The iconic radio programme has turned 75, and celebrated with an hour-long special with castaway David Beckham. We look back at the best ever episodes of Desert Island Discs
Words by Rosie Benson
In case you’re unfamiliar with possibly the greatest interview format of all time, Desert Island Discs is the BBC Radio 4 programme which casts away guests to a fictitious desert island – they must choose just eight records with which to spend their remaining days, alongside one luxury item and a book of their choice.
Currently presented by Kirsty Young – who owns it with her clever, warm, witty interview style – Desert Island Discs provides an intimate glimpse into the private lives of its guests, not to mention their sometimes questionable music tastes. The programme has hosted many an A-lister in its time – Kim Cattrall, Gillian Anderson, George Clooney and Simon Cowell to name a few – as well as bringing to a wider audience game-changing and fascinating interviewees, such as Dr Gwen Adshead, a psychiatrist at Broadmoor Hospital, death row lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith and human rights activist – and Marie Claire Future Shaper winner – Sara Khan.
While some guests turn out to be entirely predictable (cue: Simon Cowell choosing a mirror as his luxury item), others are full of surprises (who knew Graham Norton had recorded a single with Dolly Parton?)
Whether you’re just starting out, or are already a firm fan, here are the Desert Island Discs episodes that you have to download right now:
With the news breaking last week that Shulman is to step down from her role as Editor-in-Chief at Vogue, now is the perfect time to re-visit her desert island discs interview. She reveals that her late father spurred her on in choosing her career, saying on his deathbed: ‘What better life could you have than being a journalist?’ True to her love of fashion and the written word, Shulman chooses Penguin’s Book of Love Poetry and an endless supply of Miss Dior Eau de Toilette as her luxury item.
Kathy Burke states ‘When I’m on me island, I want to dance,’ which explains her choice of Missy Elliot’s ‘Get Ur Freak On’ and Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’. She tells Kirsty that punk music made it ‘easier to be me,’ and slaps down the suggestion that by remaining unmarried she is somehow writing herself off, saying ‘I want to enrich my own life – not someone else’s!’ The best bit by far comes at the end, when Kirsty asks Burke to reveal her choice of luxury: ‘I don’t know how to say this without sounding salacious…’ she begins, ‘I find deeply attractive James Caan from Dragon’s Den – what I would like is a life-size photograph of him, laminated, so I can surf on it.’ A startled Kirsty grants Burke her wish.
French states that being a comedian is ‘the best fun you can have with your clothes on – and even with your clothes off.’ She is funny and warm throughout the interview, speaking frankly about her father’s suicide, when she was still a teenager, and her mother’s strength in pulling the family through. It’s difficult to hold back the tears when she goes on to introduce Etta James’ At Last, explaining that she chose to play this at her mother’s funeral because ‘at last, she was with him.’
Having starred in the film Castaway, in 2000, Tom Hanks was arguably prepared for this interview. One of the biggest Hollywood stars to appear on Desert Island Discs, Kirsty asks him ‘I have trawled every bit of archive article I can find, and nobody who’s worked with you ever has a bad word to say about you. What are you hiding?’ Hanks laughs and replies ‘You gotta dig a little deeper!’
The queen of scent also turns out to be a big contemporary pop fan, picking tracks from Jessie J, Miley Cyrus and Queen, as well as ballads from Whitney Houston and John Legend. The story of her success in business is juxtaposed against struggles in her personal life; she left school at 14 due to severe dyslexia, and later battled an aggressive form of breast cancer. She says: ‘I love sharing my story, and I’m not frightened of people seeing the cracks as well as the strengths. I think the things that are sad and difficult are just as important.’
Malorie Blackman received 82 rejection letters before she was published. She later became Children’s Laureate and published the hugely successful Noughts & Crosses series, a dystopian love story that broke a thousand teenage hearts. Her journey from dissatisfied IT worker to successful writer is an inspirational one, characterised by her unwavering determination and optimism – perhaps best epitomised in her choice of favourite record, Louis Armstrong – What a Wonderful World.
You may not have heard of Doukas, but chances are you’ve heard of her most famous client – Doukas founded model agency Storm, and spotted a young Kate Moss aged 14 in JFK airport. The woman responsible for launching Kate to super-stardom says she has never had a normal career, and talks frankly about her bohemian upbringing; running away from school, working on bric-a-brac stalls in London and Paris, her two marriages, and her time living in America before returning to Britain. She tells Kirsty ‘I always knew my life would be unconventional.’
Caitlin Moran grew up with her seven siblings in a ‘three-bedroom council house that smelt,’ and despite being homeschooled amidst a chaotic upbringing, she went on to become one of the UK’s most loved and respected columnists. She wrote her first novel aged thirteen and says ‘books were a door into a world that you could escape to.’ She describes herself as an eternal optimist, and tells Kirsty: ‘life divides into two categories, amazing experiences, and then things that are awful but make incredible anecdotes.’
The castaway chosen for the coveted 75th anniversary episode, Beckham gives an eloquent interview, revealing the sacrifices his parents made in order to propel him to superstar footballer, the love he has for his family, and their attempts to live a private life despite their global fame. Strangely, no Spice Girls’ track appears in this episode, (nor does Cruz Beckham’s Christmas single, for which Beckham says he may get in trouble) but he does sweetly dedicate Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney’s The Girl is Mine, to daughter Harper.
Dig into the Desert Island Discs archive here and download your favourites