Desert Island Discs is a radio programme broadcast on BBC Radio 4. It was first broadcast on the BBC Forces Programme on 29 January 1942.[1]

Desert Island Discs
Desert Island Discs logo used on the BBC website
Running time43 minutes
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Home station
Hosted by
Created byRoy Plomley
Produced by
  • Gillian Hush
  • Olivia Seligman
  • Angie Nehring
  • Miranda Birch
  • Leanne Buckle
  • Cathy Drysdale
Recording studioBroadcasting House
Original release29 January 1942 (1942-01-29)
No. of episodes3,227 (28 March 2020)
Opening theme"By the Sleepy Lagoon" by Eric Coates
WebsiteBBC website

Each week a guest, called a "castaway" during the programme, is asked to choose eight audio recordings (usually, but not always, music), a book and a luxury item that they would take if they were to be cast away on a desert island, whilst discussing their life and the reasons for their choices. It was devised and originally presented by Roy Plomley. Since 2018, the programme has been presented by Lauren Laverne.

More than 3,000 episodes have been recorded, with some guests having appeared more than once and some episodes featuring more than one guest.[2] An example of a guest who falls into both categories is Bob Monkhouse, who appeared with his co-writer Denis Goodwin on 12 December 1955 and in his own right on 20 December 1998.[3]

When Desert Island Discs marked its 75th year in 2017, The Guardian called the show a radio classic.[4] In February 2019, a panel of broadcasting industry experts named it the greatest radio programme of all time.[5]



Guests are invited to imagine themselves cast away on a desert island, and choose eight audio recordings (originally gramophone records) to take with them; discussion of their choices permits a review of their life. Excerpts from their choices are played or, in the case of short pieces, the whole work. At the end of the programme they choose the one piece they regard most highly. Guests are also automatically given the Complete Works of Shakespeare and either the Bible or another appropriate religious or philosophical work. They are then prompted to select a third book to accompany them. Popular choices include Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. Actress Judi Dench, who has macular degeneration, was permitted to take an audiobook in place of a printed manuscript.[6][7]

Guests also choose one luxury, which must be inanimate and of no use in escaping the island or allowing communication from outside. Roy Plomley[8] enforced these rules strictly. He did, however, grant a special dispensation to Princess Michael of Kent, who chose her pet cat.[9][10] However, subsequent presenters have allowed more variation on the rules; John Cleese was allowed to take Michael Palin with him, on the condition that he was dead and stuffed.[11] Examples of luxuries have included champagne[12] and a piano, the latter of which is one of the most requested luxuries.[13]

After Plomley's death in 1985, the programme was presented by Michael Parkinson from 1986 to 1988, then from 1988 to 2006 by Sue Lawley and from 2006 to 2018 by Kirsty Young.[4][8] Young was replaced by 6 Music presenter Lauren Laverne, who interviewed Olympic diver Tom Daley for her first show, broadcast on 30 September 2018. Laverne was initially drafted in as an interim presenter while Young was suffering from fibromyalgia; she was appointed permanently in July 2019 when Young announced her decision not to return.[14][15]

Notable guests


The first castaway was Vic Oliver, and several castaways, including Celia Johnson, Arthur Askey, Trevor Nunn, John Schlesinger, Kenneth Williams, Terry Wogan, Brian Rix, David Attenborough, John Mortimer, Adele Leigh, Delia Smith and Stephen Fry have been cast away more than once. The most requested piece of music over the first 60 years was "Ode to Joy", the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.[16] One of the most remarked broadcasts was Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's 1958 selection of seven of her own recordings.[17][18] This record was subsequently beaten by British pianist Dame Moura Lympany on her second appearance on the programme on 28 July 1979 when all eight of her selections were of her own recordings.[19]

In the early 1970s, Alistair MacLean was chosen as a guest, but the head of the European wing of the Ontario Tourist Bureau, who had the same name, was accidentally invited instead.[4] Plomley realised the error while conversing with MacLean shortly before they were set to record the programme. Without any time to find another guest, the interview was completed, but it was never broadcast.[20]

In January 1981, Princess Margaret appeared as a castaway on the show.[21]

Opening theme


Plomley originally wanted the sounds of "surf breaking on a shore and the cries of sea birds" to open and close each programme. However, Leslie Prowne, the head of popular record programmes at the BBC, was concerned that it lacked definition and insisted that music should also be used. Plomley and the series' producer Frederic Piffard selected "By the Sleepy Lagoon", composed by Eric Coates (who appeared on the show in 1951). The tune has been used since the first transmission in 1942. The sound of herring gulls has accompanied the music except for a period of time in 1964 when tropical bird sounds were used.[22]


Until late September 2009, Desert Island Discs could not be heard on the BBC's iPlayer service, which allows most programmes to be heard up to a week after transmission. The programme's website[23] stated that this was due to rights issues, as explained in The Sunday Times in 2006.[24]

It was announced on 27 September 2009 that an agreement had been reached as a result of which the programme would be available to stream via the iPlayer.[25] The first episode available through the iPlayer was with Barry Manilow. Subsequently, the programme was also made available as a podcast,[26] beginning with the edition broadcast on 29 November 2009, which featured Morrissey. However, due to music clearance issues, the music selections on the podcast versions are reduced to only playing for around 30 seconds or so (and in rare instances are unavailable, as mentioned in an announcement made by the presenter at the appropriate point of the programme).

