The show’s first guest was marooned three quarters of a century ago this month. Here are the moments that made Desert Island Discs a radio classic
1. The first castaway – marooned on 29 January 1942 – was Vic Oliver, a music-hall star in the 1930s. He was the perfect first interviewee for presenter Roy Plomley, the Wodehousian wannabe actor who devised the show. The first guest was supposed to be the philosopher CEM Joad, but he was indisposed. Who knows how broadcasting history would have turned out if Joad had made it to the recording.
2. The second castaway, on 5 February 1942, was the critic James Agate. Incestuously, one of his musical choices was Eric Coates’s By the Sleepy Lagoon, the programme’s theme music (which was inspired not by a tropical island, but by Bognor Regis). Agate was gay, but Plomley would never have dreamed of discussing such subjects – either in 1942 or 40 years later, when he was still presenting the show.
3. Comedian Arthur Askey, clearly a favourite of Plomley’s, made the first of his record four appearances on 2 April 1942 – the others came in 1955, 1968 and 1980, two years before his death. He shares the record – and maybe the records – with David Attenborough.
4. Bizarrely, Roy Plomley himself was one of the earliest subjects – perhaps CEM Joad had again failed to show. Plomley was interviewed by the BBC’s head of music Leslie Perowne in May 1942, and chose lots of Borodin. (Plomley made another appearance as castaway in May 1958, on this occasion interviewed by Eamonn Andrews.) The key thing to remember about these early episodes were they were music shows, with very little probing of the castaway’s life. It became a little more searching later under Plomley, and his successors – Michael Parkinson, Sue Lawley and Kirsty Young – then brought greater journalistic nous to it.
5. The problem with the early Desert Island Discs is that the programmes weren’t kept, and very few early episodes are available. One of the many missing interviews is with the great film director Michael Powell, who was cast away on 24 October 1942. Powell appeared again, alongside his film-making partnerEmeric Pressburger, in September 1980.
6. On 20 October 1945, CEM Joad finally made it on to the island. His musical tastes were singularly canonical – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert. Plomley had always advocated a wide range of guests – “dance-band leaders, actors, members of the Brains Trust, film stars, writers, child prodigies, ballet dancers and all sorts of people could be included,” he wrote in his initial submission to the BBC – but Vic Oliver and Arthur Askey were probably more fun.
7. The programme was dropped as part of a postwar shakeup at the BBC in 1946, but was revived in 1951 and has been going strong ever since. The first guest in the new run – on 3 January 1951 – was actor Eric Portman.
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My Desert Island Disc would be the Sex Pistols ‘God Save The Queen’ – just ‘cos….what would yours be?
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