Desert Island Discs: the 45 best guests
With over 3,000 guests having appeared on the show, and four different hosts, Desert Island Discs is now an institution – a character in Tom Stoppard’s play The Real Thing fretted about his upcoming appearance, while an episode of Absolutely Fabulous saw Edina Monsoon (played by Jennifer Saunders) choose eight discs, all by Lulu.
World leaders, film stars, pioneering scientists and captains of industry have all made their mark on the show since Royal Navy test pilot Eric Winkle Brown kicked things off - together with host Roy Plomley - on January 29, 1942.
Since then we've had wonderful musical choices, controversies (Oliver Reed shocking the gentlemanly Plomley with his request for a blow-up doll as his luxury item), memorable tales (who would have thought that Vidal Sassoon spent his youth in street fights against fascist gangs in the East End of London?) and guests who sometimes inadvertently revealed their own flaws (as when Norman Wisdom chose five of his own songs, including the appropriately titled Narcissus).
Most of the archive of wonderful past episodes is online. Not all are there (it would be interesting to hear Bob Hope and George Formby for example) but many treasures are available including Louis Armstrong, added in 2015. Here are 45 of the best Desert Island Discs you can enjoy, for free, on the BBC website, or via iTunes. To access the BBC downloads click here.
Arthur Askey (1942)
The comedian and radio star holds the record, along with David Attenborough for being the most interviewed castaway (four times - here, in 1955, 1968 and 1980). His choices, over the years, included Rachmaninov, Val Doonican and the Beatles as well as, on his first outing, his own track Band Waggon.
Roy Plomley (1942)
In a strangely self-reverential twist, host Plomley found himself cast away in an early edition of the show. His tastes tended towards the catholic – two Mozart operas and two pieces by Borodin. He was interviewed by the BBC’s then head of music, Leslie Perowne. In 1958, he returned as a guest, this time interviewed by Eamonn Andrews.
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (July 28, 1958)
The soprano made Desert Island Discs history when seven out of her eight choices were her own recordings (the eighth was the prelude to Der Rosenkavalier, conducted by Herbert von Karajan, and she featured in other parts of the recording). Schwarzkopf’s record was beaten by pianist Dame Moura Lympany in 1979. Subsequent narcissists include Norman Wisdom (five of his own records), Rolf Harris (three) and Engelbert Humperdinck (only one, but his own autobiography was his favoured book).
Ian Fleming (1963)
Sadly, only a 10-minute fragment of the James Bond author’s 1963 appearance on the series remains; but we do know that his – characteristically cryptic – choice of book was a German-language edition of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. A coded message to the real spooks at MI5, perhaps?
Marlene Dietrich (1965)
One of the show’s greatest coups occurred when Roy Plomley interviewed the reclusive film star. When asked if she would be afraid on the desert island, she replied, perhaps unsurprisingly: “No, no, no. I fear nothing.” More surprisingly, one of her chosen discs was by Sandie Shaw.
Alan Bennett (1967)
Bennett was cast off when he was relatively young and yet to become a national treasure. He has never returned to the show, although he did appear as Michael Berkeley’s guest on Private Passions in 2015. Writing in his diary in 2010, he noted: “I’d find it much easier to choose the eight records I don’t want than those that I do. I don’t ever want to hear again Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Schubert’s 5th Symphony, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, Mozart’s 40th Symphony.”
Louis Armstrong (1968)
The late and truly great New Orleans jazz trumpeter appeared with original host Roy Plumley. It's charming. Can you guess what his choice of luxury was? A trumpet, of course.
Alistair Maclean (circa 1972)
The thriller writer was well-known for being reclusive and so Plomley was surprised when Maclean accepted his invitation to appear on the show. However, when Maclean began to talk about his love of the Canadian countryside, the producer became anxious and prompted Plomley to ask about his novels. It soon became clear that this was not the Alistair Maclean but the-then Canadian minister of tourism. The episode was immediately wiped.
Oliver Reed (1974)
Plomley’s eyes must have popped out of his head when speaking to the hellraising actor. Reed’s choice of discs were conventional enough – Debussy, Mozart, Sinatra – but his luxury item was a blow-up doll. Seven years later, the same request was made by Gary Glitter.
