75 years ago, when Desert Island Discs was first pitched to the head of entertainment at the BBC, their response was: “Why didn’t we think of this before? It’s such an obvious and excellent idea.”
Since then, the BBC Radio 4 staple has become one of the world’s most loved shows. Everyone makes their own Desert Island Discs picks even when they haven’t been asked, and celebrities are practically queueing up to get involved. Politicians have even seen it as an opportunity for good PR (remember when David Cameron pretended to like Lana Del Rey and The Killers?).
Not only is it an occasion to flick through unique musical histories – it also provides a platform for distinguished guests to explore the highs and lows of their careers, giving candid anecdotes alongside every song choice. We’ve had enough tears to fill the airwaves for decades.
The best thing about Desert Island Discs? Every episode from 1942 to the present day is available to hear on the BBC archive. In theory, you could spend the rest of your life flicking from one castaway to the next. Doesn’t sound too shabby, does it?
As the show celebrates its 75th anniversary, we’ve picked out some of the most memorable guests from the last few decades.
When: 2017 – listen here
What he picked: The Stone Roses, Ella Fitzgerald, Elton John and absolutely nothing from The Spice Girls (or even Victoria Beckham’s solo collaboration with Dane Bowers – massive oversight)
Luxury item: His international caps for England.
Best bit: An honest account of his childhood, where he was driven up to the Bobby Charlton Academy by his parents – every time, they’d stop at a Little Chef for some gammon. Not exactly the traditional football diet, but it didn’t hurt Becks. He also touchingly remembered being given a trial at Manchester United and “bursting into tears,” because “it was everything I ever wanted.”
When: 2009 – listen here
What he picked: The New York Dolls (“I think they changed everything, and I’m very grateful”), The Ramones, the Velvet Underground and Iggy and the Stooges
Luxury item: A comfy bed with lots of pillows.
Best bit: For all his traditional, honest-as-it-gets misery, the best moment came when Moz confided his relative ease with life. “If you reach 50 and are not at one with yourself then you’re in serious trouble,” he told Kirsty Young, despite previous claims that “nothing” comforts him. Plenty of positive statements defined the episode, like his belief that recorded music is “the most powerful, beautiful thing” and the steadfast claim that “there wasn’t anybody like me in pop music” when The Smiths started out. “I didn’t want to grow up to be anything that I knew – I wanted a completely different life and anything that entailed… I just didn’t want the norm in any way, and I didn’t get it. I’m very glad indeed.”
When: 2016 – listen here
What he picked: Dean Martin, Dusty Springfield, Talking Heads and The Beatles
Luxury item: A Hermes 3000 manual typewriter & paper
Best bit: Nobody can convey a story or prompt tears quite like Tom Hanks. And so it proved when the Hollywood superstar and actual Castaway related his success, and his finest roles, to an experience with loneliness. His parents split at the age of five, and his early years involved pinballing between cities and lifestyles – by age 10, he’d lived in ten different houses. When Young pressed on exactly was going on inside his head at the time and as a young actor, he broke down in tears. “What have you done to me?!” he replied, before clarifying that he was trying to express “the vocabulary of loneliness.” Young replied: “Every movie I watch you in, it always comes down to a man’s struggle of loneliness.”
When: 2014 – listen here
What she picked: The Streets, Pulp (calling Jarvis Cocker a “master at painting pictures”), The Stone Roses, Sultans of Ping F.C. and Etta James
Luxury item: Her husband’s shirt with her daughter’s bunny sewn into it
Best bit: In 2017, Lily Allen is right at the forefront of politics, receiving criticism every time she voices an opinion outside the norm of ‘things a popstar should say or do’. But 2014’s episode points out how Allen’s opinionated music has always existed to provoke and sum up the world’s state of affairs. “We live in a really confusing time. I think that it’s OK to feel confused. That’s what a lot of my songs are about,” she told Young. She also spoke about how her track ‘Sheezus’ wasn’t promoted by her label’s radio pluggers because it contained the word “period”, saying: “I feel like things have become more watered down and I could get away with a lot more in my music, say, ten years ago.”
When: 2007 – listen here
What she picked: Amongst other things, she picked The Cheeky Girls’ ’Cheeky Song’ as the one song she’d listen to every day on the island. She also chose John Lennon’s ‘Beautiful Boy’ and son Sean Lennon’s ‘Magic’.
Luxury item: “My life for the next 30 years.”
Best bit: An extraordinarily candid insight into her family life, where she admitted she and John Lennon had first been unsure about keeping her baby son Sean or putting him up for adoption. “I know it sounds strange now but I thought, well, I should let John decide whether to keep it. I didn’t want to burden him with something he didn’t want,” she said. Speaking 25 years after her husband’s death, she recalled the night of his murder in remarkable detail. “It was a very hard time for me. I couldn’t tell Sean [the night it happened].”
When: 2006 – listen here
What he picked: Frank Sinatra, The Righteous Brothers and fellow legend in the game, Daniel Bedingfield.
Luxury item: Surprise surprise, “a mirror – because I’d miss me.”
Best bit: Modesty was in short supply when the music mogul spoke to Sue Lawley, but his admission of being a “nightmare child” stood out. As well as a snapshot anecdote about how he set his family home on fire, aged four, he “hijacked a bus with a pea gun,” was “encouraged” to leave two schools and was suspended by another institution. “I was bored,” he said, explaining his disobedience. “I was just that kind of child. I wasn’t interested in education. I had no respect for discipline.”
When: 2016 – listen here
What he picked: Coldplay, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones.
Luxury item: Fishing rod
Best bit: Wales-born vascular surgeon David Nott isn’t one of the biggest names to appear on Desert Island Discs, but his appearance was one of the most moving. In vivid detail, he listed off experiences working in warzones, treating patients in hospitals that were being shelled at the time, making instant life or death decisions. It was a traumatising time, visibly evident when he met the Queen at Buckingham Palace, ten days after returning from Aleppo in Syria. “I didn’t know what to say to her. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to speak to her. I just couldn’t. I could not say anything.” The Queen picked up on his distress, and she proposed that they feed biscuits to her corgis for 20 minutes. “The Queen and I, during this lunch, just fed the dogs.”
When: 2015 – listen here
What he picked: Chuck Berry, Etta James and castaway’s favourite ‘Extra Classic’, by Gregory Isaacs.
Luxury item: A machete.
Best bit: Mick Jagger is one of Desert Island Discs’ remaining big-name pursuits, with The Rolling Stones frontman repeatedly refusing to appear on the show. Enter guitarist Keith Richards, whose smoky voice lent itself to some brilliant anecdotes. The highlight came when he pinpointed the exact moment his rebellious streak laid its foundations. “The school said ‘you have to go down a year because you haven’t done your chemistry’ [because he’d spent too much time on being in choir]. There was no fairness here. Suddenly you’re 13 and you’re down with the 12-year-olds. So that’s when it started to ferment.” He admitted, however, to growing tired of his destructive image, describing it as “a ball and chain”.
When: 2014 – listen here
What he picked: Prince, Michael Jackson, Kate Bush and regular collaborator Kanye West.
Luxury item: A compass.
Best bit: After winning a Turner Prize and an Academy Award for 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen spoke vividly about his experiences with art, which he described as “my salvation.” Towards the end of the episode, Kirsty Young claimed he was one of the best interviewees ever, explaining: “I have to say, I’ve found you today to be entirely affable and giving, smiling a lot and great company. But a lot of people …” His response was perfectly unassuming: “I’m a black man! I’m used to that. When I walk into a room people make a judgement, I don’t care. Totally not.”