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Join Me in My Obsession with “Desert Island Discs”


Roy Plomley’s classic BBC radio program now seems less about music and creative inspiration than about the possibility of loneliness.Photograph by John Downing / Getty

The first episode of “Desert Island Discs” was recorded at the bomb-damaged Maida Vale Studios, in West London, on January 27, 1942, and aired on the BBC two days later. It’s an interview show with a simple premise: each celebrity guest discusses the eight recordings that he or she would bring if cast away alone on a desert island. The show is less concerned with logistics—in the early days, it clarified that guests would have “a gramophone and an inexhaustible supply of needles”—than the trigger of sound. Each guest wrestles with the question of what you would want a song to remind you of. Since that début episode, featuring the show’s creator, Roy Plomley, interviewing the Austrian-British comedian, actor, and musician Vic Oliver, there have been more than three thousand castaways. It’s now one of the BBC’s best-known and most cherished shows, hailed by some as one of the greatest radio programs of all time.

More than two thousand episodes are available online as downloads or podcasts, and I began listening to them a few years ago, as a way of glimpsing times other than my own. I love hearing about the path-altering memories of others—what it was like to experience Beatlemania or Motown or punk before they were settled narratives. At first, I was drawn to specific guests, hoping to learn more about the interiority of David Beckham (the Stone Roses, Elton John, Sidney Bechet), what kind of music Zadie Smith liked (Biggie, Prince, Madonna), where the cultural theorist Stuart Hall found inspiration (Bach, Billie Holiday, Bob Marley—“the sound that saved a lot of second-generation black West Indian kids from just, you know, falling through a hole in the ground”). Besides the eight songs, guests are allowed one luxury item—the Danish chef René Redzepi (Run-D.M.C., WU LYF, Metallica) asked for a day of snow—and one book other than the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare, which every castaway automatically receives. “I don’t want the Bible,” the activist and journalist Tariq Ali (Charlie Parker, Cornelius Cardew, Pathane Khan) scoffed a few years ago. “I’ll have Shakespeare,” he continued, before opting for some Balzac or Proust—a favorite among castaways.

At first, the conceit seemed to me a perfect and efficient exercise of taste. How could you whittle down your personality to eight or ten songs? Could your essence be distilled to one side of a cassette? Some guests, like Morrissey (Marianne Faithfull, the Velvet Underground, New York Dolls), still playfully self-deprecating in 2009, or John McEnroe, who ratchets up his American bad-boy-isms, delight in sharing a personal canon that has become synonymous with their unruly public images. McEnroe arrived in London for his first Wimbledon in 1977, the summer that punk transformed the pop mainstream. At first, he thought the punks he saw walking down the street were “freaks,” but then he realized that “those are the people that rally behind me.” Keith Richards basically spends his entire episode speaking admiringly of all the black music (Chuck Berry, Aaron Neville, Etta James) that the Rolling Stones adapted to their own use.

For most of the episodes, the guests’ selections are full of inspirational highs, offering insight into why these people chose the paths that eventually brought them fame, or infamy. Some are obvious, like Thom Yorke swooning over the Talking Heads album that rewired his brain. The artist Jeremy Deller reaffirms the hopeful earnestness beneath his irreverent work, citing the Beach Boys’ “In My Room” as his personal manifesto. Some are less obvious, as when Jared Diamond, the academic and author best known for “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” a book about the ecological roots of European expansion, passionately shares his love of German lieder. The author Michael Lewis speculates that his wife, the former MTV host Tabitha Soren, would prefer that he get caught in a sex-tape scandal than share his fondness for Chicago or Dire Straits. The Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales is less guilt-stricken about his tastes (Mötley Crüe, Rush, Lynyrd Skynyrd). But, eventually, I became entranced with the format itself, the way that such longtime hosts as Sue Lawley and Kirsty Young, better versed in current affairs than pop esoterica, toggled between fun reveries and the serious stuff. Since 2018, the show has been hosted by the journalist, former d.j., and musician Lauren Laverne. Guests usually accustomed to delivering the same old talking points drift off as a stray tune reminds them of the lean times of their youth. In the interest of time, and as a result of having to hit eight distinct markers over the course of about forty minutes, the conversations get intense very fast, triggered as much by memory as the host’s probing questions.

I’ve been obsessively listening to old episodes the past few days. It’s come to seem less like a show about music and creative inspiration than one about the possibility of loneliness. How do you find meaning in total isolation? The musical selections remind you of the bonds that have made life up until now worth living. In one famous episode, Young peels away at the actor Tom Hanks’s jolly persona, asking about the tempestuous childhood conjured by an upbeat jazz tune. He slowly unravels, talking about how much his well-documented niceness owes to the instability of how he grew up. “What have you done to me?” he asks, as he gently cries. He jokes that he has put far too much thought into this list. But who wouldn’t? Would you prefer to be reminded of where you began or where you ended up?

This week, while waiting in line for groceries, I listened to Young grill the talk-show host Jerry Springer in 2009. Springer talks about the radical empathy that, he says, underlies his show, which gives a platform to neo-Nazis, suburban gangster wannabes, or victims of trysts and cuckoldings that nobody really needed to know about. He gruffly maintains that he just wants people to understand and never underestimate one another. Young seems unconvinced that Springer is really interested in connection. And then he offers his next song: the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” She bursts into laughter at the sweet deliciousness of it.

When “Desert Island Discs” first aired, it was part of the BBC’s broader effort to make life during wartime slightly more bearable. It was a way to insure that not every waking second of life was lost to worry. The conversation was scripted and polite, and one imagines that guests were encouraged to offer selections that would make listeners feel optimistic or proud. In those days, there was only so much recorded music in existence. It wasn’t yet everywhere, soundtracking every moment of life, love, and loss. So, meaning was quite literal, and choices tended toward an easy romanticism. In 1951, the actress Margaret Lockwood chose the “Eton Boating Song.” Her nostalgia was meant to remind listeners still digging out of wartime destruction that their past was an exceptional one. “It always conjures up for me a very pleasant English scene,” she explained. “The River Thames in midsummer in the days before petrol launches, lovely ladies in parasols and flowing white gowns, willow trees, and whiskery gentlemen in straw hats and blazers.”

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