Eighty years have passed since the soothing sound of By the Sleeping Lagoon was first heard across our airwaves as the theme tune to the debut episode of BBC Radio Four’s Desert Island Discs. A multitude of MPs and Peers have told their story guided by the format of choosing eight recordings, a book and luxury item. In this blog, I’ll be reviewing the appearances of six renowned politicians and a titan of the Westminster commentators.
Including links to a Hansard extract that I think they may have enjoyed taking to the island with them.
This blog was written by Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer.
“CALL ME BARBARA, NOT LADY CASTLE”
Barbara Castle interviewed by Sue Lawley – 16th November 1990
As introductions go, this really does take some beating, ‘She gave us the breathalyser, the motorway speed limit, equal pay for women and the Humber Bridge’. Often referred to as a ‘fiery red head’ Castle was on fine form and there was a lot of love in the room for her from host Sue Lawley throughout this recording.
She had recently been introduced to the House of Lords but was not greatly enamoured by the fabled institution. Lawley highlighted a previously published diary entry of Castle’s that denounced the Lords ‘as an anachronism of unelected peers impotent and ridiculous.’ That aside this was a conversation that sought to celebrate the magic moments in her life. Evoking memories of the Halle Orchestra visiting her native Bradford, dancing the Charleston at Oxford University parties, and meeting future husband Ted at the 1943 Labour Party Conference where she rose to prominence.
Lawley stressed, Castle was ‘the first real woman MP in the big jobs’ and for that credit was given to Harold Wilson for placing trust in her abilities. For a desert island book choice, she opted for the Complete Works of William Morris as he’d been a major source of socialist inspiration.
“I WAS A BIT OF A POTHOLDER”
Lord Hailsham interviewed by Sue Lawley – 27th March 1988
This happened to be Sue Lawley’s first appearance as presenter of Desert Island Discs. Any concerns of ‘radio silence’ blighting the broadcast was put to bed with Lord Hailsham’s booking. His Lordship was happy to hear Lawley deem his younger self ‘the cleverest boy to ever go to Eton’.
Hailsham entered Parliament as a Conservative MP at the age of 31 in the immediate aftermath of the Munich Crisis. He sided against Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at the 1940 Norway debates in an event of critical importance within the timeline of the war. However, the wartime incident that resonated most was the bombing of London’s Carlton Club as he described having to carry out his injured father. A Greek classicist at heart comparisons were inevitably made with The Ruin of Troy.
A hereditary peerage proved detrimental to his Cabinet ambitions. Yet he refused to dwell on that quirk of fate adding that his all-encompassing public persona benefitted from an absence of ministerial responsibility. Recalling his invite to the Queen’s Coronation, he picked Vivat Regina that was played at the service. Sadly, he omitted to mention his involvement as Master of Ceremonies at the Victoria Tower Repository re-opening in July 1963.
“THEY SUGGESTED I JOIN A BOXING BOOTH”
Manny Shinwell interviewed by Roy Plomley – 23rd May 1978
By the time Roy Plomley welcomed Manny Shinwell onto Desert Island Discs he’d broke bread with luminaries from across the board. I’d wager this peer turned castaway could have been the most talkative he ever encountered despite being in his nineties. Shinwell regaled that as a young man visiting Ireland, he went on an excursion to Castle Blarney where he duly kissed their sacred stone and stated proudly, ‘I’ve never stopped talking since’.
They reminisced over his street fighting experiences firstly as a teenage tearaway and then as a Red Clydeside Trade Union Representative. Shinwell mischievously suggested that these well-honed pugilistic skills held him in good stead for a raucous career on the Labour benches. Ironically, he chose to hear Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana that soon after was the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s boxing epic Raging Bull. In tribute to the ‘patter’ merchants of his hometown he insisted on the playing of his friend Will Fyffe’s music-hall favourite I Belong to Glasgow.
Towards the end Plomley faced a problem as Shinwell declined the option of the standard luxury item. To twist his arm, he dangled the carrot of a case of Scotch whiskey that was of course accepted with gratitude.
“ALWAYS A GOOD THING, TO AIM FOR THE TOP”
Margaret Thatcher interviewed by Roy Plomley – 21st February 1978
It’s important to put into context that Margaret Thatcher’s Desert Island Discs appearance took place fifteen months before she became Prime Minister. This afforded her an opportunity to converse with a freedom that wouldn’t be as forthcoming once established in high office.
