My Desert Island Discs
'Desert Island Discs' is truly a British institution - an interview and music show which has existed on BBC radio for more than 70 years, and which seems set to continue for another 70. It's a winning format - an easy going chat show in which the talk is interlaced with eight records or 'discs' selected by the guest - and it's a format which has attracted into the guest's chair some of the most famous names in the world, including all British prime miinisters from the past 40 years, archbishops, highly renowned scientists and a huge array of business leaders, film stars, musicians, sports stars and writers.
And now me. Not really. But this is my 150th web page on the HubPages Internet site - something of a landmark - so I'm going to treat myself to a fantasy appearance on the show. What follows is a brief explanation of the format of the show and then the eight records (with videos) I would choose to take with me to my desert island and why I would take them, if only I could appear for real on this rather eccentric, yet uniquely successful programme.
N.B: Please note, all my articles are best read on desktops and laptops
All About Desert Island Discs
For those unfamiliar with it, probably because they live in another country, Desert Island Discs has some of the most impressive credentials of any show, anywhere in the world. It is a forty minute weekly programme on BBC Radio 4 in which the presenter interviews a solitary guest about their life, their career and their philosophy, and invites them to choose the eight records which they would most want to have with them to listen to, if ever they were to be stranded on a hypothetical desert island.
Desert Island Discs first aired on 27th January 1942. Ever since then, apart from a five year break between 1946 and 1951, it has been a perennial weekly feature on BBC Radio, and is now the nation's longest running radio show. Initially broadcast on the Forces Programme (during World War Two), and then the 'Light programme' and the 'Home Service', the programme has since 1967 been broadcast on Radio 4. In all that time there have been just four presenters - the show's original creator and driving force Roy Plomley, who presented from 1942 until his death in 1985, Michael Parkinson, who took over between 1985 and 1988, Sue Lawley from 1988 to 2006, and Kirsty Young from 2006 to the present day. Between them they have interviewed more than 3000 guests from all walks of life.
The Programme Format
Usually the show will start with a very brief biography of the guest or 'castaway' and then the presenter may well ask how they made their selection of discs. Most of course will be favourites, though not necessarily all. Because of the nature of the selection (the only comfort the stranded guest might have on a desert island), poignancy and special memories also play a part - music which has meant something in the guest's life.
As the show proceeds, brief excerpts from each record are played, interspersed with passages of conversation as the would-be castaway is interviewed. The nature of the questioning is usually fairly gentle, but obviously is dictated in part by the kind of life and career being investigated. But there are also some stock questions which are always put forward, enquiring about the guest's favourite books and other likes and dislikes, and about their survival capabilities on this hypothetical desert island.
The Desert Island Discs Formula - Why Does It Work?
Desert Island Discs is, on the face of it, a rather quaint and quirky format, and yet it is a format which has worked for more than seventy years. Why? So many interviews on television and radio these days - notably political interviews - are too confrontational and argumentative, forcing the interviewee to put up a barrier of defences. The truth about the person becomes lost behind that smokescreen. Others are simply lighthearted vehicles to plug a celebrity's latest venture, book, film or whatever. Nothing of real interest about the guest is revealed. And still others are 5-minute chats in a magazine show which just don't have the time to really explore what makes the guest tick.
Desert Island Discs is a bit different. It's certainly not the place for hard-nosed tough interviewing, but the relaxed atmosphere and the seemingly innocuous questioning about the guest's favourite music, favourite books, their practical abilities, their needs and desires, puts them at ease and encourages them to reveal far more about their character and personality than they would ordinarily choose to do. Although it may not be as aggressively probing as some other interviews, Desert Island Discs does get under the skin of the guest in a benign yet penetrating way which others cannot.
Anyway, you can judge for yourselves. Listen to my music selections and read my answers to questions on this page, and you'll probably learn more about me than you ever would in an interrogational interview in which I was put back on the defensive.
