Roll over Beethoven: Desert Island Discs stars pick pop over classical

Varying background of modern castaways means Radio 4 show features more diverse range of cultures and musical choices

Guests of the BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs are abandoning classical music selections in favour of pop music and power ballads, according to a survey to mark the show’s 75th anniversary.

The Radio 4 programme, devised by broadcaster Roy Plomley during the second world war, features celebrity guests discussing their lives and choosing eight pieces of music, as well as a book and a luxury item, they would take with them to a desert island.

The survey of 3,200 castaway music choices by Radio Times found that classical music began to decline in popularity from the 2000s, making up one in five picks (21%) in 2016. The most popular genre last year was pop music, which comprised 28% of selections.

According to the programme’s presenter, Kirsty Young, this change is indicative of the burgeoning of pop culture in the UK. “Guess what? Rock’n’roll happened, pop happened, punk happened, thrash metal happened, garage happened, and we’re going to play that stuff, because it’s important to people,” she told the Radio Times. “What we do is reflect; we’re not there to make the medicine go down.”

Analysing one year in every decade of the show to reveal how musical tastes have changed, the survey showed how the castaways have become more ethnically diverse. In 1942, all guests were white and represented the establishment, as did the composers they chose.

The varying background of modern castaways, including Paralympians such as Ade Adepitan, The Great British Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain and Desmond Tutu, means the show has been filled with a more diverse range of musical choices. In 1942, 58% of the playlist was classical, with Tchaikovsky the most popular artist. The figure for 1952 was 49%, with Beethoven the guests’ top pick, while in 1962, it was 46% and Mozart was most popular. For 1972, the figure was 53% and Bach was the most selected artist.

For the four decades after – 1982, 1992, 2002, and 2012 – Mozart was again the top pick of guests on the show. But last year, for the first time, the Beatles became the most popular choice.

The most requested popular singer is Frank Sinatra, whose version of My Way has been chosen by 21 castaways to date, while Yesterday is the Beatles’ most requested song.

Young has been presenting Desert Island Discs for a decade, since replacing Sue Lawley in 2006. In an interview with the Radio Times, she revealed that her favourite guests had been Victoria Wood, Dustin Hoffman, Zaha Hadid, Bruce Springsteen, Steve McQueen, AC Grayling and Sir David Attenborough.

“If I only ever did one, it would be that one,” she said of Attenborough. “Honestly, he was a total, pure highlight. Absolutely bloody marvellous.”

Young shed light on the psychological tricks she adopts to encourage her castaways to open up.

“Bill Gates always wears an open-neck shirt so I wore an open-neck silk ladies’ shirt. For Paul Weller, I wore a sharp suit. And we had it on good authority that Morrissey drinks neat vodka, so we made sure we had a bottle.

“When my producer said, ‘Would you like some tea or coffee… or vodka?’ Morrissey said, ‘Vodka.’ I had one as well. I wasn’t going to have a cup of tea when Morrissey was having a vodka. I didn’t drink it, he did.”

The special anniversary edition of Desert Islands Discs will be aired on Sunday. The castaway will be David Beckham, who will become one of only a handful of footballers to have appeared on the show. His musical tastes are said to include ‎U2, Bob Marley, Eminem and Jay-Z.

The first castaway was entertainer and Winston Churchill’s son-in-law Vic Oliver. His opening record, the first piece of music played on the show, was Chopin’s Etude in C minor, Revolutionary.


Nadia Khomami

The GuardianTramp

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