Simanaitis Says

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THE IDEA OF BEING a castaway on a desert island seems increasingly pleasant these days. The London Review of Books, June 6, 2022 offers “My Castaway This Week, Miranda Carter on the world’s longest-running interview show.” 

Here, in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow, are tidbits from Carter’s LRB article, together with a short list of my own castaway necessities. I encourage you to offer yours as well.

A Neat Idea. Miranda Carter writes, “The idea for Desert Island Discs came to Roy Plomley one night in November 1941 in the aftermath of the Blitz. Plomley was 27, an unsuccessful actor turned slightly more successful radio broadcaster…. If you were wrecked on a desert island, which ten gramophone records would you like to have with you? Providing of course that you have a gramophone and needles as well!”

Plomey’s boss bought into the idea, reducing the ten choices to eight. Carter notes, “The first thirty-minute episode was broadcast live at 8 p.m. on Thursday, 29 January 1942, to the strains of Eric Coates’s ‘By the Sleepy Lagoon’, apparently inspired by the view from Selsey towards Bognor Regis.”

Carter continues, “Nobody would have been more surprised than Plomley or his boss by the fact that the programme celebrated its eightieth birthday this January. It’s the world’s longest-running interview show, though only the eleventh oldest radio programme: that record is held by the Shipping Forecast, at 98, closely followed by The Grand Ole Opry, broadcast from Nashville, Tennessee since 1925. The format of Desert Island Discs is deeply and reassuringly familiar to its audience, each episode, according to its recent presenter Kirsty Young, ‘a well-tethered hammock’ cradling itself ‘around each highly individual guest.’ ”

The Early Days: “After four episodes,” Carter reports, “the BBC’s listener research department reported that 146 military units had given the programme a solid B-plus. The idea and the castaways were liked, but the musical choices were criticised for being too ‘highbrow’—no Bing Crosby, Deanna Durbin or Joe Loss.”

A Classical Skew. Carter notes, “The most common music choices would remain insistently highbrow until the 2010s. Desert Island Discs’ biggest ever record is Handel’s Messiah. Until 2010 the most frequently played composers were Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, and the most popular non-classical record was ‘Je ne regrette rien’ sung by Édith Piaf, which hobbled in at 27th in Desert Island Discs’ all-time top hundred.” 

Carter continues, ‘In his 1982 play, The Real Thing, Tom Stoppard described the eternal dilemma of choosing records that make you look classy and cultured versus the ones you actually like. (He was rewarded by being invited onto the show three years later.)” 

Carter reasons, “My hunch is that this classical skew came about partly because Stoppard was right—castaways wanted to look cultured—but also because most people’s pool of familiar classical music is much smaller than their pool of familiar popular music, so the same classical tracks have been chosen over and over, while votes for contemporary songs have been more thinly spread across many more records. Only after 2010 did the Beatles enter the top three, largely because, I think, classical music has become less important as a signifier of classiness.”

Tomorrow in Part 2, we continue with more adventures on Desert Island Discs as well as my own castaway selection. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2022

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