First broadcast all the way back in 1942, Desert Island Discs is the iconic Radio 4 show that continues to interview “castaways” about their lives and find out what eight songs they’d pick to take to a desert island with them.
The format, although simple, is a bloody brilliant one. And thanks to interviewers at the top of their game – most recently Kirsty Young and Lauren Laverne – each episode delivers some of the most candid, honest and intimate conversations with fascinating guests. Over the many years, we’ve come to hear celebrities, political leaders and award-winning authors speaking in raw and vulnerable ways we’ve never heard them before.
There’s an episode for pretty much every emotion. That’s why the backlog of episodes available to download as podcasts is perfect for dipping into throughout the pandemic.
You will always find an interview to make you howl with laughter, distract you from real life or give you a sense of hope again. And then, there are the many episodes that will move you to tears, for when you just fancy a good old healthy cry.
With that in mind, we’ve rounded up the most moving Desert Island Discs to add to your podcast library and listen to in lockdown.
Dame Cicely Saunders
Digtal writer Hollie Richardson says: “I listened to this on a slow Sunday afternoon during the first lockdown, and it reminded me of all the incredible people out there looking after the elderly in care homes and hospitals.
“Dame Cicley Saunders was a legend. She trained to be a nurse during the war, then went on to become a social worker, physician and writer. She paved the way for palliative care research and founded the hospice movement.
“Listening to her talk about such an incredible life, she was so selfless. And caring for other people was clearly her calling. The way she speaks about saying goodbye to people at the end of their lives is obviously particularly poignant during the pandemic, and I urge everyone to sit down and listen to it. It’s like a huge hug for your ears.”
Lucy Robson, Stylist’s SEO editor, says: “Arguably one of the world’s most misunderstood women, Yoko Ono has led a strange and wonderful life. Born in Japan and growing up in terrible hardship in war torn Tokyo during WW2, she managed to carve out a successful career for herself as an avant-garde artist, musician and bloody successful business woman in New York and London, which led her to marry one of the most famous men in the world. No stranger to sexist double standards, she was subject to vicious attacks and ridicule at the hands of the press, apparently justified by her breaking up of the Beatles (disclaimer: the Beatles broke up the Beatles).
“In this emotionally charged 2007 interview, Ono talks candidly to Kirsty Young about how she coped with such acute levels of scrutiny and hatred, her comments on how it felt to be blamed for the actions of men are frustrating to say the least. But it’s Ono’s haunting account of the night she witnessed the murder of John Lennon outside their apartment building in 1980, made all the more poignant alongside Lennon’s music as her disc choices, that makes this one of the most unforgettable Desert Island Discs of all time.”
Hollie Richardson says: “Anne-Marie Duff reflects on her working-class roots so lovingly, while also describing the frustrations of her acting dreams while growing up in a world where going to the theatre and owning books just weren’t a thing for her family. She also talks about overcoming life’s tough times by ‘getting your face out the dirt and trying feel the sun’. The most poignant moment is, perhaps, when Duff recalls the moment she knew her marriage was over. She then makes the point that she’s still a hopeless romantic who knows that ‘love is the answer’. She says: ‘I can love and I can hurt but I can love again.’ (No, you’re sobbing.) And, as Duff picks Bjork, White Stripes and Nick Cave, it’s clear that she has seriously good taste.”
Helen Bownass, entertainment director, says: “The Desert Island Discs episode I can’t stop thinking about at the moment is Stephen Graham’s recent conversation with Lauren Laverne. The brilliant Liverpudlian actor talks candidly, so candidly, about his struggles with his mental health, his suicide attempt and how as a young man he often struggled to know where he fit in. It’s honest and emotional but also uplifting as he gifts some excellent career anecdotes, talks beautifully about his wife and shares his joy in music – specifically Chaka Khan.”
Digital executive editor Felicity Thistlethwaite, adds: “Graham is renowned for playing tough guys, hard men – so to hear him talk so candidly about attempted suicide was eye-opening. I felt inspired by his passion and zest for living life, not in a half-arsed way but in a ‘both feet in, let’s fucking do this’ kinda way. If I saw him in the street I’d shake his hand.”
Jenny Tregoning, deputy production editor and food editor, says: “The power of the stories and Kirsty Young’s sensitive interviewing style mean you don’t have to know anything about the subject to be completely absorbed. I’m not hugely into rugby but the episode with international rugby union referee Nigel Owens talking about growing up in rural Wales and the struggle he had coming to terms with his sexuality is one of the most moving episodes I’ve ever listened to – it had me in tears.”
Hollie Richardson says: “Lauren Laverne opens the interview by telling us there are more firefighters called Chris than there are female firefighters. Already, you know that Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton – Chief Fire Officer for West Sussex, who was involved in the Grenfell tragedy – is going to be an incredible guest. Cohen-Hatton went from being a homeless teenager to a woman who completed a PhD in psychology while working as a firefighter. In this episode, she recalls her father’s death, eating food out of bins while living on the streets, and the moment she thought her husband had been badly burnt. She also explains why she won’t ever talk about the Grenfell tragedy publicly, and anyone listening will completely understand her reasons.”
Stylist’s former intern Charlotte says: “Surgeon David Nott has incredibly horrifying stories about being a war zone doctor. This includes the time he decided to stay in a Gaza hospital to save a young girl’s life, despite the fact that he had just been told it was about to be blown up. Nott fights back tears while recalling this life-or-death moment to Kirsty Young. But there’s also a heart-warming anecdote about meeting the queen, which includes feeding her corgis.”
Natalie Cornish, freelance writer, says: “When I lived in Australia for two years, Desert Island Discs was my weekly connection to home, Facebook’s chief operating officer and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg’s honest discussion about grief and the power of female friendship was a memorable one.
“In the interview, Sandberg recalls: ‘A couple of weeks after Dave [her husband] died I just couldn’t take it. I just sent an email: someone come. They have jobs, one of them has five kids, they are busy. But I knew they weren’t going to fight over who wasn’t coming, they were going to fight about who would. They are always there.’”
Hollie Richardson says: “Every Desert Island Discs fan should dig deep in the archives and listen to Michel Parkinson’s 1987 interview with writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. She starts by reflecting on the racism she faced while growing up in segregated America. But the most harrowing story is the reason behind her five-year period of being mute as a child.
“Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend when she was seven-and-a-half years old. The man was later kicked to death, and Angelou was convinced that her voice is what killed him. She recalls telling herself: ‘I better not talk, because anyone whose name I called and heard me would die, so I better stop’.
“But Angelou started talking again thanks to her love for poetry. And thank god she did, because I could listen to her voice– which oozes intelligence, soul, hope and passion – for hours.”
Acting executive fashion director Hannah Moore says: “I was in buckets of tears while listening to Tom Hanks on Desert Island Discs, especially when he started to get teary himself about one of his discs. He explains how he turned to the theatre because he needed to work out how to express his feelings of loneliness. ‘There’s a difference between loneliness and solitude. Loneliness is to be avoided,’ he says. It was very endearing and heart-warming plus, it was Kirsty – she always gets under people’s skin.”