Of course the great majority of guests have been British, and mostly from the artistic fields, but such has been the reputation of the show over the past seventy years, that many of the most famous names in the world have been tempted into the castaway's chair. Selected guests have included, in alphabetical order :
Julie Andrews, Louis Armstrong, David Attenborough, Lauren Bacall, Tony Blair, Sebastian Coe, George Clooney, Bing Crosby, Roald Dahl, Judi Dench, Marlene Dietrich, Bill Gates, Guy Gibson (leader of the Dambusters Raid), Whoopi Goldberg, Tom Hanks, Stephen Hawking, Edmund Hillary, Alfred Hitchcock, Dustin Hoffman, Burl Ives, Elton John, Michael Jordan, Aung San Suu Kyi, Jack Lemmon, Norman Mailer, Theresa May, Paul McCartney, Kylie Minogue, Princess Grace of Monaco, Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, Martina Navratilova, Yoko Ono, Paul Robeson, Ginger Rogers, J.K Rowling, Salman Rushdie, General Norman Schwarzkopf, James Stewart, Margaret Thatcher, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Justin Welby (current Archbishop of Canterbury), Tennessee Williams.
My Taste in Music
Most - though not all - kinds of music appeal, and those who know me well may be surprised to learn that if I were to choose my top 100 discs rather than just 8, perhaps at least a quarter would be songs from the era of pop (the 1960s onwards). However, I am known for my liking of ancient music - simple, melodic folk songs - and so about half of my 100 would probably be music composed more than 100 years ago. That will be more than reflected in my selection below.
My Desert Island Discs
Because this is sadly only my fantasy appearance on the show, not the real thing, I won't imagine all the questions about life and career which may be asked during a typical broadcast - this isn't my biography, and frankly, very few would be interested. This article is just about my eight tracks and why I chose them. However, after the eight records have been described and played, I will also answer all those stock questions which I mentioned before.
All my eight discs will be among my favourites, but just as is the case with most guests, some are chosen as much for the memories they evoke. For each song I will give my reasons for its selection, and maybe a little further background about the song and video than is possible on the real programme. In my selections I have been constrained by the choice of videos available on YouTube, but extensive searches have enabled me to choose versions I'm happy with.
So here in the order in which I would like to have them played, are my eight discs ...
1) The Skye Boat Song - Kathryn Jones
The Skye Boat Song is a well known late 19th century folk song from Scotland which tells the tale of how Charles Stewart - 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' - escaped to the Island of Skye after his abortive attempt to overthrow King George II at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. As a child my mother spent several years living on this remote island, and I think it was a fond memory for her. Her younger sister Billie was born on Skye, and when Billie - who later migrated to America - tragically died young from a brain tumour, The Skye Boat Song was one of five songs chosen for her funeral. When my mother died, I did the same for her. So there's a personal connection with this beautiful piece of music.
The lyrics of The Skye Boat Song are famous, and they begin with the classic lines:
Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that's born to be King
Over the sea to Skye
Currently YouTube is full of video performances derived from the TV series 'Outlander' which features the song, but with some altered lyrics. Nonetheless, I love this version by Kathryn Jones, even though it has the new words. Now please can she can record one exactly the same but with the traditional lyrics?
2) In The Bleak Midwinter - Connie Dover
Christmas carols are usually either very holy pieces sung reverentially by choirs and played by massed orchestras, or they're bouncy, jolly songs intended to appeal to little children. But my second choice is a carol with a difference. It's hugely sentimental and evocative of wintertime. I remember well my school days when the summers seemed warmer but the winters colder, and I remember as a little boy having to walk home from school when it was bitingly cold and perhaps I would be trudging through deep snow underfoot. The streets would be dark, and apart from the stars glinting in the night sky, the only lights would be the welcoming glow from peoples' centrally heated houses. And I would then think ahead to my own home, where my mother would probably already be preparing an evening meal and I would look forward to getting into the warm - and out of the bleak midwinter.
This version of the song In The Bleak Midwinter is sung by my favourite singer Connie Dover, about whom I have written a webpage. It is also the only YouTube video on this page for which I have provided the slide show which accompanies the music, using selected images from Wikimedia Commons.
