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12 Of The Best Desert Island Discs Interviews

What would your eight Desert Island Discs be? You’ve probably asked yourself the question while compiling your favourite tracks, and painstakingly narrowing them down before your “scheduled appearance” on the long-running BBC Radio 4 show.

With over 3,000 distinguished guests having appeared on the most-loved show, sharing their song choices with the life stories that accompany them – Desert Island Discs is now an institution. World leaders, film stars, musical extraordinaire and notable figures in the last 78 years have all made their mark on the show; whether they have been a controversial castaway, or brought listeners to tears with their candid anecdotes.

Most of the archive of past episodes are stored online to peruse at your leisure, and our rundown is not short of the classics. So tune in and bliss out to the iconic theme tune “By The Sleepy Lagoon”, cast your mind to an island retreat and discover the profound effect music has had on some of your favourite household names.

Marlene Dietrich, 1965.

One of the truly great Desert Island encounters was broadcasted in 1965, when a breathy Marlene Dietrich was interviewed in her dressing room at a West End theatre. The most memorable moment of Dietrich’s time on the fictional island was perhaps her firm response to being asked if she would fear living in isolation: “No, no, no. I fear nothing” she replied.

Louis Armstrong, 1968.

Louis Armstrong – or “Satch” (short for Satchmo, Armstrong’s nickname) – as interviewer Roy Plomley addresses, was cast away in August 1968. You can forgive him for choosing mainly his own records – “Blueberry Hill”, “Mack the Knife”, “What a Wonderful World” – to spark the charming anecdotes that accompany his records of choice.

Tennessee Williams, 1978.

A Streetcar Named Desire playwright Tennessee Williams was cast away in the autumn of 1978, with interesting record choices from Tito Schipa, Sarah Vaughan and Elvis Presley. The American playwright’s southern drawl is a delight to listen to while he grapples between Harry Belafonte’s “Danny Boy” and Judy Garland’s “Me and My Shadow” as the track he’d save first from the ocean’s waves.

Maya Angelou, 1988.

The 40-minute segment only just begins to scratch the surface of the incredible Maya Angelou. In her famously slow Southern accent, Angelou reflects on her remarkable career, her love of music inherited from her grandmother, and on the unexpected ways that one woman – and a deep love of poetry – broke her five-year stint of being mute.

Jennifer Saunders, 1996.

Following career highs, Jennifer Saunders shares how the infamous Edina and Patsy were manifested out of a period when prospective roles tapered off. In conversation with Sue Lawley, Saunders speaks of her beginnings; “doing funny things with props” with Comic Strip, to working with career-partner Dawn French and Joanna Lumley.

How would Edina Monsoon choose her keepsake records? By picking all eight songs from Lulu of course – see the 1996 Absolutely Fabulous episode “The Last Shout”.

Tracey Emin, 2004.

Equally successful as she is controversial, Tracey Emin unveils deeper meanings to some of her most celebrated artworks including her tent, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With and the Turner Prize-nominated My Bed, before welcoming isolation on the mythical island. While her public image is picked apart, the famed artist shares life lessons over a great selection of tracks accompanied by the memories that surround them.

George Michael, 2007.

Fresh out of his 25th-Anniversary world tour, and following a brief stint in community service, George Michael welcomed the solitude of being a castaway. Talking candidly to Kirsty Young, George Michael details how he regained his emotional and professional confidence, reflecting honestly on his private hardships and public triumphs. In this rare interview, George Michael’s Desert Island Disc reveals a happier and more peaceful man.

Vidal Sassoon, 2011.

Veteran hairdresser Vidal Sassoon voluntarily chose to be a castaway for a second time in October 2011 – his first appearance on the show in 1970. While his record choices did not stray far from his original choices of jazz and opera, Kirsty Young did allow for Sassoon to take a dozen bottles of Vidal Sassoon hair shampoo as his luxury item. The episode is not to be overlooked, Sassoon fondly reminisces on growing up in an orphanage in gritty East London, to his defining hairstyle beginnings with Mary Quant and Twiggy, to name a few.

Steve McQueen, 2014.

A particular episode of Desert Island Discs that is often cited as one of the best interviews from Kirsty Young, is with the British artist and film director Steve McQueen. His astonishing art and feature films, including Hunger and Oscar winning 12 Years A Slave are all unpicked here. He speaks vividly and beautifully about the next-to-zero difference between his two artistic fields, while selecting an excellent tracklist including Miles Davis, Kate Bush and Prince.

Lemn Sissay, 2015.

Poet, writer and playwright Lemn Sissay expressed in 2019 that his time on Desert Island Discs was and will always be “a vital part of his life” – and it’s not hard to see why. In conversation with Kirsty Young, Sissay retells his story of living with foster parents and growing up in children’s care homes, to the moment he self-published his first book of poetry while out of employment. Take time out to revisit this moving episode, one that is guaranteed to uplift.

Tom Hanks, 2016.

In 2016, Tom Hanks’ fictional time spent in isolation reminded him of his confrontation with the loneliness in his life as a young actor. An episode that is sure to move you to tears as the famed actor recalls – through powerful storytelling – how theatre allowed him to express himself in his roles, while developing an understanding of the differences between loneliness and solitude. It is another exceptional example of Kirsty Young’s service to Desert Island Discs.

Anne-Marie Duff, 2018.

Anne-Marie Duff was one of the last remaining castaways in Kirsty Young’s long-running residency on Desert Island Discs, and the episode is a true classic. The former Shameless actress reflects lovingly on her working-class roots, the obstacles she overcame and recalls the bittersweet moment she knew her marriage was over; “I can love, and I can hurt. But I can love again” she tells Kirsty as Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ “Love Letter” creeps in.

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