Desert Island Discs Magic

January 19, 2016

I can’t deny it.  I simply utterly adore Desert Island Discs.

Proving fairly and squarely that I am careering into middle age at 100 miles per hour, my favourite half hour of ‘me time’ is arguably the time I spend walking Henry, our recalcitrant labrador, plugged into the Desert Island Discs podcast.  I start my day in the company of brilliant and inspiring people.  A personal pep talk reinforcing the merits of sheer bloody hard work, resilience, motivation, commitment and, undoubtedly, a sense of humour.

Take this morning.  Anyone who walked passed me and managed to see through the layers of scarf, hat and raincoat shielding me from this hideously cold weather, would have noticed a happy grin on my face as Julie Walters recounted, with her inimitable cackle, her journey from nursing into theatre and then film with her Oscar-nominated performance in Educating Rita (listen here).  Yesterday Sir Michael Caine confessed he always knew he was going to be great, then swiftly outlined his tips for making the perfect roast potato – toss in cold olive oil, fresh rosemary and sage (listen here).   On Saturday, Louis Armstrong told how he first picked up a bugle whilst in an orphanage, having been sent there for firing his father’s shot gun on New Year’s Eve.  For half an hour, I was privileged to hear the story behind the brilliant man who serenaded me and Big Al for our first dance (listen here).

Desert Island Discs has made me laugh, cry and wonder in awe at some of the challenges overcome.  But why do I love it quite so much?

The perfect form of entertainment

The format is simple – a guest is invited to choose eight discs, a book and a luxury to take with them as they’re castaway on a mythical desert island. During the interview they explain their choices and discuss key moments in their lives, people and events that have influenced and inspired them and brought them to where they are today.  Why perfect entertainment?  For half an hour you are guaranteed to learn something new – be it an insight into the life and challenges faced by a seemingly perfect celebrity or to discover a new piece of music you hunger to hear more of.  The mix of insight, humour and raw emotion inevitably leaves you wanting more.  Roy Plomley (creator of the format that has remained unchanged since 1942), Michael Parkinson (1985-1988), Sue Lawley (1988-2006) and latterly Kirsty Young (2006 to date) have hosted more than 2,800 guests.  A good number of these programmes have been archived and are waiting to be discovered on the website and podcast.

It makes me want to be better, do better

I love Desert Island Discs because it inspires me.  I wonder what I could do that would be so enriching, generous or inspiring that it would secure me a slot in the guest’s chair.  Castaways are people who’ve played a significant role in their field or in society.  There’s still time for me.  I want to make a positive difference on this planet; I just haven’t quite worked out how.  To ensure I’m ready for the day I’m called up for interview, I mull over my music choices and try desperately to select my eight favourite tracks.  I adore music, of all genres, so to pick eight tracks that form the soundtrack to my life so far is proving impossible.  Whilst I battle with this challenge, Desert Island Discs gently nudges me each day to achieve more.  OK it’s highly unlikely I’ll get the call but it doesn’t stop me being inspired to be a better me.

Desert Island Discs proves what is achievable if you have a passion

I adore that so many of the guests have achieved success in unorthodox ways.  A ridiculous number were kicked out of school for not conforming; or didn’t school in the traditional sense at all but learned about life through travel and home schooling.  As a parent, I’m painfully aware of the pressure we put our children under to achieve good grades, to work hard and fit the mould.  But I see a spirit in my boys that doesn’t always fit that mould.  And hearing stories of people who have gone on to achieve incredible things reassures me that it’s ok.  The worst thing we can do is snuff out that individuality that makes them the beautiful, gorgeous, unique people they are.  As long as we can instil in them a passion for something then I really truly believe they’ll be ok.  Every single guest I’ve listened to has had a passion for something.  And it’s that passion that has saved them when they’ve fallen, and driven them to achieve.

It teaches valuable life lessons

Of all the hosts, Kirsty Young is my favourite.  She has a talent for knowing when to lead, to provide insight and she knows when to sit back and shut up.  It’s really powerful and shows how much you learn if you simply be quiet and let the other person speak.

A shining example of the power of listening she is also a brilliant advocate for being prepared.  Before the green light flicks on, she’s read up on her subject and the resulting programme is far richer and greater for it.

Desert Island Discs also proves, without doubt, that success in any guise comes from long, hard graft, commitment and not giving up.  So many children are growing up wanting instant gratification.  The ‘want it now without working for it’ attitude is misguided and worrying.  Desert Island Discs is a treasure trove of inspiration – a way to learn about life without being dictated to – and is one way I can illustrate to my boys that their heroes worked damned hard to get where they are today.  No-one had success handed to them on a plate.   Some knew their calling from the start and followed a clear path to success.  Others had a chance encounter that unlocked their destiny.  Many had a burning desire to escape their circumstances; others were exposed to opportunity and a different way of learning by their open-minded parents.  Whatever the motivator, they fought for success and didn’t give up.

The programme also reinforces that success isn’t a destination, it’s a journey.  Recognised by Sir Anthony Hopkins, he eloquently surmised: ‘This isn’t a rehearsal, this is the real thing.  Too often we are so intent on the destination we don’t enjoy the journey.’

It magnifies music

The magic ingredient of Desert Island Discs is the music.  I’ve discovered new tunes – thanks to Anya Hindmarch for Earl Okin’s ‘My Room’.  It’s drawn long-forgotten melodies from the depths of my memory – thanks to Paul Hollywood for Enigma’s haunting ‘Return to Innocence’.  It’s made me sing my favourite anthems out loud – Jo Malone I’m so with you on Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’.  And the music inspiration goes on.

What intrigues me is what motivates the different music choices.  Some choose to reminisce.  Others to be uplifted.  Some pay homage to a loved one.  Others simply choose tracks that make them feel good, with no deeper reason.  Notably,  regardless of age, race or religion the top eight most popular music choices are all classical pieces.

Desert Island Discs is a treat.  In the hustle and bustle of daily living, I can tune in and escape to someone else’s world.  Now that BBC have archived a huge number of previous programmes, I’m struggling to choose who will join me each morning.  Top five targets include: Biddy Baxter; Jack Dee; Hugh Laurie; Dustin Hoffman and Professor Brian Cox.  Who will you choose?

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