3) Greensleeves - The London Symphony Orchestra
For as long as I can remember, the folk song Greensleeves has been a favourite piece of music. For many years it was the undisputed favourite. I first heard it as a little child, I think in the jingle of an ice cream van, though I also remember it from my early days in a Saturday matinee film I saw in a cinema in South Wales (possibly The Swiss Family Robinson?) It's been a part of my life ever since, forever surfacing in films, in TV adverts and in concerts, and each time it brings back memories. And six years ago when I joined the Internet writing site HubPages, I chose 'Greensleeves' as my username. No song is more identified with me or my interests, evocative as it is of history, and of folk music, and of the English countryside.
Greensleeves is more than 400 years old and is the subject of a web page by me. In all the intervening centuries since it was first composed it has appeared in many different guises, but perhaps most famous today is the classical 'Fantasia on Greensleeves' by Ralph Vaughan-Williams which actually includes as its centre section another folk tune 'Lovely Joan', whilst beginning and ending with Greensleeves.
4) Arms Of Mary - Sutherland Brothers & Quiver
I was a bit of a late developer when it comes to girls. There had been girls at school that I liked, but it was only when I went to university in Swansea, Wales in the year 1975 that I really developed a passion for a girl in one of my classes. Her name was Cathy Hyde, and with me being ultra shy, it was a totally unrequited love - one of which she was never aware. She never became more than a nodding acquaintance, smiling or saying 'hi' when passing in the street. She left after one year - not because of me I hasten to add! I think the course hadn't suited her, but to my intense regret I never did find out exactly why she decided to leave or what became of her in later life. That is now forty years ago.
Pop music has never been a big thing for me and I really only came to it in the '70s when I was in my late teens.There was a really beautiful song playing in the charts at the time when I met Cathy. It was called 'Arms of Mary'. Pity it wasn't 'Arms of Cathy', but musically 'Mary' was the best I could do. It made me think of her, and at the time and for a long while after I last saw her, I could still be moved to tears playing it and thinking about the first girl I ever really wanted, and yet could never approach.
5) Molly Malone - Erin Isle Singers
This one's almost embarressing:) A song about a girl wheeling a wheelbarrow whilst selling cockles and mussels seems more like a children's nursery rhyme than a proper song. They just don't write songs like this anymore do they, and if I'd told my work friends about this one they'd probably have shaken their heads sadly and wandered slowly away! But now I've left work and I'm no longer bothered - if I wanted to sound cool, I guess I'd have picked some recent hit by whoever's hot at the moment. (How by the way can you be 'cool' by liking someone 'hot?' I don't get the modern vernacular.)
Anyway, in my world it's cool to be independently minded and to not care what anyone thinks. So I'll go with Molly Malone. Actually, Molly Malone is not so much a children's song, but a poignant story of a poor girl who dies and whose ghost now haunts the streets of Dublin. Why do I so much like this kind of song which dates back to at least the late 19th century? I have the ability in my mind to transport myself back to these past times and imagine myself in the streets of a simpler, less cynical, seemingly more charming age. And the melody of this song is as simple as the times it represents, and to be honest, it's probably my favourite melody in all the world today.
6) Scheherazade - Radio Symphony Orchestra Ljubljana
Scheherazade is my one concession to the fact that I'm being stranded on a desert island with only eight records. The thing is, I don't know how long I'm going to be on this island and even with eight favourite discs, I think I just might start getting bored with them. If they're all about three or four minutes long, I could get through them all in about 30 minutes, and then I'd have to start over again. So it makes sense to have one really long piece of music I won't ever get bored with - a full blown classical symphony no less, at least 40 minutes in length. Trouble is, I tend to only like the 'best bits' of classical music - little excerpts from longer works. However, there is just one exception - the Rimsky-Korsakov symphony Scheherazade, which is great from the beginning of the first movement to the end of the fourth. Scheherazade is yet another late 19th century piece of music (completed 1888), but based on the much more ancient Arabian tale of the legendary queen and story teller of 'One Thousand and One Nights' (a.k.a The Arabian Nights). As I say, all four movements of the symphony are really very good, but if I have to pick a favourite, it must be the brilliant third movement - 'The Young Prince and the Young Princess', which is the piece I'll play here.