Peter Ustinov (1977)
Part of the charm of Desert Island Discs is listening to entertaining and accomplished people reminiscing about their life and work. It obviously helps when they are as eloquent as the Oscar-winning actor and writer Peter Ustinov, who was rejected as a spy because he was told "his face would be difficult to lose in a crowd". There's real wit, too. "My idea of paradise is a country without telephones - and my idea of hell is a place where telephones don't work," he says.
Les Dawson (1978)
The late great comedian is certainly the only guest ever to pick Ravel and WC Fields (The Day I Drank a Glass of Water) among his eight record choices. It's like a stand-up routine at time. When he talks about learning the piano, he quips: "My father used to help me keep time by banging the lid up and down on my fingers," and when he recalls his boxing career, he jokes: "I was carried out of the ring so often I had handles put on my shorts."
Tennessee Williams (1978)
The playwright talks about his interesting musical choices (Harry Belafonte, The Beatles) and, in his memorable Southern drawl, explains about how nice it was to meet Elvis Presley. "I happened to meet Elvis when I took my mother out to Hollywood on a vacation. He was particularly sweet to her," says the author of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Spike Milligan (1978)
Comedian Spike Milligan is full of good tales and although his method of choosing music was predictably quirky (“I ran my fingers down the index very quickly and said: ‘give me 8 of those’”), the choices were interesting. Milligan chose Debussy, The Chieftains and The Beatles.
Dame Moura Lympany (1979)
The concert pianist Dame Moura Lympany (in 1979) gave new depth to the phrase "prima donna" by picking eight pieces of music in which she were the featured soloist. Bonus points to presenter Roy Plumley for keeping his head while all about him others were losing theirs. And she was not the first to do this: soprano Dame Elisabeth Schwarskopf also only chose her own work in 1958. However, only the former is available to listen to online.
Lauren Bacall (1979)
One of Plomley’s sparkiest castaways was the great screen siren who was offended by his forcing her to choose one disc above all the others (were the waves to come crashing in). As Plomley bade farewell with his usual sign off - “Thank you for letting us hear your Desert Island Discs” - Bacall retorted: “And thank you for taking seven of them away from me.”
Norman Mailer (December 15, 1979)
The novelist’s life was dogged by controversy and listening to this recording you can’t help feeling that he brought some of it on himself. A stick of marijuana was his luxury item, prompting the strait-laced Plomley to say: “Mr Mailer, this is illegal talk.”
William Trevor (1980)
William Trevor is one of the world's greatest short story writers and his interview is like a glimpse into a lost world of civility. "My wife introduced me to Bach and I introduced her to tea without milk," he tells Plomley, who replies: "It seems a fair swap." Trevor recalls his days as a church sculptor (a church near Rugby is full of his wood carvings) and shows his lighter side by selecting The Mouse Problem, a Monty Python sketch featuring Michael Palin and John Cleese. "Monty Python was a momentous event," the author says.
Kenneth Williams (1987)
The star of the Carry On films first appeared as a guest in 1961 but was again on with Michael Parkinson (the first replacement for Plomley following his death in 1985). The anecdotes sparkle and his astonishing voice will delight you as much as his imitations (Dame Edith Evans is laugh-out-loud) and ordinary observations about his mum and dad, who were working-class shop owners in Holborn, London. "I grew up in a world where all daily incidents were dramatised," he says. Elvis Presley comes into this Williams episode, too, as the actor recalls the funny way his mum used to mangle the lyrics.
Victoria Wood (1987 and 2007)
She was so good she did it twice. For the comedian's first appearance on the show, she was interviewed by Michael Parkinson and they talked about her early years at Rochdale Youth Theatre. She named African Ripples by Fats Waller as her favourite song.
Twenty years later, Kirsty Young had a frank conversation with Wood about her weight issues, her depression and the dent to her self-esteem after the break-up of her marriage to magician Geoffrey Durham. When he left Wood in 2002 she said: "I felt like a cartoon character who walks off a cliff." The song that brought her happiness was The Doobie Brothers' What a Fool Believes.
Peter Fluck and Roger Law (1987)
The Spitting Image creators made Desert Island Discs’ history when they became the first double castaways. They took it in turn to pick the records and their luxury item was Margaret Thatcher’s resignation speech (she won her third General Election three months later). The only other double acts to have appeared so far are Ant and Dec and Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran.
