As the iconic Radio 4 show Desert Island Discs celebrates yet another milestone, Maureen Coleman talks to some well-known NI ‘castaways’ who have proudly appeared on the programme
When Professor Phil Scraton received a telephone call inviting him to appear as a guest of Kirsty Young’s on Desert Island Discs in 2017, he was convinced it was a prank.
The Liverpool-born criminologist, academic and author, who has been based in Belfast for 17 years, was so surprised that the iconic BBC Radio 4 show wanted him on, that he initially laughed, before asking the woman issuing the invitation to confirm her identity.
“I grew up in a working class, Liverpool background with no television, so we always listened to the radio and Desert Island Discs was a ritual in our home,” he explains.
“I’d listened to all these famous people on the show over the years — then one day, I’m sitting at my desk in Queen’s University, when the phone rings and I’m told it’s the BBC.”
As the principal author of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s ground-breaking report ‘Hillsborough’ and investigative researcher into deaths in custody, children’s rights and women in prison, Phil presumed the BBC wanted him to comment on a news item.
But when the switchboard operator put the call through, the woman on the other end asked him if he would be like to be a guest on the Radio 4 show.
“I laughed and said ‘who is this?’,” he says. “My first reaction was incredulity. I genuinely thought it was a prank; that a colleague or friend was behind it.
“I mean, this was Desert Island Discs! I was embarrassed and said I’d get back to her. Of course, I did do it in the end.
“For someone like me, it was and remains a great surprise and honour.”
This weekend, the jewel in Radio 4’s crown celebrates its 80th anniversary. It was first broadcast on January 29, 1942, and there are over 2,300 episodes of the show available online from the BBC archive.
Each week, a guest or ‘castaway’ from the worlds of entertainment, culture, sport, politics, academia and religion, is asked to choose eight recordings, a book and a luxury item that they would take to a desert island. They then discuss their lives and the reasons for their choices. Being invited as a guest is considered proof of one’s status and success. Such is its prestige that Phil was delighted to accept the invitation, but turned down an OBE the same year.
Many castaways from Northern Ireland or with ties to here have appeared on the show. In 2013, the former President of Ireland Mary Robinson was a guest and chose Edith Piaf’s Je Ne Regrette Rein as her favourite track, The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing as her book and a combined solar cooker and fridge as her luxury item.
Six years later, former politician and peace campaigner Monica McWilliams also had Edith Piaf’s song among her selection of recordings and the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing as her book too, with a snorkel as her luxury item.
When former Northern Ireland Secretary of State Mo Mowlam appeared on the show in 1999, interviewed by Sue Lawley, her go-to song was Chicago by Frank Sinatra.
She also showed off her sense of humour, choosing Rod Stewart’s Blondes Have More Fun as one of her best-loved songs, while Seamus Heaney’s Collected Works was her book choice and a globe her luxury item.
Heaney himself appeared on the programme in 1989, opting for a selection of classical songs, including Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major. He opted to bring James Joyce’s Ulysses and a pair of Doc Marten boots with him too.
In 2008, actor James Nesbitt discussed growing up in Northern Ireland, while selecting Frank Sinatra’s Come Fly With Me as his number one song and Callum Kennedy’s The Green Glens of Antrim, as a poignant reminder of home.
For Phil, who also co-authored the report on the Mother and Baby Institutions, the narrative was built around the carefully chosen songs. Some tracks weren’t necessarily his favourites, but all had a professional or personal reason for being included.
A lifelong fan of Christy Moore’s, he chose the song On the Bridge about women in Armagh jail. It had never been played on BBC radio before and some time later, he received a letter and an album from Moore, thanking him for the ‘amazing surprise’.
Other recordings included Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, a nod to his work on institutionalised racism in Liverpool, Labi Siffre’s ‘inspirational’ (Something Inside) So Strong, The Leaving Song by Irish artist Barry Kerr and Joan Armatrading’s Love and Affection for his partner Deena.
Not surprisingly, the Gerry and The Pacemaker’s Liverpool anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone was his castaway’s favourite, with The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist by Robert Tressell his book of choice and a guitar as his luxury item.
Portadown television presenter Gloria Hunniford was also interviewed by Young when she took part in Desert Island Discs in 2006. She too thought it a ‘huge honour’ to be invited onto such a prestigious show. But once the invitation was accepted, the serious work of shortlisting her songs began.
“That was the hardest part,” says Gloria.
“There are so many songs I like and songs that relate to different parts of my life, so that’s what I went for.
“I remember one of the songs I chose was Frederick Loewe’s Overture from the Soundtrack of Gigi. When I was leaving Northern Ireland as a young girl to go to Canada, Gigi was a big film at the time and it was about a young girl too, so that meant something to me.
“I also chose Van Morrison’s Have I Told You Lately because, firstly, I really like his music.
“Also, it’s a special song for Stephen and myself and my daughter Caron had it as one of her first dances at her wedding, so there’s a strong family connection.”
Frank Sinatra, James Galway and her good friend Cliff Richard all featured in her collection of tunes. Gloria decided on Tolstoy’s epic War and Romance as her castaway book and family photographs as her luxury pick.
“Nothing tells a story better than a photograph. They give me so pleasure and I have framed photographs all around the house,” says Gloria.
“I have so many albums of photos; the children, grand-children, weddings, special occasions and just recently got round to putting them in order. I chose family photographs as my luxury item because they mean so much to me.
“When I was in Canada, the book of the moment was War and Peace. I was working with university students, who were all reading it, but I couldn’t get past the first 20 pages or so.
“If I was stranded on a desert island, then maybe I could finally get through it.”
Gloria admits that being asked to be a guest on Desert Island Discs was a compliment, but she found it cathartic too.
“It’s iconic, isn’t it?” she says. “I did feel a bit special being asked to appear on the show.
“And it forces you to think about your life span and what is important to you. It raised quite a lot of points for me; it made me really think about everything I’ve treasured over the years and the impact those things and those people have had on me.”