Aaaaaaaaah, Desert Island Discs! As English as gin in teacups and leaves on the lawn - the Sunday morning sound of plummy voices and scratchy records, sandwiched between The Archers omnibus and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, with the rich kitchen aroma of lamb roasting and the imminent promise of slipping down the local for a pre-lunch bitter, back for grub, then a solid afternoon’s dozing in front of the football. Unbeatable.
Desert Island Discs, born in 1942, is the longest running music programme in the history of radio, proving that the deep, geeky pleasure of compiling personal Top 10 type lists, of categorizing your cultural make-up, was merely taken to its logical conclusion (and then way, way beyond) by Nick Hornby, not invented by him.
D.I.D is the mother of all List shows. Virtually every famous or worthy Briton has appeared at some point, including Noel Coward, Rowan Williams and all the last five Prime Ministers. The format is simple enough – you get to choose your eight favourite records to take on a desert island and between justifying your selections you talk about the triumphs and disasters of your long and fascinating life.
Over the years I have identified three different approaches taken by the guests to the problem of choosing just eight tunes from the billions available.
The first approach is just to pick your eight bestest songs. Thus Tory MP Ken Clarke had eight swing jazz records. The second is to pick the eight tracks that are least likely to drive you mad after endless repetitive playing in the isolation of a desert island. Though sensible if you were actually about to be packed off to a life of interminable solitude and boredom, this method seems to me to be taking the thing rather too seriously.
The third – and I suppose the most suitable method for the programme – is to take an autobiographical approach, selecting tunes that represent important stages or moments in your life.
The fourth method – which I will call the Politician’s Method – is to pick (or get your PR team to pick) music that you think will make you appear cool.
My two penn’oth (as at 15 December 2006)
In truth, most castaways take a line mixing all four approaches, and so will I. But since it is much more fun to agonisingly whittle down your own list than to read those of others, I will whistle through my selection tolerably quickly. (It is agony by the way, because after a while you start getting really quite upset about leaving things out. I’ve had to jettison the Beatles, Beethoven, Bob Dylan – and that’s just the B’s).
(By the way, you also get to choose a luxury and one book (in addition to the complete Shakespeare and the Bible). Those are easy enough. A life without Test Match Special is not worth the living, so Radio 4 Longwave is the obvious luxury, and the book will of course be the Aubrey-Maturin series in one huge volume.) So on to the records:
First up is Buddy Holly’s Rave On, which the Brit Pater Familias had on an LP and which was the first piece of music to make me spontaneously jump on the spot. As soon I was old enough to work the record player, I would play it repeatedly, leaping about the furniture like the miniature rock 'n roll monkey I was. That introductory “We-a- -he-he-he hell” is still the best thing in rock music.
The next four selections can be hurdled at a relative gallop, being all classical and all heartbreakingly maudlin. I Know that My Redeemer Liveth from Handel’s Messiah is a burst of Catholic beauty; then Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto; followed by Chopin’s Nocturne No 7 in C sharp minor; and Boccherini’s La Musica Notturna delle strade di Madrid (which is a cello/violin piece used recently in the Master and Commander film and thus the perfect accompaniment to my reading).
Number Six is Cemetry Gates by the Smiths. I have to have some pop music, since so much of my time and money has been frittered away on it, and this song’s Englishness would help keep me sane. Number Seven is Gerry and the Pacemakers’ version of You’ll Never Walk Alone, for obvious sentimental and tribal reasons.
You are also required to rescue one of your eight records in an imaginary tidal wave. This is straightforward enough, since record number eight is O Mio Babbino Caro, from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi.
This two minutes of sublime light shone on our world of petty woes is here channeled through Angela Gheorghiu. Get your tear-pricking and spine-tingling apparatus ready:
(YouTube also has renditions by Kiri te Kanawa and even Maria Callas. O brave new world!)
Since none of us will ever get on the actual programme, please feel free to use the comments section as an outlet for your own Desert Island Disc compiling urges.