Desert Island indiscretions

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THERE is a wonderful story about Desert Island Discs, which may be apocryphal, but which deserves repeating anyway. Roy Plomley, who devised the programme in 1942 and for many years was its much-loved presenter, had decided to invite Alistair MacLean, the well-known novelist, as his guest. MacLean had a reputation for being private and elusive, but was rumoured to be in London, staying at a hotel. An assistant was asked to track him down, and did so.

Alistair MacLean appeared to be flattered by the invitation and agreed to come to the studio, where he duly sat down with Roy Plomley. Their conversation then started, music was played, and MacLean began to go on about his love of the Canadian countryside.

The producer, in his booth, became concerned that there was as yet no mention of the books, and so through the headphones he urged Plomley to ask him about the novels. Then it became clear: they had found the wrong Alistair MacLean and they were, in fact, interviewing the Alistair MacLean who happened to be the Canadian minister of tourism. The conversation continued, and although the programme was never broadcast, the guest was not to know, which is exactly the courtesy that one could expect of the BBC.

That story may be true, but even if it is not, it says something about the ethos of this perennially popular programme. Desert Island Discs is an investigation of a life, but it is not meant to be a third-degree interrogation. And yet being invited on to the programme is by no means the simple pleasure that one might imagine. It may be, in fact, something of a psychological shock, which is what it was for me, at the beginning at least.

I had done something like it once before. A couple of years ago I did a book tour of Australia. Book tours are the same the world over: you travel to all sorts of places, shake all sorts of hands, pick up all sorts of infections, sign a large number of books, and then go off to the next destination. But a book tour of Australia, if one is fortunate enough, includes a visit to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation headquarters and the studio of Margaret Throsby, who invites her guest to choose five pieces of music and talk about their lives. Margaret Throsby, like Sue Lawley, is a superb interviewer, but even a superb interviewer can be taken by surprise.

In this case, the surprise came with the playing of the music. I had chosen, as my first piece, to reflect memories of childhood, Henry Hall's magnificently sinister 'Teddy Bear's Picnic'. This is not the innocent song it appears to be; there are, in fact, very threatening undertones in the song, and I made some observations about these.

We then moved on to a piece of African music, Enoch Sontonga's beautifully moving hymn, 'Nkosi Sikeleli Afrika'. I had chosen, I recall, Ladysmith Black Mambazo's rendition of this. Unfortunately, the entirely wrong piece of music was played, and the show was live. Margaret Throsby's professional smile slipped and there were frantic signals to the control box. I made signals myself, indicating that this was fine by me, but this did not seem to allay their embarrassment. Apparently this is the worst thing that can happen - short of a guest actually dying during the interview - and their embarrassment was palpable. When the wrong tune came to an end, I said that I was very pleased with what they had actually played, as I liked that piece of music very much and would have chosen it had we had more time. This helped, a bit.

BUT DOING A practice run in Sydney was no substitute for appearing before Sue Lawley herself, and eventually, after I had declined an appearance last year on the grounds that I simply could not face it at the time, I went down to London three weeks ago and presented myself at the BBC studios. There is a telephone call before this happens. A researcher calls and talks you through your life and your choice of discs. They then associate each piece of music with some experience or stage of one's life.

That may sound simple enough, but there are potential problems. Firstly, there is the choosing of the music. Most of us have numerous pieces of music which we enjoy and which we could see ourselves taking to a desert island, but it is not as easy as it looks to choose just eight of these. I found that I had four which were clear favourites - music that I find myself playing again and again (the music that one hopes to hear at one's funeral, so to speak). But the choice of the others was rather more difficult. I went for 'As Time Goes By' from the soundtrack to Casablanca, 'Soave Sia Il Vento' from Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutti and WH Auden reading one of his own poems which rang true with my own experiences in recent years.

The one thing that you should not do is choose music that you think will give the right impression - whatever that impression is. I imagine that the programme's staff can spot that immediately - the overly serious selection, the highly obscure items, and so on. It was said that John Major's spin doctors played rather too large a role in his selection when he went on the programme, the result being the sort of music that they thought would prompt the listener to say - "What a nice man (judging by his choice of music)."

Michael Howard, who appeared on the programme recently, made what sounded like a completely authentic choice - of music that was not necessarily what one thought a leader of the Conservative Party would choose. But then would anybody really imagine the leader of the Conservative Party choosing 'Land of Hope and Glory'? Something by the Beatles, it seems, is what they like.

And so to the actual entrance into the studio. There was Sue Lawley, sitting in the chair in which she has been presumably sitting for the past 18 years, smiling a welcome. It was just like going to the dentist. She knew that I was anxious because of a reluctance to talk about my private life (and the whole point of the show is that it delves into one's private life). But she was like the most sympathetic of dentists - gentle, probing in the subtlest possible way. I immediately formed a rapport with her and ended up enjoying the experience of sitting in her studio, talking about things that I normally would prefer not to talk about in front of a large audience. In no time at all the half hour or so was over. The anaesthetic began to wear off. My jaw was only mildly numb. I had barely felt the drill, such was her charm and skill, and real niceness.

Of course, Sue Lawley can get tough and her feelings about her guest may come through. But what makes the programme so special and her skill so admirable is that the conversation always remains a courteous one. But it is nonetheless an ordeal for the victim, because one is being asked to make both a personal statement and a statement about what one likes in music. That is a curiously revealing combination: talking about music that one loves is like baring the soul. If you choose a piece of music that can bring tears to your eyes, then you are effectively saying what makes you cry. These may be private associations, private pleasures, and it is counter-intuitive to parade them in public.

After the programme you shake hands and are led out of the building into the BBC foyer. Suddenly you are in a different world - not the BBC of Desert Island Discs, one of the last redoubts of broadcasting civility, but in the world of noisy pop and strident phone-ins. You say: "Heavens, I was awful," and the person with you says, "You weren't! You weren't!" But you fear that you are right and you can hear the laughter of your friends already. At least when the programme is played, one can be out somewhere, without a radio.

• Alexander McCall Smith, author of The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency, is now writing both about Botswana and his home town of Edinburgh. New in paperback this month is The Sunday Philosophy Club (Abacus, 6.99) He will be on Desert Island Discs, Radio 4, today at 11.15am

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