Expectations were growing on the back of very favourable opinion polls. The premiership was now clearly in her sights vindication of the risk Thatcher had taken by challenging Edward Heath when others hesitated. The coronation year of 1953 was remarkably momentous for her as she sandwiched in the birth of twins between intermediate and final Bar Council exams. Light-heartedly revealing that husband Denis was absent from the hospital as he was attending a crucial Ashes Final Test Match. It was somewhat surprising to hear of a penchant for transatlantic dry humour picking American comic Bob Newhart’s surreal skit Introducing Tobacco to Civilization.
There was no denying that Thatcher was tickled by the sheer devilment of Roy Plomley’s wry inquiry about her honorary position as the first female member of the Carlton Club due to her Conservative leadership status. When he further broached if, ‘lady visitors are still not allowed on the staircase?’ she retorted jovially, ‘Well I ‘am’.
“IT’S PART OF MY LIFE I TEND TO GLOSS OVER”
Shirley Williams interviewed by Michael Parkinson – 28th March 1986
Sometimes on Desert Island Discs it’s the incidentals that provide the biggest dividends and perhaps that is the beauty of the concept. For example, in this interview it was Shirley Williams casually admitting that in her adolescence spent in the United States, she’d auditioned for the lead character role in the film National Velvet. Narrowly beaten by a certain actress called Elizabeth Taylor.
The path from a budding Hollywood starlet to Labour stalwart wasn’t completely farfetched as her father political scientist George Caitlin was adamant that one of his children shall enter politics. Elected in 1964 was ‘the best of times’ and matching that feat as an unfancied Liberal Social Democratic Party candidate in the tumultuous Crosby by-election was a ‘moment of pure heroism, emotion and companionship’.
Williams’s heart wrenching decision to leave her beloved Labour to form the SDP was determined by her fundamental belief in the importance of a European Community. This ‘Pro-Europe’ stance even influenced some of her song choices notably Hector Belioz’s Villanelle. At this juncture Williams wasn’t in Parliament so she used this platform to extol the virtues of the emerging Information Technology age that she earmarked as essential to our nation’s 21st Century prosperity.
“60,000 CONSTITUENTS, 20,000 IN A JAM”
Alan Clark interviewed by Sue Lawley – 1st January 1995
Parliamentary diaries have the potential to create headlines. Alan Clark’s chronicles were no exception with the added caveat that they were serialised in both the broadsheets and tabloids. In the case of the latter, it was for all the wrong reasons mainly his extra-marital affairs. Drawn on this by Sue Lawley he made the abstract distinction that you can’t be ‘waspish and a philanderer’.
During proceedings Clark showed an ability to avoid difficult questions especially concerning his relationship with father, historian Kenneth Clark. Making sure to rebuff any cod-psychology about his childhood with a strategic joke or two if necessary. On his schooldays at Eton he surmised, ‘you learnt about human betrayal, deceit, cruelty, an excellent grounding for the realities of politics’. Rather bizarrely he maintained that having his own butterdish was proof enough that the cavalier attitude assumed of him was a falsehood.
Beyond the charm offensive Clark felt a need to emphasise that he’d been a serious Conservative politician. Speaking with sincerity about helping his working-class electorate and the thrill of going through Parliament’s ‘Members Only’ door. Lawley concluded by asking ‘Would going on the desert island make you a better person?’. Probably a first for the show.
“NICE TO ESCAPE FROM THE DIRT, NOISE AND TELEVISION”
Robin Day interviewed by Sue Lawley – 26th January 1990
Seasoned observers of the coverage of politics on the BBC knew that Sue Lawley and Robin Day burnt the midnight oil together covering several exhaustive election nights. A comradeship was evident from the outset with Lawley proclaiming Day as ‘a television interviewer who thirty years ago tried and failed to become a member of Parliament. To reverse the adage, he decided if you can’t join them, you can occasionally beat them’.
Day was part of a post-war generation educated as mature students on ex-servicemen grants. At Oxford University he shared cloisters with writer Kenneth Tynan and developed an unrequited crush on Shirley Williams. A precocious oratorial talent as President of the Union he visited American Ivy League colleges on a debating society tour. Disenchanted as a trainee barrister he chanced upon an advert on the Gray’s Inn Chamber noticeboard from ITV auditioning for newscasters and the rest is broadcasting history.
Relentless lobbying by Day brought the televising of Parliament to fruition and he recognised this as his definitive journalistic legacy. As they wrapped up Lawley cheekily probed whether Day considered accepting a seat in the Upper House and like a true politician, he moved on swiftly with a deft deferral.