It was generally accepted that whosoever took over from Roy Plomley was guaranteed a one-way ticket to Palookaville. When Plomley died in 1985, he’d been hosting the show he devised for 43 years. To be a guest was the supreme broadcasting accolade.
After the death of Labour politician Herbert Morrison (a man of substance and achievement in Clement Attlee’s postwar government), they found his Desert Island selection among his belongings in readiness for the call he never received.
I was summoned in 1972 and had a disappointing experience, being interviewed by a man who seemed bored with the show. Moreover, the interview took place in what appeared to be a BBC broom cupboard and, to my disappointment, the music was edited in later.
I remember thinking at the time that if ever I got the job, I’d play the music to the guest not simply to intensify the mood, but in the hope it might stir a memory not included in research.
What I came to understand when I took over was there was always one choice – in the main a romantic song – that was not fully explained or, if it was, in a coy fashion. Was it a memory of a lost love? An indiscretion? A glimpse across a crowded room? Or is my imagination working overtime.
I wasn’t the only one disenchanted with Mr Plomley’s technique. The Times talked of his “complete inability to conduct an interview”.
Nonetheless, the accepted wisdom of the time was that he was irreplaceable and the show shouldn’t go on without him. David Hatch, then controller of Radio 4 and later Sir David, believed otherwise.
When he asked me to take over, he predicted flak and we got it. Plomley’s widow Diana Wong, with a say in who presented the show, wanted John Mortimer or Richard Baker. She said about me: “I don’t think he’s civilised enough.” She criticised my choice of music on DID as “embarrassingly awful” and opined, “I don’t think he’s very sensitive.”
The BBC Review Board criticised me for being “too obtrusive” and not interested enough in the music. This assessment was surpassed by the BBC Board of Management, who, at their meeting after six shows, said that “all the guests who had so far appeared under Michael Parkinson’s chairmanship had been born in Yorkshire”, thus to substantiate their opinion the show was suffering “a Yorkshire bias in the choice of castaways”.
The six “Yorkshire guests” the Board of Management complained about were Alan Parker, born in Islington, Nigel Kennedy (Brighton), Bruce Oldfield (London), Dennis Taylor (County Tyrone), Roy Hattersley (Derbyshire.) Only Maureen Lipman was guilty of being born in Yorkshire, although that was not the reason she was marooned.
What was really happening was a rearguard action by the establishment against the perceived desecration of an institution by an outsider. Fortunately, the public didn’t agree. The changeover was a success.
David Hatch – no lover of the establishment – memorably declared that he wouldn’t rest easy until it became compulsory that everyone working in Radio 4 was born in Barnsley. Mr Hatch was a Yorkshireman.
Sue Lawley took over from me in the grand manner, and Kirsty Young has made the show her own. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t last another 70 years. It is, as I once described it, a silly little parlour game, yet transformed into the perfect vehicle for an interview by our shared experience of music and the memories it stirs, even those we don’t particularly want to talk about.
My contribution was 96 shows over two years. I hugely enjoyed it. I left because I believe with any show where the format doesn’t change, it helps if the host moves over every so often.
At least more than once every 43 years.
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 24 January 2012.
Michael Parkinson takes part in Archive on 4: Castaway – 70 Years of Desert Island Discs tonight at 8pm on BBC Radio 4.