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Desert Island Discs now includes programmes from the Roy Plomley years

Senior Producer, Radio 4

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Margaret Lockwood records for the BBC. Her Desert Island Discs programme was made in 1951 and is the earliest download available from the latest archive launch.

John Calver writes about the painstaking proccess in sourcing and restoring 456 programmes and downloads from the Roy Plomley years to the Desert Island Discs site.

The new addition to the Desert Island Discs archive consists of all the complete programmes presented by the programme's devisor and presenter for 44 years, Roy Plomley. These 456 editions range from Margaret Lockwood in 1951 to Plomley's final interview with Sheila Steafel in 1985. Since January this year, a team from Loftus have been working to prepare these shows for streaming on the website and creating downloadable versions, and even in some cases, rebuilding them.

Up until 1976, as a rule the music was edited out of the majority of the programmes and only the speech was archived. In almost all these cases any references to the castaways' choices of record were also cut out and there's no indication where these choices came in the body of the interview. Lost too, in some cases, was any discussion of the castaways' choices of book and luxury.

Of the 43 full episodes we've been able to offer between 1951 and 1975, seventeen are off- air recordings made by radio enthusiasts who have left their recordings to the nation via the British Library Sound Archive. We are grateful to them and to the British Library who offered us programmes from their collection that were missing from the BBC archives.

Where the music choices are missing, we have reconstituted - as far as is possible - the original programmes by adding in extracts of the music, and as far as possible the chosen performance, we know the castaways chose. (All these details are on the relevant Castaway page of the website). However these programmes are not exactly as broadcast.

In the case of circus owner Gerry Cottle's Desert Island Discs from 1984 (source for speech - BBC) and the water colourist Edward Ardizzone from 1972 (source for speech - British Library) we rebuilt the programmes using records from the BBC gramophone library. Listeners will find that the music in these episodes, having been sourced in most cases from remastered CD versions of the original vinyl records, has better audio quality than the surrounding speech.

For Edward Ardizzone we were able to source every single correct version of the eight records. When it transpired that the version of Vivaldi's Four Seasons by The Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields sent to us by the Gramophone Library was from 1975, rather than Ardizzone's choice of from 1970, we sourced the right version from our own collection. So we've paid considerable attention to getting the details right and are confident that, some 40 years on, this is as close to the original programme as possible.

For Quentin Poole, Desert Island Discs youngest-ever contributor in 1970, we were lucky to have an off-air recording sent in by Quentin himself however the audio quality needed improving. In addition, one music choice and the signature tune were missing so these were added back in and made mono to match the original.

In the case of James Mason's 1981 programme, the BBC's copy featured none of the musical choices and no reference to his luxury or book, whilst the British Library had a full off-air recording from an enthusiast but of poorer sound quality. We decided it was best to offer the listener the full programme albeit in less than perfect quality.

For most of the older programmes a certain amount of noise reduction and audio restoration was applied to remove clicks, splats, speed variations, hums and whistles to improve the listening experience, but there is still a small amount of unwanted noise in the final recording.

Looking ahead, if anyone has private copies of past Desert Island Discs in their personal archives, the BBC would be pleased to hear from them via the Contact Us form which can be found on every castaway page on the website.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by figurewizard

    on 15 Jun 2012 08:43

    I have just finished listening to the very moving interview with the hugely impressive Doreen Lawrence. This is an outstanding example of Desert Island Discs at its very best.

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