The show itself — invented in 1942 by Roy Plomley, who presented it for a mere 43 years — is a national institution. In its gentle, droll and panoramic way it provides a window into British culture. Plomley wrote in his original submission to the BBC that castaways would include “dance-band leaders, actors, members of the Brains Trust, film stars, writers, child prodigies, ballet dancers and all sorts of people”.
Its wide sweep of guests from all walks of public life, including many who are distinguished in their own field but are relatively unknown to the general public, has introduced listeners to whole areas of knowledge and fresh cultural worlds they are delighted to discover.
With its ability to educate, inform and entertain, Desert Island Discs is arguably the one show that defines the BBC, remaining faithful like no other to its core principles and retaining its original format.
The Today programme on Radio 4, which started in 1957, has changed in format, style and content. TV’s Question Time, which started in 1979, did not originally include so much audience participation and certainly no comedian on the panel. As for The Archers, which started in 1951, its attempt to reflect politically correct reality has made its storylines as likely as a cowpat in Islington.
Yet Desert Island Discs remains unchanged. No such show today would supply the mythical island with the Bible and Shakespeare. In that way it is an island in itself, resisting the rising seas of I’m a Celebrity, Big Brother and other such cultural effluent.
Its genius is that it allows each of us to fantasise about our own eight discs and being on our own desert island, alone and thrown on our own resources. Would we master our circumstances or allow them to master us? Are we survivors or expirers?
As in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Desert Island Discs enchants us with its isle full of noises “that give delight and hurt not”, and on which we delight to dream.