approached I was anxious. I told hardly anyone about the programme, in the totally unrealistic hope that people wouldn’t notice it was on. But it was OK. A few things I was worried about had been cut in the edit. The post-broadcast feedback has been amazing. I’ve been on the radio quite a lot over the years. Sometimes I’ve had a couple

Letters | 25 October 2018

Irish problem Sir: What James Forsyth calls ‘the EU plan’ to keep Northern Ireland in the customs union after Brexit (‘The Irish problem’, 20 October) would no more ‘ease Northern Ireland away from the UK and push it more towards Dublin’s orbit’ than it has already done itself through numerous legislative differences. With regard to social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, Northern Ireland is far closer to the Republic (as it once was) than to the rest of the UK. It would therefore be no great stretch to avoid awkwardness of land border checks (and respect the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement) by having such checks at the

Diary – 1 February 2018

It never occurred to me, when I was interviewed for Desert Island Discs back in November, that I’d actually be on one when it aired last week. The plan had been to laze in a hammock under a palm tree in Ko Yao Noi in the Andaman Sea, with waves lapping against the white coral beach, read books and recharge for the year. These days, however, it’s hard to be totally cut off. I’ve read about ‘digital detoxes’ but never understood how you deal with the avalanche of messages on your return. So I left my phone on and soon it was pinging with notifications from WhatsApp, Twitter et al.

On the make

Rudolfo Paolozzi was a great maker. In the summer, he worked almost without stopping in the family’s ice-cream shop, making gallon after gallon of vanilla custard. In the slack winter months, when the shop made its money on cigarettes and sweets, he built radios from odds and sods. It was on one of these homemade radios that he heard Mussolini’s declaration, on 10 June 1940, that Italy, the country he had left for Scotland 20 years before, had entered the war. That night a mob attacked the ice-cream shop at 10 Albert Street, off Leith Walk in Edinburgh. The family lived above the shop and later, Rudolfo’s son Eduardo, then

The Spectator’s Michael Heath names his Desert Island discs

Michael Heath, The Spectator’s brilliant cartoon editor, has been on Desert Island Discs – which is like a knighthood, but without the cronyism. He’s been talking through his illustrious career and his decades-long association with The Spectator. Subscribers know how well he draws; but his wit is a secret hitherto shared with those of us lucky enough to work with him. The interview (above) shares a bit of that with the rest of the world. Avant-garde jazz, he says, “sounds like fire in a pet shop”. “I am the most romantic man you’ve ever met in your life – absolutely, completely certifiably-mentally soppy. If you showed me Bambi, I’d mop the

Chance encounters

Some might say that Jeremy Corbyn is cloth-eared, tone-deaf, socially inept but on Monday morning, as the death of the pop artist David Bowie scrambled the agenda on Radio 4’s Today programme, he was as graceful and twinkle-toed as Bowie himself. The opposition leader had been invited on to the ‘big slot’ just after the eight o’clock bulletin to talk about his ‘shock’ reshuffle last week. David Cameron and the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less, had already provided their rent-a-quote verdicts on Bowie’s life and death. Nick Robinson asked Corbyn for his thoughts. Quick as a flash, he responded, ‘Does that mean I’m joining the great and the good…?’ Before

Good cop, bad cop

One of the most shocking items of recent news has been the bald statistic that the number of people shot by law enforcement officers in the United States last year was 1,136. Not died by gangland shooting, domestic violence or terrorist attack. But killed by those who are meant to be preventing such deaths. Many of them are black or Hispanic. As if on cue, the World Service this week launched a documentary series to find out why this is happening. What are the deep structural issues that give rise to such inequalities of experience and opportunity in the (supposed) Land of the Free? The first episode of The Compass:

Radio is the best way to mug up on the classics

If ever I found myself at a pretentious literary party obliged to play David Lodge’s ‘Humiliation’ game and to confess to the great books I’ve never read, I’d only escape the ignominy of winning (by being the most ignorant) because of the radio and the almost weekly possibility of hearing yet another classic adapted as a drama or read at bedtime. The nuances of the novel may be lost in translation — the depth of characterisation, the complexities of the plot, its many threads and diversions — but a good adaptation will capture the essence, the true feeling of the original and take us there in our imaginations as effectively

