Take your pick for the chance to be an island castaway

Next week, the listeners take over Radio 4’s mythical desert island. Sheena Hastings reports.

ITS first guest was comedian and musician Vic Oliver, who had fought alongside fellow Austrian Adolf Hitler during the First World War.

The son-in-law of Winston Churchill, Oliver was later named in the ‘Black book’ of Jews to be rounded up and killed after the Nazis’ planned invasion of Britain.

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Interviewed for Desert Island Discs in the BBC’s bomb-damaged studio in north London, his choices of music included the big band classic, Happy Days Are Here Again, played by Jack Hylton and His Orchestra.

The legendary Radio 4 programme had been dreamed up by Roy Plomley, as he was getting ready for bed one night in 1941. He wrote up the concept while sitting in his pyjamas, and a couple of months later the first edition was on air.

Plomley presented the show until his death in 1985, and his successors have been Michael Parkinson, Sue Lawley and the present incumbent, Kirsty Young.

Young has taken the show to even greater levels of popularity although she sometimes finds it tricky to overcome her awe in the presence of an interviewee, as last week with former Queen of New Wave music Debbie Harry.

It’s a simple format that involves the guest choosing eight discs they would take with them if cast away on a desert island, and – in between two-minute snatches of the music – talking about their life.

At the end of the programme, the castaway has to make the difficult choice of their favourite track. They then get to choose a book to take (along with the Bible and complete works of Shakespeare) and a luxury to ease their lonely existence.

More than 2,800 eminent people have accepted the DID invitation and many consider it a huge honour. Some have turned it down, including Mick Jagger, John Prescott, Ted Hughes and Prince Charles.

One of the most common luxuries is a ‘lifetime’s supply’ of something – newspapers in the case of Sir David Frost. Writers PD James, Patricia Cornwell and JK Rowling requested an infinite supply of pens, inks and paper. Gruff Yorkshireman Harvey Smith said he never read a book in his life, and chef Jamie Oliver admitted he wasn’t a reader either. Actor/director Tim Robbins quipped that he would keep warm on his island if the programme supplied him with an entire library and a box of matches.

Many avid listeners to the show – broadcast on Sunday morning and repeated on Friday morning – keep their own list of eight discs. These lists are returned to again and again and choices agonised over.

For a brief time, the BBC has had the window open for listeners to contribute their list of favourite tracks, and if you hurry, you can submit yours before the 2pm deadline today (www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/desert-island-discs).

A selection of the public’s choices will be played next Saturday.

“It’s everyone’s chance to be a castaway, and Kirsty will discuss people’s lists with a special guest,” says Alice Feinstein, editor of DID.

“People have also told wonderful stories about music they have chosen, and the same magic of music and memory is there, as it is with our regular castaways.

“ Even if you haven’t taken part, you can go to our archive, and check your choices against those of 500 castaways.”

Your Desert Island Discs, 9am on Saturday, June 11, Radio 4.