'So what's your book about It's about 300 pages, I think': How comic genius Spike Milligan brought anarchy to radio's island of celebrity dreams
07:13 GMT, 3 September 2012
Even for the unflappable Roy Plomley, this particular guest was something of a challenge.
‘Tell me, was there any precedent of showbusiness in your family’ he asked his castaway.
‘No,’ came the reply. ‘We never had a president in our family! Ha ha ha!’
The Desert Island Discs presenter tried another tack, establishing that his interviewee had once worked in industry. ‘How long were you at the factory’ he inquired.
Unforgettable: A new book celebrates the greatest moments from Desert Island Discs
‘About five-foot-six, I would imagine,’ was the answer.
The guest was Spike Milligan, the most anarchic castaway in the show’s 70-year history — but one who was nevertheless among a distinguished handful who have been invited to take part more than once.
Twenty years on, in February 1978, the Goon Show star proved no more controllable than he had been the first time round.
Anarchic castaway: Comedian Spike Milligan appeared on Desert Island Discs twice
His second record this time was The Chieftains singing Women Of Ireland. Milligan explained why. ‘I have latent Celtic roots, you know,’ he told Plomley. ‘You can see them hanging out sometimes.’
Before the record could be even played, however, the comedian had decided it was time for a joke.
‘An Irish woman gets into bed with her husband and says: “I’ve set the alarm for six.” And he says: “Why There’s only the two of us!”’
‘This is getting worse and worse,’ muttered Plomley wearily as he attempted to steer his capricious castaway back towards his life story.
Unlike many Desert Island interviewees, Milligan had no fear of being by himself.
‘I should cherish loneliness,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t call it loneliness — I’d call it solace. Loneliness is only for those people with vacuous minds, who must have somebody to talk to them.
‘Man is self-contained, I believe. If he’s stable, he stays sane. If he’s not stable he goes mad, and that’s probably just as well.’
It is a comment that would foreshadow his own mental health problems later on. But for now, the comic Milligan was never far away.
His luxury item, he revealed, would be a Barclaycard (it would save him money, as there are no shops on the desert island), while his book was Future Shock, by Alvin Toffler.
‘What’s it about’ asked Roy Plomley.
‘It’s about 300 pages, I think,’ said Milligan. ‘/09/03/article-2197406-0086CDC400000190-415_306x619.jpg” width=”306″ height=”619″ alt=”Royal guest: Princess Margaret said she'd take the record Swan Lake to a desert island, and dance to it” class=”blkBorder” />
Royal guest: Princess Margaret said she'd take the record Swan Lake to a desert island, and dance to it
To have a senior member of the Royal Family as a guest was a tremendous coup for the show in 1981.
/09/03/article-0-06023CAE0000044D-575_634x405.jpg” width=”634″ height=”405″ alt=”'He was not my type': Lauren Bacall admitted on the show that she had not been attracted to actor Humphrey Bogart, who she went on to marry, before they met” class=”blkBorder” />
'He was not my type': Lauren Bacall admitted on the show that she had not been attracted to actor Humphrey Bogart, who she went on to marry, before they met
But despite her international renown, Bacall declared that she hadn’t been in ‘that many films — certainly not many good ones, anyway’.
And there was an intriguing and poignant explanation for her trademark sultry look. How, wondered Roy Plomley, did that particular Lauren Bacall pose, ‘looking sexily from under your eyelids’, come about
‘Because I was a nervous wreck,’ confessed Bacall. ‘And because I used to shake all the time. Now I only shake some of the time. . .’
She continued: ‘I discovered that if I held my chin down, I was able to keep my head a bit steadier, and then I looked up at Bogart, and that was it. That became the look.’
One guest who certainly would not cope well with life on a desert island was the legendary actress Tallulah Bankhead. When, in December 1964, she was asked how well she might be able to survive, the then 61-year-old actress admitted: ‘I can’t even put a key in the door, darling. I can’t do a thing for myself.’
Margaret Thatcher's first job was in a plastics factory, she divulged in the spring of 1978, 15 months before becoming Prime Minister.
‘Sometimes I tease my Labour MP friends,’ she said. ‘I tell them: “You know, I’ve had more experience of working in a factory than you have!”’
Factory girl: Former Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher revealed that her first job was in a plastics factory when she was interviewed for Desert Island Discs
Talk turned to how she came to take over the Tory leadership from Edward Heath. ‘It all really happened rather suddenly,’ she explained.
‘It was quite clear there was going to be an election — after all, Ted had been there for ten years. And then it looked as though no one would put themselves up for the leadership.
‘I remember very vividly saying: “Well, if no one else will do it, I will!” And the moment I said it I never had a moment’s hesitation about it. I knew it was absolutely the right thing to do.’
