My Desert Island Discs
Because of Lauren Laverne standing in for Kirsty Young as the host of Desert Island Discs, the papers have been ringing round former DID guests to ask for their recollections of being castaways. Here’s mine.
I featured on Desert Island Discs more than seven years ago, in January 2011. It was an honour and a nightmare.
I was thrilled to be asked, of course, but the excitement evaporated the moment I began to think about what eight records I’d choose. The problem is music doesn’t mean that much to me. I prefer the spoken word. My first list included Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King at the height of their rhetorical powers, followed by six moments from Shakespeare and Chekhov featuring six great actors: Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave, Donald Wolfit, Peggy Ashcroft and Edith Evans. My wife gave my list short shrift: ‘Pretentious, attention-seeking, ridiculous,’ she said, ‘And not in the spirit of the programme at all.’
In the end, after weeks of agonising that rocked and almost wrecked our marriage, I came up with a selection that passed muster with my wife because it contained both variety and records that she knew had some personal association for me. I sent off my list to the BBC, with the discs in chronological order, and turned up on the appointed day for the recording primed with a story or two to go with each record. The recording itself was far from easy. For a start, it was scheduled for 9.00 am. Years ago I had met the great Roy Plomley, who devised the programme and presented it for its first forty years. He told me how he would entertain his castaway to a relaxing lunch at his club (the Garrick) before the recording and chat through the plan for the programme. No such molly-coddling from Kirsty Young. She was there, beautiful yet brisk, like the head girl you knew would one day become the headmistress, ready for action and in no mood for pre-show banter. A cup of coffee was produced and the recording began – but not with the records in the order in which I had listed them. ‘Oh no,’ said the producer. ‘We don’t want you telling your usual stories on auto-pilot. We like to mix it up a bit. And we record “as live”.’
Which they did – until we got to the one spoken word item I’d stuck to: Laurence Olivier as Othello, recorded before the play opened at the Old Vic in 1964. The moment it started I cried ‘Stop! It’s the wrong recording.’ They had the version of the speech from the film of the play recorded in 1965, by which time Olivier’s characterisation had coarsened almost to the point of caricature. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Kirsty, soothingly, ‘we’ll find the right one for you.’ And they did.
I didn’t enjoy the experience. I found it too emotional. I’d chosen a bit of my old school friend, the actor Simon Cadell, singing something from My Fair Lady, and hearing it prompted tears – which embarrassed me. Kirsty came to the rescue again, saying ‘We can stop if you like.’ I said, ‘No, no’ and on we went.
When it was done, I was drained and glad it was over. I got up straightaway and began putting on my coat. That’s when Kirsty came to the rescue for the final time. She said, ‘I’ve just realised you’ve been talking for an hour, you’ve gone through your entire life, and you haven’t mentioned your wife once. Shall we do a little bit extra that we can slip in?’ ‘Oh, yes,’ I said, sitting down again, ‘Yes, please.’ Now I come to think of it, Kirsty Young and Desert Island Discs probably saved my marriage.
If you’d like to hear the programme, I think you’ll find it here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00x8f2l