Happy 70th Birthday, ‘Desert Island Discs’

David Tennant, who appeared on Desert Island Discs in 2009

Never mind Doctor Who and the paltry 50 years (not counting breaks) that it has graced the TV schedules, this weekend sees an anniversary of even greater magnitude, one which can lay claim to an equally strong grip on the public imagination too.

On the 29th of January 1942, a new radio show was launched on the BBC. It was devised by Roy Plomley, who also presented it for the first forty-three years, and it rested on a very simple premise: take a notable public figure of the day, from any walk of life, and ask them one simple question (with a couple of related follow-ups).

The question is this: if you were marooned on a desert island, which eight records would you want to have with you?

It’s the kind of hypothetical most of us will have considered several (thousand) times over the years, and of course if you use it as the backbone for a radio show, you have a neat frame within which you can discuss someone’s life and experiences. Often the guests can become moved by the music and open up in a way they would not in a conventional interview situation. Also, it’s always fascinating to experience someone else’s taste, and hear them explain it.

The follow-up questions are just as simple, and just as telling: other than the Bible (or equivalent religious tome) and the complete works of Shakespeare, which book would you want? And which luxury item would you wish for?

Again, the items chosen are particularly telling, whether it’s an expensive mascara or a ferris wheel. The show’s concept is robust enough to carry any response, from total playfulness to desperate sincerity.

And this is the key to its success, and the reason why it has lasted longer than any other radio show besides The Grand Old Opry. You can’t dominate proceedings with a discussion of your latest novel or film, you can’t clam up and act haughty. Once those records start playing and the map of your life is laid out before you, only the terminally churlish would choose not to open up a little bit.

So, consider this a heartfelt salute to one of the best radio programmes in the world. Have a look at the archive, if you don’t believe me.

Oh and speaking of Doctor Who, only three of the actors who played the title role have made an appearance on the island, but in typical wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey fashion, they’re out of sequence. William Hartnell made his choices at the height of Dalek-mania in 1965, but Jon Pertwee had already appeared a year earlier, and some six years before he climbed aboard the TARDIS. It was another forty-five years before another Time Lord got to make his choices, with David Tennant appearing in 2009. To find out which records they chose, click on their names.

And here’s a BBC News report, containing a startling anecdote about Yoko Ono, from her appearance on the show.

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 13 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Music.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

See more posts by Fraser McAlpine