Dennis Potter (1988)
Dennis Potter was another guest who appeared twice (the first was in 1977) and his second appearance contains a mixture of anger, wit, cynicism and hope. It's also intriguing to hear his thoughts about the beneficial way that TV can provide a "common culture" for Britain.
Dame Edna Everage (1988)
The Dame gets the last laugh award for her appearance in 1988, choosing, as a luxury, her long-time companion and former bridesmaid Madge Allsop. Sue Lawley objected, explaining that by the rules of the show luxuries have to be inanimate objects. “When I saw her last she was pretty well comatose,” Everage replied, with a twinkle.
Diana Mitford (1989)
Probably the most controversial episode ever of the show saw Lady Mosley gush in an unsavoury fashion about Hitler, saying he had mesmeric eyes and that he was a fascinating character. When Sue Lawley brought up the question of murdering six million Jews, Mitford’s response was chilling. “Oh, I don’t think it was that many.”
John Peel (1990)
It may not come as a surprise that a man who made a career out of playing weird and wonderful music on the radio should have put in a memorable turn on Desert Island Discs; and Peel’s 1990 interview with Sue Lawley ranks as one of the series’ all-time bests. His final choice, by the Zimbabwean pop group The Four Brothers, is the ultimate riposte to the "stick to the classics" school of D.I.D. castaways.
Alan Bleasdale (1991)
Host number three was Sue Lawley and she gets the Liverpool playwright talking about being a self-confessed hypochondriac (as was the teacher played by Michael Palin in Bleasdale's 1991 TV series GBH). The episode is worth listening to alone for his choice of a rare Elvis Presley song – the version of Are You Lonesome Tonight? in which Presley is hit by uncontrollable giggles midway through the song. It's a joy.
John Major (1992)
Modern politicians can usually be relied upon to disappoint on Desert Island Discs, doling out choices that feel as homogenised and focus-grouped as any Westminster press release (see the editions with Tony Blair, David Cameron and Ed Miliband for particularly insipid examples of this). Not so the then-Prime Minister John Major, who stepped up for a movingly candid interview with Sue Lawley on the series’ fiftieth anniversary in 1992 – the unforeseen high point of which was his choice of Diana Ross and the Supremes's hip-shaking The Happening.
Kenny Everett (October 4, 1993)
Four months prior to appearing on the show, Everett was diagnosed with AIDS. His sanguine attitude made for one of the most powerful episodes in the show’s history. “There’s no point in ponderising,” he told Sue Lawley. “I could get run over by a truck tomorrow. So could you, Sue.”
Gordon Brown (March 3, 1996)
The terrier-like Lawley caused something of a stir when she interviewed the then Shadow Chancellor. “Are you gay?” she asked and, to Brown’s credit, he did not storm off. “I’m not married because I’m not married. It hasn’t happened yet.” Four years later, he married Sarah Macaulay.
John Cleese (January 5, 1997)
The famously irascible comic actor and writer chose fellow Python Michael Palin as his luxury item. “You can’t have Michael Palin, he’s animate,” protested Sue Lawley. “You can have him stuffed.” “OK, that’ll do,” said Cleese without missing a beat.
Charlie Watts (2001)
Charlie Watts, arguably the most under-rated member of the Rolling Stones, paints a surprising picture of himself and talks well about his love of jazz.
Nigella Lawson (2003)
The original yummy mummy appeared on the series in 2003, and dropped a cartload of surprises on Sue Lawley – including her choice of a bottle of liquid Temazepam as a luxury (“to give me the possibility of a very pleasant exit”). Best of all, though, were her final choices of punchy tracks by the rapper Eminem and the dance duo the Chemical Brothers. “Very, ah, repetitive”, was Lawley’s prim response.
Armando Iannucci (June 9, 2006)
The British satirist was one of Sue Lawley’s last guests on the series in 2006, and took a more expansive definition of "record" than most castaways, opting for a recording of Woody Allen delivering an inspired comedy routine about a moose as his fifth choice.
You would expect an interview with Morrissey to be engrossing but the whole thing is like a Smiths song: spiky, tender, haughty and raw. Listen to the part where he says he contemplated suicide and admits that "nothing" comforts him.
