Desert Island Discs meets Daw Suu

Aung San Suu Kyi soaks up the music during the recording Aung San Suu Kyi soaks up the music during the recording

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Just before Christmas, Aung San Suu Kyi was interviewed by Kirsty Young for Desert Island Discs at her home in Naypyitaw in Burma. Some of those involved tell the story behind the recording.

Cathy Drysdale, series producer, Desert Island Discs

Astonishingly, when Aung San Suu Kyi began her historic speech for finally accepting the Nobel Peace prize she'd been awarded in 1991, she began with this sentence:

'Long years ago, sometimes it seems many lives ago, I was at Oxford listening to the radio programme Desert Island Discs with my young son Alexander. It was a well-known programme (for all I know it still continues)…'

Happily, Radio 4 isn't a place to let such an opportunity slip from its grasp, and Gwyneth Williams, Radio 4 controller, immediately wrote a personal invitation to Aung San Suu Kyi which was hand delivered to her by Fergal Keane during her emotional visit to the UK.

Linking up with Nick Springate, a senior World Affairs producer with BBC News, was a key moment for the programme team and without his knowledge, experience and contacts the interview simply wouldn't have happened.

When Bob Nettles (senior studio manager), Kirsty and I met up for a pre-flight drink, none of us could really believe what we were about to do and we were all conscious that we were about to fly in to Burma on official visas in a way that had regularly been denied Aung San Suu Kyi's husband and children during her nearly 20 years of house arrest.

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Daw Suu was listening with such attention, and was so obviously enjoying and was moved by what she heard, that we let the music run”

End Quote Cathy Drysdale Series Producer, Desert Island Discs

Just to add to the sense of the surreal, on boarding the plane to Naypyitaw, I found myself sitting right behind 'The Lady' (as she's known in Burma) and could admire the beautiful yellow roses she was wearing at close quarters.

Having worked on the final version of the programme structure, we all set off to her house; after a long, hot wait, we entered the sitting room to await her arrival.

Resplendent in a beautifully embroidered coral outfit, you sense her presence even before you see her. Aung San Suu Kyi is beautiful - composed, serene even and sat still and erect throughout the 80 minutes we had with her. She has a very direct gaze.

We knew she was very private and capable of intense steeliness, but people also reported that she had a playful side too. We were hopeful that the format of Desert Island Discs would allow her to show more of her personality than is usually possible in straightforward political interviews.

With a minimal amount of preamble, we started recording. We had been told we'd have no more than an hour with her so had planned to play a minimal amount of the music, but Daw Suu was listening with such attention, and was so obviously enjoying and was moved by what she heard, that we let the music run. The time flew by. Re-reading the notes I took at the time, one word stands out - 'surreal' in capital letters.

Immediately after we'd finished, we took a few photos and then she was gone. We felt privileged to have met her, let alone interview her, and reflecting now a month on the whole experience still seems surreal.

Even while we were there, we all felt that we'd experienced the BBC at its collaborative best. With Nick dealing with all the logistics, Kirsty, Bob and I were free to focus on our part of the process, which was particularly helpful given we were only in Burma for 48 hours. We are just so grateful to Aung San Suu Kyi for giving us her time and sharing her story with us so generously.

Nick Springate, senior World Affairs journalist

Books on 'The Lady' on Rangoon stall Books on 'The Lady' for sale on a Rangoon stall

From the outset, my meetings with Cathy were dominated by discussions on how to overcome the challenges that lay ahead. For me, this was an opportunity to use my skills to benefit colleagues in other parts of the BBC.

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I headed to downtown Rangoon where, in the back of a small shop, I explained to a bewildered lady that I wanted the [Burmese songs from the 1950s] 'for a friend'”

End Quote Nick Springate Senior World Affairs Journalist

I've been covering stories from Burma for the BBC for the past seven years and, following her release from house arrest in November 2010, was involved in the Aung San Suu Kyi's historic recording of Radio 4's Reith lectures in June 2011.

After many early morning calls to Rangoon, I finally received a message at 3am in December saying that Daw Suu would do the programme on the 18th at her residence in Rangoon. But just as we'd put all the logistics in place, I heard that she was now going to be in Naypyitaw, the administrative capital of the country, and in addition, and to Cathy's increasing alarm, we were still awaiting the music selection.

This arrived by email just before the team's departure and included two Burmese songs recorded in the 1950s. On my arrival I headed to downtown Rangoon where, in the back room of a small shop, I explained to a bewildered lady that I wanted the songs 'for a friend'. Finally, from a dusty cupboard she took two CDs and handed them to me.

When the team arrived in Rangoon, less than 24 hours before the interview, I explained that I'd secured seats on the new 14-seater Diplomatic charter to Naypyitaw, leaving early the following morning. What I did not reveal was who would be on the plane with them. As we waited to board, Aung San Suu Kyi swept through the departure lounge. It was a joy to see Kirsty, Cathy and Bob's faces as, for the first time, they dared to believe that the interview was actually going to happen.

Bob Nettles, senior studio manager

Gate to Aung San Suu Kyi's home Gate to Aung San Suu Kyi's home, where she spent years under house arrest. Her father, who was assassinated when she was two, is pictured above

I've lost count of the number of 'special programmes' that I've been allocated to do and that never happen. So, to find myself sitting in the domestic terminal of Rangoon airport, with only 10 kilos of luggage, and watching our interviewee, Aung San Suu Kyi, walking past us, made me wonder if I'd packed the right 10 kilos of technical equipment and a toothbrush.

On paper, it was just an interview recording, but this was a pretty important one, especially as I suddenly felt the weight of 70 years of studio managers, producers and presenters willing me not to mess up.

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I suddenly felt the weight of 70 years of studio managers, prdoucers and presenters willing me not to mess this one up”

End Quote Bob Nettles Senior Studio Manager

So, here's the technical bit: I was using two AKG414 microphones on floor stands. Thank goodness the Burmese notion of 10 kilos of luggage isn't rigorously enforced. For recording, I ran a pair of Nagras, a big one and a backup little one. I also used a pair of tie clip mics into a separate recorder. Belt, braces and a safety net.

The guest's choice of music is such an important component of the programme. We always play the tracks during the recording and so often memories and emotions come flooding back for the castaway. I packed my iPhone and little docking speaker in my carry-on bag so we'd be able to play the eight pieces of music and the iconic signature tune.

A couple of Burmese tracks were missing, though. Thank goodness for Nick's local knowledge and a market stall that burns CDs. Now why didn't HMV think of that?

I've worked on this programme with every presenter from Roy Plomley onwards and there have been many stand-out moments during that time, but sitting in a Naypidaw house with such an iconic castaway, well, that's got to be the best one.

  • Desert Island Discs with Aung San Suu Kyi, Radio 4, Sunday January 27

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