For the purposes of this page I had two main choices - a video of a symphony orchestra and men in black suits and bow ties, or a version with a collage of colourful images from The Arabian Nights and similar themes. I chose the latter :) I once met someone with the name Scheherazade. She didn't like it. I reckon it's just about the most exotic name in the world.
7) The Ash Grove - Nana Mouskouri
Well so far I've had one traditional Scottish song, one English folk tune, and an old Irish song. And now I'm going for a Welsh ballad. If I was a politician you'd cynically accuse me of wanting to curry favour with people from all four nations of the Kingdom. But they are all absolutely genuine favourites, and this one is particularly appropriate and special to me as I'm half Welsh (all Welsh when Wales are playing rugby) and again, I've loved it since I was a child. It is called Llwyn Onn in Welsh or The Ash Grove in English. Though the tune may be much older, the first published version of Llwyn Onn was in 1802, and the English translation is known from 1862. Do you recognise the title? If not, I think most will surely recognise the familiar tune which is just beautiful.
Since first publishing this article, I've had a problem deciding on a video to accompany The Ash Grove. At that time, none of the available recordings really did the song justice. I really really wanted a version which sent a shiver up my spine - a quality which all beautiful music should have. Thankfully a new search (2019) on YouTube has now revealed several such renditions, mostly by relatively unknown artists - Shelby Flint, Kellianna, Michelle Amato and Laura Wright - all are worth checking out. However, I have chosen this recording by Nana Mouskouri - not entirely appropriate I guess, because she's about as Welsh as taramasalata! Nana is Greek, and her name may also be unfamiliar to some readers. It really shouldn't be. Although it's hard to find unqualified statistical evidence, many authorities argue that Nana Mouskouri - who's been performing since the early 1960s, achieving huge popularity throughout Europe and indeed across the world - has more album sales to her name than any other female artist in history . And her rendition of 'The Ash Grove' is beautiful.
8) Auld Lang Syne - Sissel Kyrkjebø
Let's finish in the way all gatherings should finish, with the great song of togetherness and cheer Auld Lang Syne. Each year on New Year's Day, it's played on national television after the clock strikes midnight and these days after a seemingly interminable fireworks display, and each year its prominence sadly seems to lessen as modern songs with transient lifespans take over. But however much it's shunted into the background, Auld Lang Syne will remain forever the song of companionship. I would play it on my own on my desert island and remember all the people I've loved, all my friends, and all the people I would long to see again. I love the melody. As for the lyrics, does anyone know what the words written by Robert Burns in 1788 are all about? :)
Speaking of the old Scottish dialect of the original poem, the first verse of the video below is sung in English, before the singer Sissel Kyrkjebø turns to what I assume to be her native Norwegian. The images are from all over the world, and near the end the video switches to the Scottish bagpipes and the orchestra of Dutch violinist André Rieu together with the obligatory fireworks display. So - very international - but I had to use this recording because Sissel's is simply the best voice I've heard singing this. And after all - this song today is very much an international song of togetherness.
Actually with thoughts of togetherness in mind, maybe I should have had second thoughts about this one? Maybe hearing it alone on my island without any friends within a thousand miles would be enough to take me literally to the edge. Maybe I'd jump off one of those island sea cliffs and end it all? Anyway, be that as it may, the song ends it all for this selection of my 'Desert Island Discs'.
So these are my eight pieces of music, and today they're pretty much set in stone. They've been my eight for many years now. All are among my favourites, all have a 'tingle factor', and all mean something to me which other pieces do not.
Other Questions the Castaway is Always Asked :
I mentioned before that there are some stock questions which the presenter always asks, and these are my answers to five of these questions. As my choices are not being broadcast I will take a few liberties and meander a little in my answers. The first two relate to the desert island experience and clearly aim to probe the castaway's personality and character in adversity. The others are intended to discover more about the guest's likes and dislikes. What means most to them in life?