Michael Caine (2009)
Nestled in among choices that alternated between the sentimental (Frank Sinatra's My Way), the mainstream (Coldplay's Viva La Vida) and the predictable (Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations), the venerable actor slipped in an entirely unexpected piece of chilled-out trance music from British producer Chicane, explaining to a temporarily dumbfounded Kirsty Young that “it’s a very romantic song, but a bit of a beat to it”.
David Walliams (2009)
Things took a decidedly downbeat turn when the Little Britain star announced his luxury item to Kirsty Young. “I would like to take a gun,” said Walliams matter-of-factly, “because I don’t like being on my own and if I really start hating it I could shoot myself.” The pause that followed was palpable. Twenty years earlier, Stephen Fry had asked for a suicide pill.
Tony Adams (2010)
Something about Desert Island Discs and the thought of isolation gets people to open up. In this, former Arsenal and England footballer Tony Adams gives a candid account of recovery from alcoholism. As a young player he would get so drunk he would pass out and wet his bed. His bewildered mother did not say anything but would silently hang the mattress out of the window to dry the next day. A moving episode.
Kathy Burke (2010)
Young is normally composure personified, but even she could not help collapsing in a fit of giggles when interviewing the honest and very funny Burke. Young mentioned a quote from Stephen Fry in which he said that Burke should be put in the antithesis of Room 101 “where all the lovely things are”. “Ooh,” said Burke. “That makes me feel a bit sick.” She also comes up with one of the quirkiest luxury items ever: a full-size laminated photograph of Dragon's Den judge James Caan. She wants to use it to body surf.
Betty Driver (2011)
The late Betty Driver was the beloved barmaid Betty Turpin in Coronation Street. She's honest about the unpleasant mother who pushed her on to the stage and a family who happily lived off her for years. Driver, a good singer in her day, shows humour and fortitude.
Molly Parkin (2011)
The doyenne of bohemian living, writer Molly Parkin tells a great story about (when she was an innocent virgin) meeting Louis Armstrong. He kissed her full on the lips "that set my blood boiling," she jokes. She tells a touching story about George Melly and their "wonderful friendship".
Dustin Hoffman (2012)
Another great thing about Desert Island Discs is the ones that surprise you. Oscar-winning Dustin Hoffman is fascinating about the insecurities he has as a performer.
Jack Dee (2014)
A 2014 highlight was deadpan comedian Jack Dee. He was candid about being called "thick" at school and his choice of music was nicely quirky, including Bob Dylan, John Hegley, the theme tune to Whatever Happened to The Likely Lads? and comedian Bob Newhart's epic sketch Introducing Tobacco to Civilisation.
Lily Allen (2014)
The singer was a good example of a candid guest. "I am a mass of contradictions and a massive hypocrite. It is one thing if you are politician, you do have to stick to what you said. But I am a musician and we live in confusing times and it is OK to feel confused. That is a lot of what my songs are about." She chose the lovely Etta James song I'd Rather Go Blind and a sweet luxury item choice: her husband’s shirt with her daughter’s bunny sewn on to it.
Keith Richards (2015)
The Rolling Stones guitarists knew some of the musicians he picks and there is a real warmth to his recollections. As you would expect, there are great musical choices (Hank Williams, Little Walter, Chuck Berry, Aaron Neville . . . and Vivaldi) and lots of good anecdotes.
David Nott (2016)
As a surgeon, Nott has worked in some of the world’s biggest centres of conflict and shown great physical and mental courage. But he broke down when talking about the birth of his daughter, Molly, and about a reunion with his wife, Ellie, after his return from Syria. “Shall we just play it?” said Young (herself close to tears), before giving Debussy’s Clair de Lune a spin.
David Beckham (2017)
The more popular half of Posh ’n’ Becks™ reminisced to Kirsty Young about changing daughter Harper’s nappies and rocking her to sleep against his much-admired chest. He fancies himself as a cook, so selected Francis Mallmann’s On Fire as his book. He admitted having more than 1,000 pairs of old football boots in storage – a shoe collection to rival his wife’s and probably more practical to wear.
There were surprises on his playlist, too. Alongside middle-of-the-road fare from Elton John, The Doobie Brothers and Michael Jackson were songs which reminded him of ports of call during his playing career: the Stone Roses for Manchester, Alejandro Sanz for Madrid, Sidney Bechet for Paris. Ella Fitzgerald and the Rolling Stones added a touch of timeless class.