England's 'Desert Island' has been anything but stranded for 50 years

January 28, 1992|By Larry Eichel | Larry Eichel,Knight-Ridder

LONDON -- For weeks now, Britain has been paying homage to what one newspaper called "the enduring success of an absurd idea."

That success is a weekly radio program, "Desert Island Discs," a quintessentially British institution that celebrated its 50th anniversary on BBC Radio 4 here Sunday. And the premise at its root, absurd as it may be, still manages to maintain its fascination for the upper crust.

The celebrity guest each Sunday agrees, in effect, to play a sophisticated parlor game. The object of the game has nothing to do with winning or losing, only with self-revelation.

This is the premise: You are to become a castaway, alone on a desert island. Don't ask why or how. That is beside the point.

You may take with you eight pieces of recorded music, one luxury item and one book, other than the Bible or the Collected Works of William Shakespeare, which are to be provided for you.

Go ahead. Make your choices.

In the course of the program, which has the tone of a relaxed, cozy conversation, you must disclose your selections and explain them. Excerpts of the recordings are played.

And your cultural being is exposed to 2 million highly critical listeners.

"It is perfect radio," the host, Sue Lawley, said in one of the numerous interviews she has given in recent days. "A marriage of music and memory, which then gives something more revealing than even the most incisive question could unearth -- if people play the game properly."

For the anniversary, a special guest was required. And the nod was given to the prime minister, John Major.

It was an offer he could not refuse, not with an election only a few months away. In half a century, only a few Britons, including George Bernard Shaw, Mick Jagger and Prince Charles, have had the nerve to say no.

Mr. Major treated his appearance as a major event in the image-making department. A man not given to talking about himself, he spent days in preparation, agonizing over his choices.

Even before the program was aired, newspapers were promising disc-by-disc analysis, both political and cultural, in Monday's editions.

Here, then, are his selections:

"Rhapsody in Blue," by George Gershwin, because the opening clarinet solo reminds him of his daughter, who plays the clarinet.

"The Holy City," a hymn performed by a woman who sang at his wedding.

"The Happening," by Diana Ross and the Supremes. He said he heard it every day for months on the radio while lying immobilized in a hospital bed recovering from serious injuries suffered in an automobile accident.

"The Mad Scene" from "Lucia di Lammermoor," sung by Joan Sutherland, which figured into his first date with his wife, Norma, a great opera buff.

Recalled Mr. Major: "As she [Ms. Sutherland] began to sing it, I nodded off. How our relationship survived that, I've never been sure."

"The Elfin Dance," performed by cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who played the piece at a particular state occasion.

The radio commentary of a memorable moment in the history of cricket, dating from 1948. Mr. Major is an intense cricket fan.

"Pomp and Circumstance," by Edward Elgar, which doubles as the unofficial British national anthem under the title of "Land of Hope and Glory."

"The Best Is Yet to Come," sung by Frank Sinatra, which presumably is his promise to the voters should they re-elect him.

For his book, he chose "The Small House at Allington" by Anthony Trollope. For his luxury, he cheated a little, demanding a full-size replica of the Oval, a famous London cricket ground.

He said, however, that he would not be on the desert island for long: "I would have to try to escape, and I'm sure I would."

His choices were nothing if not politic. They were personal, though not in a maudlin way. And if he did not reveal any dark secrets, he did not demonstrate an unhealthy obsession with himself, as more than a few past guests have.

The film director Otto Preminger, for instance, chose his own autobiography for his book, while seven of the eight records selected by opera singer Elisabeth Schwarzkopf featured the sound of her own voice.

The most common selections over the years have been the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Most of the surprises have come in the luxury category.

Edward Heath, the former British prime minister, asked for suntan lotion. Oliver Reed, the actor, demanded an inflatable rubber woman. Arthur Rubenstein, the pianist, wanted a revolver; Norman Mailer, the writer, a marijuana cigarette; Joan Fontaine, the actress, requested the Taj Mahal.

"It is a very British thing," host Lawley said of the program and its record of endurance. "Can you imagine the Americans taking a radio program like this to their heart?"

Would she change it in any way?

"I wouldn't dare."

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