Long-time Desert Island Discs listeners – and there are millions of us – know that the series can yield both frustration and delight. The frustrating episodes are usually the same: a parade of plausible records (bookies’ favourites: Mozart, Beethoven, Bach); carefully guarded snippets of biography; a self-improving luxury; a worthy book.
The delights are always different. These are the castaways who, emboldened by the open-endedness of Roy Plumley’s decades-old format, decide to throw caution to the wind and reveal details, interests, musical passions that one would never have guessed from their public persona.
The famously agreeable Tom Hanks, who gave a captivating appearance on the programme recently, was the latest of these. His surprise choice? A piece of swaggering, bellicose early-Nineties hip-hop from LL Cool J. If the song was good, then Kirsty Young’s attempt to demurely say its title – “Mama Said Knock You Out” – was even better.
Here are 10 other joyously unexpected moments from the Desert Island Discs archives.
1. Norman Mailer
The tough guy of American letters hesitated slightly before revealing his luxury item to Roy Plumley in 1979. “I would take,” he said after a pause, “a stick of the very best marijuana I could find…[and] I would wait for that perfect day on the desert island when all of the conditions were right.” Plumley, aghast, reminded him that the programme was supposed to be a “legal talk”. “Well, here we are, in trouble again,” Mailer replied.
Alongside records by the likes of Lady Gaga, Frank Sinatra and the Sex Pistols, the British comedian and actress chose a life-sized photograph of the former Dragon’s Den magnate James Caan as her luxury in 2010. “I think he is adorable,” she cooed. “And I’d like it laminated, so I could body surf on him.”
3. John Major
Modern politicians can usually be relied upon to disappoint on Desert Island Discs, doling out choices that feel as homogenised and focus-grouped as any Westminster press release (see the editions with Tony Blair, David Cameron and Ed Miliband for particularly insipid examples of this). Not so the then-Prime Minister John Major, who stepped up for a movingly candid interview with Sue Lawley on the series’ fiftieth anniversary in 1992 – the unforeseen high point of which was his choice of Diana Ross and the Supremes's hip-shaking The Happening.
4. John Peel
It may not come as a surprise that a man who made a career out of playing weird and wonderful music on the radio should have put in a memorable turn on Desert Island Discs; and Peel’s 1990 interview with Sue Lawley ranks as one of the series’ all-time bests. His final choice, by the Zimbabwean pop group The Four Brothers, is the ultimate riposte to the "stick to the classics" school of D.I.D. castaways.
The concert pianist Dame Moura Lympany (in 1979) gave new depth to the phrase "prima donna" by picking eight pieces of music in which she were the featured soloist. Bonus points to presenter Roy Plumley for keeping his head while all about him others were losing theirs. And she was not the first to do this: soprano Dame Elisabeth Schwarskopf also only chose her own work in 1958. However, only the former is available to listen to online.
6. Armando Iannucci
The British satirist was one of Sue Lawley’s last guests on the series in 2006, and took a more expansive definition of "record" than most castaways, opting for a recording of Woody Allen delivering an inspired comedy routine about a moose as his fifth choice.
7. Michael Caine
Nestled in among choices that alternated between the sentimental (Frank Sinatra's My Way), the mainstream (Coldplay's Viva La Vida) and the predictable (Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations), the venerable actor slipped in an entirely unexpected piece of chilled-out trance music from British producer Chicane, explaining to a temporarily dumbfounded Kirsty Young that “it’s a very romantic song, but a bit of a beat to it”.
Sadly, only a 10-minute fragment of the James Bond author’s 1963 appearance on the series remains; but we do know that his – characteristically cryptic – choice of book was a German-language edition of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. A coded message to the real spooks at MI5, perhaps?
9. Nigella Lawson
The original yummy mummy appeared on the series in 2003, and dropped a cartload of surprises on Sue Lawley – including her choice of a bottle of liquid Temazepam as a luxury (“to give me the possibility of a very pleasant exit”). Best of all, though, were her final choices of punchy tracks by the rapper Eminem and the dance duo the Chemical Brothers. “Very, ah, repetitive”, was Lawley’s prim response.
10. Dame Edna Everage
The Dame gets the last laugh award for her appearance in 1988, choosing, as a luxury, her long-time companion and former bridesmaid Madge Allsop. Sue Lawley objected, explaining that by the rules of the show luxuries have to be inanimate objects. “When I saw her last she was pretty well comatose,” Everage replied, with a twinkle.