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70 not out - a new book marks Desert Island Discs anniversary

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Rebecca Stratford 08:45, Thursday, 13 September 2012

Roy Plomley, deviser of Desert Island Discs, and presenter of the programme from 1942 to 1985.

Freelance producer Roy Plomley was wearing his pyjamas on a cold November night in 1941 when he jotted down the idea for a programme in which a person is asked the question "if you were wrecked on a desert island, which gramophone records would you like to have with you? - providing of course that you have a gramophone and needles as well." Now obviously we have CDs and digital editing, but the brilliant simplicity of the format has continued to be both entertaining and relevant for 70 years.

We've had a glorious year celebrating the seven decades of Desert Island Discs, kicking off with an anniversary programme with Sir David Attenborough, including a day when all the Local and National BBC stations had their listeners choose what they would take if they were castaway, a DID Prom and now a book to mark the nearly 3,000 souls who have so far been marooned on that lonely island.

Compiling the book with author Sean Magee has been a parlour game in itself. Our discussions started a year ago about how we could possibly choose which castaways to include and so by painful elimination who to leave out - was it going to be Marlene Dietrich and her less than accurate account of her early career or Talullah Bankhead; we had to feature Alfred Hitchcock talking about the filming of Psycho but what about Sir Harry Whitlow, who we discovered in our research didn't actually exist but was made up by Roy Plomley for an April Fool! Of course the Desert Island Discs team knows the contemporary programmes inside out, but despite the scope of the DID archive on the website where you can now download about 1,500 editions, we asked the BBC archive in Caversham to investigate which scripts they had of the early decades, starting with the first ever recording with the comedian Vic Oliver which was done at the BBC's bombed-out Maida Vale studios in London in January 1942.

We then spent agonising hours drafting and redrafting lists. In the course of our research we came across funny stories - for instance Alistair MacLean who on arrival turned out not to be the best-selling author who Roy Plomley thought he had booked, but an officer from the Ontario Tourist board with the same name - and moving stories for example that of the RAF pilot Guy Gibson, known for the Dambusters operation who was killed just after the recording. We also have the iconic Eartha Kitt and Luciano Pavarotti, the adored Joyce Grenfell, Sir David Attenborough, the scientifically brilliant Stephen Hawking, Fred Hoyle, the controversial Diana Mosley, Gordon Brown, the anarchic Spike Milligan, Kenny Everett, the inspirational Desmond Tutu and so on and so on. For the book Sean has also talked to the presenters after Roy Plomley: not just to Kirsty Young, but to Sue Lawley and Michael Parkinson who have both been cast away themselves too. We found so much interesting "trivia" in passing that we've decided to pull it all together in a second book called Flotsam and Jetsam, which will be out on 23 October.

As Kirsty Young says, the appeal of Desert Island Discs lies in displaying "the frailties and strengths of the human condition, how our creativity, grit and humanity can see us through." Here's to the next 70 years ...

Desert Island Discs: 70 Years of Castaways by Sean Magee is published by Bantam Press - find more information on the Random House site


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