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Desert Island Discs: Release of New Programme Fragments

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Paula McDonnell 09:40, Thursday, 18 October 2012

Editor's note: Desert Island Discs has just released over 200 programme fragments which have been painstakingly restored from different sources including the British Library. Here, Alison Hughes, producer of Desert Island Discs talks about the latest archive project. PM

Christmas has come early for the Desert Island Discs fan because recordings of more than 250 past castaways have been unearthed from the archives and are now on the website for your listening pleasure.

Dating back to the early 50's there's more than a sprinkle of Hollywood glamour, like silent film start Bebe Daniels and bon vivante Tallulah Bankhead, who claims she only went into the theatre because she was too lazy to do anything else. Jimmy Stewart recalls his faithful chaps, worn in every western he made, and Christopher Plummer bemoans never being cast in a comedy.

The great British thespians are there too, like Sir John Gielgud who decided early on that he just wasn't cut out to play a baddie, and Alec Guinness, sanguine about the fact that big ears and a bald head did not a romantic lead make!

Writers are well represented, from Jilly Cooper to Elizabeth Jane Howard, and Dick Francis to Jean Plaidy. And with the film Skyfall released at the end of the month, have a listen to the creator of James Bond, Ian Fleming. Apparently the character of Bond didn't come fully formed - as a confirmed bachelor, Fleming was so terrified in the run up to his wedding, he needed something to take his mind off it and plunged himself into writing. I'd imagine Mr Bond would feel the same!

Author Ian Fleming

Music of course is the heart of Desert Island Discs and this latest selection features some of the greatest names of the musical world. Opera giants like Joan Sutherland and Kirsten Flagstad, pianist Alfred Brendel, conductor Leopold Stokowski - all names which crop up in other people's choices, here making their own. For pop music there are the likes of Cilla Black and Tony Bennett, and from the jazz world, Dave Brubeck recounts how his talent for the piano saved him an immediate posting to the front line in the Second World War, to a battle that killed his entire platoon.

In this Olympic year, it's fascinating to listen to some of the stars of past Games, like Judy Grinham, who won swimming gold in Melbourne 1956 in the 100m backstroke, or Lillian Board, silver medallist in Mexico 1968 for the 400m. In other sports there are cricketers Jim Laker and Geoffrey Boycott, boxer Henry Cooper, and if you think that today's footballers are sometimes less than articulate, listen to Danny Blanchflower talking in 1960 to know it wasn't always thus.

And that of course is one of the joys of an archive - it's that flavour of another time. Listen to Mary Wilson, wife of Harold Wilson talk about life at Number 10 in 1969, broadcasters David Frost or Joan Bakewell at the start of their careers, to John Noakes, a rather plummy actor (who knew?!) talk about Blue Peter, or to prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn recount how she used to concentrate so hard she had to be reminded from the wings to smile. With all this to listen to, who needs reminding!

You'll notice when you dip in to these recordings that they are not full programmes, just fragments of them. Back in the day, radio programmes were recorded on reels of tape which posed two problems. The first was that a reel of tape is quite big - 12 inches - and there simply wasn't enough physical space for the BBC to save and store everything. The second was that tape was expensive, and more often than not would be recorded over once a programme has been broadcast. Imagine being the person with the responsibility of deciding what stays and what goes!

The majority of these newly available recordings actually belonged to a long time producer of Desert Island Discs, Derek Drescher, who on his retirement gave his collection to the British Library. These tapes have been loaned back to the BBC to be converted into digital files. You'll also notice too that the recordings have no music in them, which is another vagary of how the programmes were saved. Happily of course, we do have the track information of all the castaways on the Desert Island Discs website.

Some of the recordings were sent in by listeners and it's wonderful that when we think some of these programmes have been lost forever, that they have been lovingly saved by the audience. If you have any recordings of old programmes which we don't have on the website we would love to hear from you - it could be a team effort!

Alison Hughes is Producer of Desert Island Discs



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