After 80 years and more than 3,000 episodes, Desert Island Discs has asked prime ministers, archbishops, astronauts, World Cup winners, Glastonbury headliners, Nobel winners and more to pick their eight favourite records, a favourite book and a luxury item. Founded by the broadcaster Roy Plumley, it’s inspired countless imitators and seen them all off.
The archive is gigantic, and a gentle wade through it can quickly leave you bogged down in choice. One easy way in is to start with these podcasters who’ve been cast away by the BBC over the last few decades.
This very Doctor Who-centric episode went out on the same day Tennant’s Doctor regenerated into Matt Smith, and there’s a nicely elegiac, wistful tone to his chat with Kirsty Young as he recalls being a young Doctor Who obsessive with a Tom Baker scarf. His picks swing wildly between the very Scottish (The Proclaimers’ ‘Over and Done With’), the very bouncy (‘Me and the Farmer’ by the Housemartins) and the very 2010 (‘Ruby’ by Kaiser Chiefs). Listen now >>
Having been a foreign correspondent for the BBC since 1982 covering Ivory Coast, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and, most recently, Ukraine, Lyse Doucet’s reminiscences from earlier this year drew on a professional life spent bearing witness to intensely important and distressing events. “I don’t believe in [being] emotional because that means you’ve lost control of your storytelling,” she told Lauren Laverne. “But empathy, I absolutely believe in.” Her podcast, A Wish For Afghanistan, speaks to ordinary people about their hopes for the country after the return of the Taliban. Listen now >>
Everyone’s favourite quietly probing documentarian made some pretty unexpected picks for his discs: ‘Heaven on their Minds’ from Jesus Christ Superstar sits next to the trailblazing hip hop of Eric B & Rakim and samba from Antônio Carlos Jobim. Theroux talks through being inspired to go to boarding school by Enid Blyton, his greatest hits and his habit destressing before tricky assignments by making loads of pasta sauce, and there’s a particularly nice moment when he reflects on his early work with fellow documentarian Michael Moore: “I think the level of incompetence that I brought to the job was, for him, a big plus.” Listen now >>
As you’ll know if you’ve ever dropped round Wrighty’s House, the former Arsenal and England striker is an effervescent, perceptive guy who’s pretty much impossible to dislike. His chat with Laverne went beyond his footballing exploits and into his difficult early life, and the enormous difference which therapy has made to him since he first opened up. His memories of former teammate and childhood friend David Rocastle, who died at 33, are especially touching: “I don’t think of the accolades or the trophies I’ve won or the England caps – which mean the world to me – all I think about is the fact that I played with him for a year as a professional.” Listen now >>
Doubling up on one artist is a slightly rogue Desert Island Discs decision, but then again Gladwell’s whole thing is thinking differently and challenging norms. And also, if you’re going to pick two records from one artist, it might as well be Marvin Gaye. Gladwell is on typically analytical form here. “One of my rules is, if at all possible I never want a person that I talk to to regret having talked to me,” he tells Kirsty Young. “This does not mean I’m nice to everyone… As I get older I more and more understand how many doors close when there’s a lack of generosity on the part of the journalist.” Listen now >>
The joy of Desert Island Discs is often in the unexpected images that the interviewees’ picks conjure up. Few such images are more joyous than Mary Beard vibing to the Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin’s ‘Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves’. Bob Dylan, Henry Purcell and Janis Joplin all make appearances too, though perhaps most notable is her choice of luxury item: the Elgin Marbles. Unless her desert island is somewhere among the Greek archipelago, that might be a bit politically tricky. Listen now >>
Some interviewees take a little while to warm up; some never entirely let their guard down. Miriam Margolyes is not one of those interviewees. The Growing Old Disgracefully host is as straightforward and open as ever, but though she might seem to reside in a place beyond such petty concerns as embarrassment or propriety, she admits to feeling like a “frightened little muffin”. She leans into spoken word for her discs, picking extracts from Great Expectations and Private Lives along with a reading of Dylan Thomas’ A Visit to Grandpa’s. Listen now >>
Baroness Floella Benjamin
Benjamin’s route from working in a bank to getting into West End musicals and ascending to the House of Lords via presenting and making TV, writing books, running charities and campaigning for diversity in creative industries is a fascinating one. She’s great company on her From the Heart podcast and she’s got great taste too: George Benson, Ella Fitzgerald and Bob Marley all make Benjamin’s list. Listen now >>