Main content

Sue Lawley's castaway is crime writer and conservative life peer P D James.

P D James was born in Oxford, later moving to Ludlow on the Welsh Borders where she experienced a childhood which she says had more in common with a Victorian childhood than anything today. She was a well-behaved, quiet child who entertained herself and her siblings by telling and writing stories. Phyllis attended an old-fashioned grammar school where she enjoyed English lessons. She says "I knew I was going to write books".

Because of financial pressures at home, she had to leave school at sixteen, first following her father into the tax office, then in a theatre where she met her husband, who was training to be a doctor. World War Two intervened and, because her husband returned from work in the Medical Corps with a severe mental illness, Phyllis had to be the main breadwinner, working as principal hospital administrator at the North West Regional Hospital Board, London in charge of five psychiatric hospitals. It wasn't until she was thirty-nine years old, whilst working in the hospital, that Phyllis began her first novel, Cover Her Face. "I knew it was something I was going to do, and it was just that life was so busy I didn't get round to it". She chose the name P D James because it looked good on a book jacket, and crime genre because she didn't want to draw on autobiographical details.

The book was immediately accepted by a publisher, and in 1979 she gave up her other jobs to become a full-time writer, focusing on Detective Adam Dalgleish of Scotland Yard as her main character. P D James was awarded the OBE in 1982, she has chaired the Booker Prize panel of judges, has been on the BBC Board of Governors, was made an Associate fellow, Downing College, Cambridge in 1986 and made a Life Peer in 1992. Her books have made her a household name and she is now working on her 17th novel.

[Taken from the original programme material for this archive edition of Desert Island Discs]

Favourite track: The Opening Chorus of the St Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach
Book: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Luxury: Pencils and paper

Available now

45 minutes

Music Played

Adding a track to My Tracks will no longer be available from late March
  • Castaway's Favourite

  • Gabriel Fauré

    Agnus Dei (from Requiem)

    • Faure's Requiem.
    • EMI.
  • Gerry Grey

    A String of Pearls

    • The Glen Miller Story.
    • MCA.
  • Jean Sablon


    • 25 Continental All Time Greats.
    • ASV.
  • Antonio Vivaldi

    Concerto for Two Trumpets in C major

    • Baroque Weekend.
    • Decca.
  • Oscar Wilde

    Extract from Importance of Being Earnest

    • Voice of Poetry.
    • Pearl.
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

    Ave verum corpus

    • Classics - Carols.
    • Redbridge Recordings.
  • Arthur Sullivan

    Is life a boon? (from The Yeoman of the Guard)

    Librettist: William Gilbert.
  • Book Choice

    • War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy

  • Luxury Choice

    • Pencils and paper


Role Contributor
Presenter Sue Lawley
Interviewed Guest PD James


Featured in...

The Desert Island Discs podcast

The Desert Island Discs podcast

Subscribe or download individual episodes.

Listen to over 2,000 programmes



Read the surprising things we've learned about some stand-out castaways.

The 75th anniversary of Desert Island Discs

The 75th anniversary of Desert Island Discs

Featuring David Beckham, the funniest and most moving moments, animations and quizzes.

The Lark Ascending – The People’s Desert Island Disc

The Lark Ascending – The People’s Desert Island Disc

Why does Vaughan Williams’s masterpiece appeal to so many castaways?