On Lyric FM, Marty Whelan announced that today, 29th January, was the 71st anniversary of the first broadcast by the BBC of ‘Desert Island Discs’. It seemed an arbitrary choice of anniversaries, but did provide an opening for broadcasting an excerpt from a 1958 edition of the programme in which Sacha Distel talked about Brigitte Bardot, which led into the playing of Distel’s version of Burt Bacharach’s ‘This guy’s in love with you’. (Sometimes Marty Whelan’s programmes seem more a stream of consciousness than planned broadcasts).
In the days before the wavebands were filled with stations at every millimetre turn of the dial, ‘Desert Island Discs’ was one of those programmes to be frequently encountered at home and in the houses of friends. There was never a time I recall when anyone actually sat down to listen to it, it was more that its mood and format seemed to permeate the consciousness.
In younger days, the words were more interesting than the music. The people spoke with perfect accents and recalled events that had changed the history of the world. The Great Wars of the Twentieth Century provided a backdrop to the personal experiences and reminiscences recounted by Roy Plomley’s studio guests. To a 1970s teenager, the choice of music was unappealing, classical music and opera seemed to comprise the entire record selection of many of the guests; it seemed unthinkable that any of them might choose anything that had been in the pop charts.
Catching ‘Desert Island Discs’ is a rare occurrence these days, in the Irish Midlands the BBC Radio 4 signal has become as intermittent and unreliable as that of Radio Luxembourg was for those who listened to it late at night forty years ago. Having lived outside of England for thirty years, the programme guests now are rarely names I recognize and the stories they tell do not carry the weight of history borne by the tales told by their predecessors. The music has become more interesting than the words, much of it very different from that played during the programme’s early decades.
What hasn’t changed over the years is the playing of a personal game, probably one played by many people: choosing the eight records to take to a desert island.
The choice has changed since the 1970s. Apart from Adele, it is hard to imagine taking the work of any chart artist in recent times. It is not just the artists, the preferred style of music has shifted. Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Jungleland’ and The Band singing ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ would still be in the pile of eight, but so also would Bryn Terfel singing ‘Shenandoah’ and (dare I admit it?) Burt Bacharach’s ‘This guy’s in love with you’, (though I think Herb Alpert does it much better than Sacha Distel -perhaps I should send a request into Marty Whelan).