Hell-raiser: Oliver Reed, who died in 1999, was the first guest to chose an inflatable woman as his luxury
The hell-raising actor Oliver Reed was,
in 1974, the show’s first guest (although not the last) to select as his
luxury an inflatable woman.
An even more controversial choice, however, was the one made by the American writer Norman Mailer, who told Roy Plomley: ‘I would take a stick of the very best marijuana I could find, and I would save it for years and hope it didn’t get too stale.
'I know I would have one opportunity to smoke it and only one, so I’d wait for that perfect day on the desert island when all the conditions were right.’
‘This is illegal talk, Mr Mailer,’ protested Plomley.
‘Well, here we are — in trouble again!’ replied Mailer.
Trouble enough, in fact, to send the production team scuttling all the way to the top for clearance to transmit the offending section of the recording.
Permission was given, the show was broadcast and the predictable outrage ensued.
Normal service was resumed the following week, when the cartoonist and writer Osbert Lancaster chose as his luxury a live sturgeon, to ensure a constant supply of caviar. Sighs of relief all round.
Fond of silence: British playwright Harold Pinter said he'd be happy to be way from noise and 'the racket that we live in'
Given his fondness for long silences,
the playwright Harold Pinter was happy at the thought of being alone
with the elements. What would he be glad to have got away from
‘Noise, I think, and the racket that we live in,’ he said.
‘Of course, there wouldn’t be complete silence on the desert island — there would be the sea and the wind and the leaves.
‘I would be very happy to sit and listen to something which did not consist of engines turning over, and disc brakes, and so on.’
His first record choice, a piece by Bach, prompted a dialogue with the presenter that was suitably Pinteresque in its minimalism.
‘Why did you choose this’ asked Plomley.
‘Because I like it,’ replied Pinter.
Like David Hockney, who told Plomley: ‘I’ve always thought of myself as a rather ordinary artist,’ Pinter, too, was modest about his achievements.
‘I do not consider that I am making any distinct stylistic contribution to the world of drama,’ he said.
‘It is just writing what the characters say to each other. That is all.’
A noteworthy castaway for the 1,000th edition of Desert Island Discs in December 1969 was Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, who dished the dirt on a series of wartime run-ins with Winston Churchill.
‘I don’t mind telling you that when I was fighting the battle of El Alamein, he wanted me to attack Rommel in September,’ said Montgomery.
‘I refused because of the moon. I had to have a moon for the purposes of handling the mines and things.
‘“I won’t be ready,” I said. He wanted September to synchronise with Stalingrad. He’d fixed it up with Stalin, you see. But you are bound to have tussles with your political master. You can’t help it.’
His tone softened. ‘But Winston was very good, once he saw that it was no use going on with it,’ added Montgomery.
‘And when he came to stay with me in the field, which he did several times, I used to make it quite clear to him.
‘I said: “Sir, you are here in the zone of the armies. You must do what I tell you, because we can’t afford you to take risks. I shall get into awful trouble if you get bumped off by a shell or something.”’
Montgomery’s luxury was a piano, so that he could teach himself how to play it. And his book
‘Well, it may horrify you, but I would like to take a book which I wrote myself about war,’ he told Roy Plomley.
‘The book at the end goes into the question of how to stop fighting, and I would have lots of time, and I would ponder over how we could stop people fighting — so that when I came back, which I hope to do, I might be able to do something about it.’
SIR THOMAS BEECHAM
For someone who described himself early in his interview as ‘a man of exceeding modesty and reticence’, the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham pulled no punches when it came to his choice of music.
‘I don’t know many gramophone records now other than my own,’ he told Roy Plomley.
‘I’ve always found some difficulty listening to my records — although not half as much difficulty as I’ve had in listening to those of other persons.’
Pulling no punches: Conductor Sir Thomas Beecham admitted that he found it difficult listening to music by other musicians
Asked how he might fare as a castaway, Sir Thomas replied: ‘I should find it much more difficult now than I would have done 25 years ago, because I’ve got very much used now to married life.
Prior to that, I did look after myself — with the assistance, of course, of an excellent factotum.’
But even his vanity was eclipsed by the German-born soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, whose first seven choices of records featured one thing in common: herself as the soloist.
From that day on the singer passed into Desert Island Discs folklore as The Woman Who Chose All Her Own Records. Not quite all — her final choice, an orchestral piece which required no soloist, somewhat undermined her later claim that she had misunderstood the rules of the programme.
But the fact that Schwarzkopf’s bravado caused the rumpus it did is a mark of the place Desert Island Discs had attained, just 16 years after its creation by Plomley, in the affection of its listeners.
Sean Magee and the BBC. To order a copy for 18.99 (including p&p), call 0843 382 0000.