It may be thousands of miles away (in our imaginations, at least), but Radio 4’s desert island shows how Britain has changed over the years. A comprehensive RT survey of 3,200 castaway choices – analysing one year in every decade since Desert Island Discs began in 1942 – reveals how the musical tastes of the great and good have undergone a revolution.
In 1942, 58 per cent of the playlist was classical, which remained the pattern until the 1990s. Now, however, classical music makes up just one in every five picks, with new genres filling the gap. Last year, for the first time, the Beatles became the most popular pick, ahead of classical composers. Radio 4’s desert island is a window on our changing tastes — both cigarettes (once a frequent luxury choice) and Richard Wagner declined in popularity after the 1970s. Today the castaways’ musical diet is rich and varied.
A regular listener in the 50s or 60s could expect to hear Tristan und Isolde and Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream several times; in 2016 you heard everything from the Spice Girls (chosen by scientist Dr Robert Langer) to throat singing (chosen by actor Simon McBurney).
Of course the make-up of castaways has also changed. The explorers and knights of the realm cast away in 1942 were all white and represented the establishment, as did the composers they chose. These days explorers such as Ben Saunders are still being shipwrecked (luxury: pen and paper) but so are TV presenters like Davina McCall (luxury: a bath), Paralympians such as Ade Adepitan (basketball court) and chefs like Nadiya Hussain (Marmite). Many bring the music of different cultures with them, whether that’s American rap (Tom Hanks chose LL Cool J), Egyptian ballads (Dame Zaha Hadid) or Irish folk (Colm Tóibín).
But the survey shows constants, too: we still turn to movies, TV and musicals for our music, whether it’s The Wizard of Oz or Hamilton. We still enjoy a chuckle, whether it’s from Arthur Askey in 1942 (chosen by actress Pat Kirkwood), Monty Python in 2002 (chosen by crime writer Minette Walters) or Morecambe and Wise, chosen twice in 2012, by the Queen’s cousin Margaret Rhodes and Dawn French.
And everyone from James Corden to John Prescott still asks for a piano, as Richard Dimbleby did in 1958, believing they’ll finally have a chance to learn.
Read further analysis of Desert Island Discs choices – and a full interview with host Kirsty Young – in this week’s Radio Times, available in shops and on the newsstand from Tuesday 24th January