1) How Would You Cope With Being Alone On A Desert Island?
It all depends on what is available on the island. A nice dry island albeit with plenty of fresh water and easy to find food and I'd be OK. But it has to be dry because to me, 'do-it-yourself' ends with the ability to wire a plug or knock a nail in a piece of wood. I couldn't build a shelter. As far as companionship is concerned, I wouldn't mind being physically alone for a while because I'm used to that, though I would be desperate to share my experiences with someone, even if only by carrier pigeon!
2) Would You Try To Escape?
Would I try to escape? Now don't be silly! If I can't build a shelter, do you honestly think I could build a boat capable of crossing an ocean?
3) The Bible And The Complete Works Of Shakespeare Are Already On The Island. You Can Take One Other Book?
(I'm guessing that in the early days of the show, it was anticipated that everyone would pick the Bible or Shakespeare so to prevent the choice becoming all too predictable, those books got banned from the options available).
If I can take a book that may never have been written, I would choose a book on the natural history of the island. I could easily fill my days hunting down and identifying bugs, beetles and birds, and even the barnacles on the beachside rocks.
If I have to take a book that's definitely been written, well that's a bit more problematic. Considering I write a lot, I actually read very little, and haven't picked up a single novel in the past 20 years. I'm really tempted to choose something very erudite like Einstein's 'Theory of Relativity', just to see if I can make any sense of it whatsoever, but in honesty I might take 'My Family And Other Animals', by Gerald Durrell - an autobiography of the author's childhood on the Greek island of Corfu. Durrell, who later became a naturalist and conservationist, spent his formative days doing exactly what I've described above - seeking out the local Mediterranean wildlife and studying it. When I was a child I read his book, and it made me want to do exactly the same thing. I envied him. Now on my desert island, I would have my chance!
4) And You Can Take One Luxury Of No Practical Survival Benefit?
(In other words, you can't choose a boat or a distress flare or possibly a ton of cans of baked beans - that would just be cheating!)
So I guess unlimited supplies of ice cream and ice cold banana milk shake may be frowned upon? I could live on that and get fat, and nobody would be there to criticise.
I would actually be torn between a camera with endless memory cards to record the scenery and wildlife, or a pen and notepad with endless sheets of paper, to record my thoughts and actions. On balance I would choose the notepad, figuring that after rescue I could always make a million selling my Robinson Crusoe story and then I could return in luxury another day to take some photos. But thoughts and feelings can be transient and they need to be written down at the time they happen, so they are never forgotten. Besides, if desperate, I suppose I could always use the sheets of paper for another purpose :)
5) And If All But One Of Your Eight Discs Were To Be Washed Away, Which One Would You Choose To Save?
Now having allowed me eight records, It would be the height of cruelty to immediately deny me seven of them. But if they were to get washed away following a catastrophic thunderstorm or a higher than usual high tide, the one I would want to have left on the beach would have to be 'Greensleeves'. It is, after all, my song.
So these are my eight 'discs' and the other choices of books and luxuries which I would make if and when I become a superstar worthy of inclusion on the real life version of Desert Island Discs. I guess it's never going to happen, but if I can't have them ever recorded for posterity on a radio broadcast, at least I can have them recorded here on the Internet, on my 150th published web page.
Just For Fun ...
Which of my eight discs do you like the best? (ignore the video images - after all, I can only take sound to my radio show desert island!)
A HubPage Challenge?
I've never initiated - or taken part in - one of the 'Hubpage Challenges', but maybe I'll post this on a forum. What do you think? Would others like to create their own list of eight records which mean more to them than any others?
Please feel free to quote limited text from this article on condition that an active link back to this page is included
All My Other Pages ...
I have written articles on many subjects including science and history, politics and philosophy, film reviews and travel guides, as well as poems and stories. All can be accessed by clicking on my name at the top of this page