Leo Reynolds//Flickr
Leo Reynolds//Flickr

An audio institution through time: Desert Island Discs in the 1970s

There are few radio programmes which have stood the test of time like Desert Island Discs. Lasting over 70 years and 3,000 episodes, the programme has had a lasting impact on British culture. But how has this modern-day national institution evolved through the decades?

It has a simple but magical format: what 8 tracks, plus luxury item and book, would you take with you to a desert island?

I first began listening to Desert Island Discs about 7 or 8 years ago. It is probably my favourite radio programme. So many episodes stop me in my tracks, leaving me with lingering emotions and life lessons for days on end. In so many senses, it is the pre-podcast podcast. It has a simple but magical format: what 8 tracks, plus luxury item and book, would you take with you to a desert island? And although presenter and guest may be confined to just under an hour, it has that other stardust component: space. No matter who is in the chair, each desert islander has the time to breathe, compose their thoughts, and truly reflect. At times, it is proto-therapy. Tears will be shed and no emotions spared.

But until this pitch came upon my desk, I am ashamed to say I have never listened to an episode of the show dating before this same century. I was first raised on a diet of Kirsty Young’s tenure. Probing but utterly calming, Young had an art of enticing her guests to break open almost without fail. So many of her skills have I tried to imitate in interviewing people since. “It’s a kind of dance”. she has said of the programme, “with its rules.” Since Young’s departure in 2018, the programme has been hosted by the affable Lauren Laverne. Laverne has come in for some criticism since taking on the mantle, lots of it quite frankly scoffing and snobby (so much so they may well have read: ‘how can this music DJ from Sunderland inherit such a prestigious job?’.) She may have had a different journalistic background to her predecessors, but she approaches the job with equal diligence, empathy and inquisition.

But given all of this, my only expectation of what Desert Island Discs may have sounded like in the 1970s was perhaps a little …stuffy? Radio 4, for one, is very different today to how it was at the time, and back in the 70s, the programme was still presented by its creator, Roy Plumley. Host for a mammoth 43 years, how would Plumley approach the task at hand and what would this say about how the remit of the show has changed? All I had read about the earlier programmes was that they more closely resembled music programmes rather than interview series. I also wondered how the guests’ attitudes, both to selecting records and reflecting on their lives, would differ. We now take for granted a sense of emotional openness in society. But surely the 1970s would show something different and reflect a fundamentally different Britain?

My list was decided, one which could just as easily have served as the answer to ‘most unlikely dinner party guests’: David Hockney, James Stewart, and Margaret Thatcher

Tackling all of this with scientific thoroughness, I decided to select 3 different episodes, all from varying points of the decade and all featuring slightly different guests. The options were multitude. After conducting some whittling down, my list was decided, one which could just as easily have served as the answer to ‘most unlikely dinner party guests’: David Hockney, James Stewart, and Margaret Thatcher.

First up was Hockney, a well-known British artist who, aged 86, has just launched his latest exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Having recently enjoyed his Sky Arts ‘in conversation’ series with Melvyn Bragg, I knew he was thoughtful and insightful. Would this side of him show in Desert Island Discs? The first thing that is noticeable is the absence of any gushing or complimentary introduction, something that is common today. Plumley gets straight to the point, asking Hockney if he is a ‘gregarious’ man (I think he is asking if he would like the solitude). The other thing that dawned on me in listening to Hockney’s selections was also how our consumption of music has changed. Guests today might select songs they listen to in the car or in their AirPods, whereas 1970s ‘castaways’ are likely to have had to procure a physical record to listen to their disc of choice.

Plomley’s discussion with Hockney does feel a bit linear, rarely escaping a ‘first you did this, then that’ script. Unfortunately, the surviving downloadable version is only 20 minutes long, cutting short some of the original conversation. It is funny to hear the artist grilled on whether he is an outsider, railing against the orthodoxy, given he has now ascended to ‘national treasure’ status. There is also little discussion of Hockney’s personal life or sexuality (the only indication is through his book choice, a gay pornographical novel), with more time spent talking about the practical skills he could apply to island life. Today, the desert island concept is almost a safety blanket for the show, an anchor to somewhat guide conversation. Here, it felt more central, and it left me wanting.

Next it was actor James Stewart’s turn. Everything about Stewart epitomises cool mid-20th century Hollywood: handsome looks, delicate charms, and clean, authoritative acting. His turn in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, for me the greatest Christmas film of all time, never fails to inspire on rewatch. Stewart was in his 60s when the episode was recorded, in the final stages of a long and prestigious career. He talks wistfully of his father and of his regret about not learning a musical instrument. His track selections also feel more filled with pathos than Hockney’s, more about times of his life than just the enjoyment of listening.

Beyond this though, talk is dominated by a story of a life in Hollywood and layers of biographical information. Media consumption was of course different then, and so the use of this sort of discussion was much greater at the time than now, when we can easily turn to Wikipedia. There are some interesting thoughts on serving in World War II and developments in technology. But it still feels harder to build a picture of Stewart the man than recordings permit today.

The final episode of choice perhaps sits a little separate from the previous two. Few people perhaps symbolise the shifting sands of the decade more than Margaret Thatcher. Her arrival to Downing Street in May 1979 began a transition in some ways more significant than the end of a decade. Her appearance in February 1978 also wasn’t the former Prime Minister’s first time on the programme. Comedian John Cleese had previously chosen her, accompanied with a baseball bat, as his luxury item in 1971.

I was intrigued as to how PR-smooth the episode would be, given that several politicians from Tony Blair to David Cameron have been accused of playing to the gallery with their musical choices. Modern-day politics is also obsessed with the humanity and relatability of our leaders. For example, Keir Starmer used his appearance on the show back in 2020 to emotionally discuss his family background, something he has admitted he has found difficult since becoming Labour leader. Would we see something similar with the notoriously emotionally reserved ‘Iron Lady’?

For the most part, yes. It does show Thatcher in more hushed tones, not winning an argument at the despatch or ballot box, but contemplating and reflecting instead. The music choices are sincere and reverent, indicative of her Methodist upbringing. It feels a fair reflection of Thatcher the person and the politician. She talks of learning in youth “not to follow the crowd for fear of standing out”. Regardless of political opinion, a better summary of Thatcher and Thatcherism you will not find.

All tired out and stuck in a reverie of yesteryear, it was time for me to do some reflection of my own. There is no doubt that Desert Island Discs, regardless of the presenter, guest, or era, will always remain one of the best insights into interesting people. But there is something about the older recordings which feel more guarded and format-led. Desert Island Discs may be the pre-podcast podcast, but it learned this through becoming less conservative and, dare I say, less like a radio programme. It is all the better for it. Thank you for now, Roy, but I will stick with Kirsty and Lauren.


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