On 30 March 2011, the BBC placed more than 500 episodes from the show's archive online to listen to via iPlayer. Other episodes have since been added, both new and old.[27]

In the early years of the BBC, programmes were broadcast live and were not usually recorded. This, in addition to the BBC's policy of only retaining a limited number of broadcasts, means very few episodes from the first 20 years of the show are known to exist; the earliest episode still in existence was broadcast on 25 April 1951 and features actress Margaret Lockwood.[28] Several extracts were preserved for posterity at the request of the guests, such as an extract featuring Alfred Hitchcock where he speaks about his films The Pleasure Garden (1925) and Rebecca (1940), gives his view on the changing landscape of the film industry and briefly discusses his then forthcoming film Psycho (1960).

In 2022 over 90 recordings, previously thought to be lost, were rediscovered by the audio collector Richard Harrison. These recordings date from the period 1952 to 1988 and feature many notable celebrities of the era including Bing Crosby, Margot Fonteyn and James Stewart.[29] These recordings have been made available for streaming via BBC Sounds, the successor to iPlayer for audio content.[27] In 2023 an additional episode, featuring Veronica Wedgwood, from 10 March 1973, was recovered.[citation needed]

List of publications

  • Desert Island Discs (1977, by Roy Plomley)
  • Plomley's Pick (1982, by Roy Plomley)
  • Desert Island Lists (1984, compiled by Roy Plomley and Derek Drescher)
  • Sue Lawley's Desert Island Discussions (1990, by Sue Lawley)
  • Desert Island Discs: 70 Years of Castaways (2012, by Sean Magee, foreword by Kirsty Young)[30]
  • Desert Island Discs: Flotsam & Jetsam (2012, by Mitchell Symons)[31]
  • The Definitive Desert Island Discs (2023, by Ian Gittings, Foreword by Lauren Laverne)


  1. ^ Midgley, Neil (29 January 2012). "Desert Island Discs: Britain's longest-running radio show". The Telegraph. London. Archived from the original on 12 January 2022.
  2. ^ "Desert Island Discs – Find a castaway". BBC Online. Retrieved 29 August 2014.
  3. ^ "Desert Island Discs – Find a castaway". BBC Online. Retrieved 18 April 2017. [permanent dead link]
  4. ^ a b c Moss, Stephen. "Desert Island Discs: 75 defining moments from 75 years of castaways". The Guardian. Retrieved 18 August 2022.
  5. ^ "Desert Island Discs 'greatest radio show of all time'". BBC News Online. 12 February 2019. Retrieved 28 February 2019.
  6. ^ Thomas, David (9 November 2014). "Desert Island Discs racks up a milestone of delights". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 12 January 2022. Retrieved 15 April 2016.
  7. ^ "Desert Island Discs, Dame Judi Dench". BBC Radio 4. 25 September 2015. Retrieved 15 April 2016.
  8. ^ a b "Desert Island delights". BBC. 29 January 2002. Retrieved 15 November 2007.
  9. ^ "Desert Island Discs, HRH Princess Michael of Kent". BBC Radio 4. 3 February 1984. Retrieved 15 April 2016.
  10. ^ Lister, David (30 January 2002). "'Desert Island Discs' enjoys luxury of a 60th birthday". The Independent. London. Retrieved 24 July 2009. [dead link]
  11. ^ "John Cleese". BBC. 10 January 1997. Retrieved 21 January 2023.
  12. ^ "John Stevens". Desert Island Discs. 17 November 2006. BBC Radio 4.
  13. ^ "Shirley Williams". Desert Island Discs. 29 January 2006. BBC Radio 4.
  14. ^ "Kirsty Young to take time out from Desert Island Discs". BBC News. 30 August 2018.
  15. ^ "Kirsty Young to stand down from Desert Island Discs". BBC News. 5 July 2019.
  16. ^ "Beethoven tops island hit list", BBC News, 18 March 2002
  17. ^ Roberts, Laura (2 March 2011). "Desert Island Discs' most popular requests". The Daily Telegraph. London. Archived from the original on 12 January 2022.
  18. ^ "Elisabeth Schwarzkopf". Desert Island Discs. 28 July 1958. BBC Radio 4.
  19. ^ "Dame Moura Lympany". Desert Island Discs. 28 July 1979. BBC Radio 4.
  20. ^ Pile, Stephen (9 February 1980). The Book of Heroic Failures (1980 ed.). Futura. pp. 29–30. ISBN 0-7088-1908-7.
  21. ^ "HRH Princess Margaret, Desert Island Discs - BBC Radio 4". BBC. Retrieved 8 December 2017.
  22. ^ Magee, Sean (13 September 2012). "Chapter 2:1940s". Desert Island Discs: 70 Years of Castaways. Bantam Press. p. 8. ISBN 978-0-593-07006-2.
  23. ^ "Desert Island Discs – Home". BBC. Retrieved 28 July 2014.
  24. ^ Bremner, Charles (2 July 2006). "How a man in his pyjamas invented a radio classic". The Sunday Times. London. Retrieved 25 February 2011.
  25. ^ Mark Damazer (27 September 2009). "BBC – Radio 4 Blog: Desert Island Discs comes to iPlayer". BBC. Retrieved 27 September 2009.
  26. ^ Plunkett, John (28 September 2009). "BBC launches Radio 4's Desert Island Discs on iPlayer". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 28 September 2009.
  27. ^ a b "A full list of the rescued episodes of Desert Island Discs". BBC. Archived from the original on 15 October 2023.
  28. ^ "Desert Island Discs – Margaret Lockwood – BBC Sounds". BBC. Retrieved 6 April 2020.
  29. ^ "Lost Desert Island Discs: Collector finds more than 90 missing recordings". BBC News. 13 October 2022.
  30. ^ "Desert Island Discs: 70 years of castaways". Amazon. 13 September 2012. ASIN 0593070062.
  31. ^ "Desert Island Discs: Flotsam & Jetsam". Amazon. 25 October 2012. ASIN 0593070070.