75 years of Desert Island Discs

To celebrate 75 years of the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, The Guardian has selected 75 ‘defining moments’ from the show. Here some highlights:

  • Asking guests to choose a luxury only began on 16 September 1951, when the actor Sally Ann Howes modestly requested garlic – this was still the era of rationing, remember.
  • The singer and comedian George Formby appeared in November 1951. He chose his trademark instrument, the ukulele, as his luxury. But not just any old ukulele. “I’d take the first one I ever had – the one I serenaded Beryl [his wife] with when we were courting, the one I taught myself to play on first of all. It would keep my spirits up, and I might even be able to find a monkey who liked listening to it.”
  • Alfred Hitchcock was cast away on 19 October 1959. Just seven and a half minutes of the interview survive. Plomley asks if he is working on a new film. “I’m planning a psychological film,” replies Hitchcock in that unforgettably slow, mournful voice. “It’s called Psycho. It’s in the nature, shall we say, of a rather gentle horror picture.”
  • In the first of his two appearances, in July 1971, the comic writer and actor John Cleese chose a “life-sized model of Margaret Thatcher and a baseball bat”. On his second appearance, in January 1997, Cleese chose Michael Palin – as long as he was stuffed.
  • The rumbustious Oliver Reed was cast away in November 1974. All that remains is a six-minute segment, which sadly doesn’t include Reed’s infamous luxury – a blow-up doll.
  • The castaway on 15 December 1979 was another legend, the American writer Norman Mailer. He chose “a stick of the best marijuana” as his luxury. “This is illegal talk, Mr Mailer,” says Plomley sternly.
  • The most controversial guest ever, cast away in November 1989 when she was almost 80, was Lady Mosley – Diana Mitford before she married Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. Lawley asks her what she felt when she met Hitler. “Of course at that moment he was the person who was making the news, and therefore extremely interesting to talk to,” she replies. “He had extraordinary, mesmeric eyes, and had so much to say. He was so interesting, fascinating.” And the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis? “Oh, I don’t think it was that many,” says Mosley.
  • It is frequently claimed that Brigitte Bardot caused consternation when she asked for “a penis” as her luxury item, only for it to become quickly apparent that she was asking for “happiness”. It’s a lovely story – and completely apocryphal. La Bardot has never been on the programme. The closest we have is artist Cornelia Parker’s choice, in February 2003, of a “solar-powered vibrator”. “Not that I’ve ever used one,” she says, “but I’d love to have the chance.”
  • George Michael’s death this past Christmas Day was accompanied by clips from his memorable Desert Island Discs interview in September 2007 – how often this archive provides a significant memorial. Michael was ready to talk truthfully about his life – the public successes and private traumas – and Young didn’t need to do much more than prompt and pace him. He is likable, funny, clever, highly articulate, painfully honest: he explains how difficult it was to be a young gay man in the 1980s living in the shadow of Aids, and talks movingly of his first love, Anselmo Feleppa, who died from the disease in 1993. He chooses Amy Winehouse’s Love is a Losing Game as his favourite disc – prophetically wondering if she might succumb to unnamed demons – and an Aston Martin DB9 as his luxury.