Desert Island Discs Past and Present

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BBC Desert Island Discs Archive

BBC Home Service/ BBC Radio 4 1942 - Present
The long-running music request programme Desert Island Discs isn't a radio drama, but a trawl through the excellent BBC site on the series ( and the numerous podcasts available for download, stretching from 1951 to the present, reveals a fascinating sonic history about the ways in which radio styles of presentation have changed.
The castaways in the earliest programmes in the archive include Margaret Lockwood (1951), Jimmy Edwards (also 1951), Sir Malcolm Sargent (1955), Emlyn Williams (also 1955), Liberace (1960) and Gracie Fields (1961). The presenter is also the programme's creator, Roy Plomley, whose marked RP tones seem perfectly in keeping with the prevailing style of the times: the BBC announcers speak in much the same way. At that time Desert Island Discs lasted for thirty minutes, giving just enough time for the castaways to introduce their selections, explain why they chose them, and tell one or two stories about their lives. Plomley took a back seat, allowing the castaways ample opportunity to speak for themselves.
Although we don't learn much about their lives, the castaways' characters emerge through their choices of music. Thus Jimmy Edwards' love of brass band music was inspired by his time in the RAF, when he played in orchestras as well as telling jokes. The actor/comedian Bransby Williams, interviewed in 1957, chose a lot of music from his childhood and/or early maturity in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, including music-hall songs and Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" march. Above all, the focus of our attention centres on the castaway: Plomley's role is confined to prompting them, should they run out of things to say.
In contemporary editions of Desert Island Discs, the programme's running-time has increased from thirty to forty-five minutes. Interviewer Kirsty Young spends a lot of time finding out about the castaways' lives, and why their choices of music matter to them. Consequently the programme has evolved into a chat-show with music; the only difference from other chat-shows being that none of the castaways are out to promote anything. Rather they are encouraged to talk in a conversational way about important aspects of their professional and personal lives. While Kirsty Young is a sympathetic interviewer, she does not fade into the background like Plomley; rather she assumes a role similar to that of a news-anchor, determining the direction of each programme.
I think it would be invidious to say whether I prefer one style of presentation to another: Desert Island Discs was, and ever shall be, a very pleasant programme to listen to, as a piece of entertainment as well as a living example of broadcasting history.