Desert Island Discs (1) – Holiday listening

Recently, the uninhabited island of Taransay in the Outer Hebrides came up for sale complete with ancient ruins, spectacular white beaches, otters and seals. Unable to come up with the £2.2 million needed to buy it, I wondered how I might have passed my time in between sweeping sand off the front-porch.

The longest-running factual programme in the history of radio is Desert Island Discs, a BBC Radio 4 programme first broadcast on 29 January 1942. Originally devised and presented by Roy Plomley, each week a famous guest (or “castaway”) is asked to choose eight pieces of music, a book, and a luxury item for his or her imaginary stay on the island, while discussing the reasons for their choices. The programme’s famous theme is “By the Sleepy Lagoon” by British composer Eric Coates, famous for “The Dam Busters March” from the film The Dam Busters (1954).

At the end of Desert Island Discs, castaways are asked to name the one piece they regard most highly and which book they would take with them (having automatically been given the Complete Works of Shakespeare and either the Bible or another religious or philosophical work). I shall not enter into a discussion about the perceived elitism or colonialism of offering Shakespeare, since punters can, in addition, opt for Cervantes, or Racine, or Tolstoy, or Goethe, or Twain… at their whim.

I am going to bend the rules a little since I cannot play the music as is done on the radio. Instead, I shall provide a few descriptive words and recommend at least one recording. For my choice of book I intend to upset the apple cart since I have no idea how long I shall be marooned on the island.

But to begin at the beginning, “By the Sleepy Lagoon” is a light orchestral valse serenade composed in 1930. Lyrics were added in 1940 with Coates’ approval and that song – “Sleepy Lagoon” – became a hit of the 1940s. Coates was moved to write the piece while sitting on a beach in West Sussex. His son, Austin Coates, remembers:

“It was inspired by the view on a warm, still, summer evening looking across the ‘lagoon’ from the east beach at Selsey towards Bognor Regis. It’s a pebble beach leading steeply down, and the sea at that time was an incredibly deep blue of the Pacific. It was that impression, looking across at Bognor, which looked pink – almost like an enchanted city with the blue of the Downs behind it – that gave him the idea for the Sleepy Lagoon. He didn’t write it there; he scribbled it down, as he used to, at extreme speed, and then simply took it back with him to London where he wrote and orchestrated it.”

The piece is a slow waltz for full orchestra lasting four minutes. It was orchestrated in the salon genre characteristic of British light music in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1942, Coates’ original version was adorned with seagulls to introduce the BBC Home Service radio series Desert Island Discs.

The blogs that follow will introduce my selection of Desert Island Discs, together with a recommendation of which recordings might be worth listening to.


Published by

Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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