30 facts about the history of Desert Island Discs

Who was the first castaway, what was the first luxury and which is the most popular song choice?

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1. The brainchild of Roy Plomley, a young actor and broadcaster, Desert Island Discs was first broadcast on Thursday 29 January 1942, on the BBC’s Forces Programme.

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2. The first castaway, entertainer Vic Oliver, was Winston Churchill’s son-in-law. Oliver’s opening record — the first piece of music played on Desert Island Discs — was Chopin’s Etude in C minor, “Revolutionary”.

3. Actress Pat Kirkwood, fifth to be shipwrecked, was the first female castaway.

4. By the Sleepy Lagoon by Eric Coates has been the theme tune of Desert Island Discs since the beginning.

5. Coates was cast away to the sound of his own music in 1951.

6. The seagulls whose cries accompany the signature tune are herring gulls — some listeners have pointed out that herring gulls would not have been on a tropical island.

7. Desert Island Discs has had four presenters: Roy Plomley (1942—1985), Michael Parkinson (1986—1988), Sue Lawley (1988—2006), and current presenter Kirsty Young, since 2006.

8. Young is the only presenter not to have been cast away.

9. In her speech when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi recalled listening to DID when living in Oxford. She was cast away in 2013. 

10. Sir Harry Whitlohn, billed as “Man of affairs, musician, mountaineer and mystic” when cast away in 1963 — his luxury was a mountain from his native Lichtenstein — was an April Fool. 

11. Dame Edna’s request for Madge Allsop as her luxury was initially vetoed by Sue Lawley, on the grounds that the luxury must be an inanimate object. “I can assure you, Madge is an inanimate object,” retorted the Dame.

12. In 1989 a 74-year-old retired vicar admitted bludgeoning his wife to death with a radio in fury at not being able to tune in to the show.

13. Nine prime ministers have been cast away, but only John Major while serving as premier — it was in 1992, to mark the programme’s 50th anniversary.

14. Theresa May’s luxury when cast away in November 2014 was a lifetime subscription to Vogue; her book was Pride and Prejudice. 

15. The most senior member of the royal family to be cast away was Princess Margaret in 1981. Her luxury was a piano. 

16. In 1958 soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf entered DID folklore as “That Woman Who Chose All Her Own Records” — though in fact only seven of her eight choices were sung by her.

17. The classical composer chosen most often is Mozart, followed by Beethoven and JS Bach.

18. The Beatles are the most chosen pop group; Yesterday is their most requested song.

19. The most-picked Gilbert and Sullivan operetta is The Mikado.

20. The most requested popular singer is Frank Sinatra, whose version of My Way has been chosen by 21 castaways to date.

21. Some curious musical picks include A Whiter Shade of Pale, chosen by Diana Mosley, Rawhide by Dame Edith Evans, It’s Hard to be Humble by Jeffrey Archer, and the sound of foghorns on the Mersey, chosen by Roger McGough.

22. Poet Ian McMillan chose 4’33” by John Cage, which is four minutes and 33 seconds of silence.

23. The novelist most chosen by castaways is Charles Dickens.

24. The most popular poet is Dylan Thomas.

25. The first castaway to get a luxury was actress Sally Ann Howes in 1951. She chose garlic.

26. John Major chose a full-size replica of the Oval cricket ground, and a bowling machine.

27. Stephen Hawking wanted a large supply of crème brûlée.

28. Desmond Tutu asked for a machine that makes rum and raisin ice cream.

29. Benjamin Zephaniah said the law of the land, “so I could break it once a day”.

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30. And Norman Mailer requested “a stick of the very best marijuana”.