The man who discovered Ebola

By some quirk of fate, just as news reached the papers that the Scottish nurse who had contracted Ebola while working in Sierra Leone was now recovered, the guest on that Radio 4 staple Desert Island Discs was the scientist who first identified the virus. This gave a programme that can seem rather outdated and superficial a whole new resonance, providing the back story to the news, adding that frisson of inquiry, of revelation. Did Professor Peter Piot, as a young researcher working at Antwerp’s Institute of Tropical Medicine almost 40 years ago, realise he was seeing something quite new and so dangerous? ‘It looked like war,’ he told Kirsty

Five things we learnt from Theresa May’s Desert Island Discs appearance

This week belongs to Theresa May. Although the longest serving Home Secretary in fifty years continues to dodge leadership questions, her movements over the next few days will make it harder to deny that she isn’t building up her public profile. Today, she made a genial appearance on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, something she admitted was a ‘huge opportunity’. She also adorns the cover of the latest Spectator Life, out this week, where Harry Cole has compiled an extensive profile of May’s tribal approach to surviving in Westminster. And on Thursday, she will be the host of the Spectator’s Parliamentarian of the Year awards. May is clearly on manoeuvres, and her Desert Island Discs appearance revealed some interesting tidbits about her character: 1.  She

A compendium to match Radio 4: boring, but somehow gripping

When you think about it, Radio 4 is mostly a pile of old toss. Money Box qualifies as an anaesthetic, the dramas couldn’t act their way to the nearest street corner and Sheila Dillon from The Food Programme just needs a slap. That’s even before we reach the five most depressing words in the English language: ‘And now, You and Yours.’ Yet we love it. The bits of the station’s output we do like, we worship. Forget Magna Carta and the NHS, when the barricades go up then I, along with all the other Four Whores, will be fighting myself to a bloody stump in defence of Corrie Corfield and

Diary – 27 March 2014

I had a slight shock last week, while listening to Desert Island Discs. The admirable nurse Dame Claire Bertschinger had chosen a reading of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ as one of her eight discs. The poem, beautifully read by Michael Caine, was nearing its climax when it came to an abrupt stop. If you do this and that and the other, what…? Nothing. The final stanza, with its punch-line (‘Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it/And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!’) had been lopped off. I quite see that the poem may be too long to read in its entirety, but it would

Two women, ages 94 and 83, completely own The Archers

You might think the main storyline in The Archers is all about Helen’s affair with dastardly Rob. (What does she see in him? It’s so obvious he’s a mean-spirited control freak.) Or the new ‘voice’ for Tony, as David Troughton takes over from Colin Skipp, who has played the part for more than 40 years. But actually the real drama in the past fortnight has been swept along by the 94-year-old actress who plays Peggy Woolley and by her younger sidekick Jill Archer played by the 83-year-old Patricia Greene. Together they’ve provided a masterclass on how to act on air, with their distinctive voices, precisely calibrated characters and ability to

The BBC bows to celebrity

The licence fee is both a blessing and a curse for the BBC. The clue is in that nickname — Aunty — both affectionate and slightly patronising. Aunty implies that the corporation is a friendly family affair, middle-of-the-road and just a teeny bit desperate to stay in favour, like grown-ups attempting the dance moves of the next generation. The Beeb may have an unfair advantage over its commercial rivals because of the fee but its reliance on taxpayers’ funding also makes it dependent on the goodwill of whichever political party is in government. That means it has to be seen to be a vote-earner, or rather not a vote-loser, if

Desert Island Discs: is there nothing behind Damien Hirst’s dead cows, sharks and dots? Jan Morris: Travels Round My House — the scoop to outscoop all others

What was shocking about Damien Hirst’s appearance on Desert Island Discs on Sunday was not his admission on air that he lost his £20,000 Turner Prize cheque, and then discovered he had spent it all in the Groucho Club bar. Or his account of his early teens drinking cider beneath the pylons, shoplifting, burgling, always in trouble. A boy for whom ‘Crime is creative’. No, what was truly surprising was just how predictable are his thoughts about his art, his success, his place in the cultural life of GB. Hirst gave very little away, but not in an intriguing, there must be more going on underneath kind of way. The