10 Desert Island Discs By Women You Have To Hear

Sunday, 11.15am, BBC Radio 4 app, the reassuring sound of "By The Sleepy Lagoon" – the opening score to Desert Island Discs. First aired in 1942, Desert Island Discs was an idea the broadcaster Roy Plomley had in his pyjamas one day. It’s a 45-minute programme with one presenter interviewing one famous person about their life and work within the format of a story, and the story is the same every time, every Sunday for 75 years, the same story, but it never gets boring. It goes that the famous person is stranded on a desert island, and they can take with them eight songs – which are played live in the studio in front of the person to evoke a real emotion – a book, and an inanimate luxury item. The castaway is also given the Bible or an equivalent text, and the complete works of Shakespeare.

Since 2006, the presenter has been the journalist Kirsty Young, and she has her interview technique well and truly down, moving her subjects seamlessly from very difficult, personal stories about their lives, to witty anecdotes related to one of their chosen tracks. Young’s predecessor, Sue Lawley, lasted a whopping 18 years and described the job as “one of the best in broadcasting.” Though the show runs every single Sunday, the prestige of being a guest on Desert Island Discs never abates; it is always considered an honour – a lifetime achievement – even for the already very famous. The interview has also proved to be a career-defining moment for many guests, who reveal things to Kirsty that they’ve never revealed in public before.

Choosing 10 from all the amazing women who have featured on the show was difficult, and this is by no means an exhaustive list, but these are the 10 that affected me the most. Listening back to these women’s interviews over the last few days, I realised the one thing that unites them as women in the public eye, is that they have all experienced difficulty in their lives. Some of them grew up isolated and lonely, some of them had very tough home lives, some of them experienced illness, divorce and loss. It’s clear that all of them learned to be who they are, it was never just given to them.

Photo: Jeff Daly/REX/Shutterstock
Maya Angelou, 1988

One of the nicest things about Desert Island Discs is that a recording from 1988 sounds pretty much the same as a recording from 2017. DID is the most consistent media format there is, and in an industry where everything refreshes all the time in order to ‘be relevant’ and ‘engage audiences’, staying exactly the same for 75 years is remarkable. From 1986 to 1988, the programme was presented by Michael Parkinson and this is surely one of the best interview pieces of his career. There are no words to describe Maya Angelou besides Maya Angelou’s own words, and it’s in this interview that she says my favourite Maya Angelou quote: “My expectations are just beyond my reach and they have to do with me, not with the world. I hope to become a better human being: a kinder, wiser, funnier, more courageous human being – for me. […] My fantasy is to be six feet tall, black, female, American, a writer, successful, who laughs a lot, and drinks just enough white label Scotch, and a little white wine, and goes to church on a Sunday and really means it.” Listening to her talk about her life as a writer and activist in that famous, slow Southern accent, is a modern-day thrill. And each piece of music, when it comes recommended by Maya Angelou, takes on a different quality.

The artists: Mahalia Jackson, Max Roach, Roberta Flack, Stevie Wonder, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, George Gershwin, Ray Charles

The book: The Negro Caravan: Writings by American Negroes compiled by Sterling A. Brown and Ulysses Lee.

The luxury item: A painting by John Biggers

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Photo: Roger Askew/REX/Shutterstock
Zaha Hadid, 2016

Recorded only a month before her sudden death from a heart attack in early 2016, this interview is essentially Hadid’s last word. Apart from her blunt, witty way of talking, my favourite thing about this Desert Island Discs is that one of the eight songs the 65-year-old Hadid chooses to take to her desert island is Drake’s “Hotline Bling”. She also takes Adele and Sam Smith because she likes their voices. Speaking about her fantastically successful career as an architect, Hadid sums up the challenges she has overcome, saying: “I’m a woman which is a problem to many people, I’m a foreigner – another problem, and I do work which is not normative, which is not what they expect.” She talks about her father as being “a very serious man”, and her music choices are a wonderful mix of cultures, times and moods. While Kirsty has never said who her single favourite person to interview on DID has been, she did note Zaha Hadid as a particularly good one.

The artists: Bryan Ferry, Umm Kulthum, The Beatles, Harry Nilsson, Simply Red, Drake, Adele, Sam Smith

The book: Delirious New York by Rem Koolhaas

The luxury item: Family photo album

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Photo: Ken McKay/REX/Shutterstock
Victoria Wood, 2007

Along with Zaha Hadid, Kirsty Young listed this interview with comedian and writer Victoria Wood as one of her all-time favourites. The country grieved when Wood died, from cancer, at the age of 62 in 2016. In the interview, she talks about being the cleverest girl at primary school but having a difficult home life; her mother was depressed for most of her childhood and her father worked all the time so, as she puts it, her parents’ “interest was not in their children.” They never had people round so she wasn’t taught to be social, and yet she became one of the most popular women in the arts, truly beloved by so many generations. She didn’t get into drama school but she did study drama at university and struggled to fit in with the “very tall slim blonde girls from the Home Counties”, leaving with “the worst degree you can get and still call it a degree.” She says it took her a few years to start standing up as a stand-up comedian (before she would play topical songs she’d made up, sat down at the piano). Wood also talks candidly about the breakdown of her marriage and how therapy helped her get through it – and how writing a musical helped her get through it!

The artists: Randy Newman, Weather Report, Gidon Kremer, Mr. Scruff, Tom Waits, The Doobie Brothers, Arvo Pärt, John Rutter

The book: Charles Dickens

The luxury item: Sudoku

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Photo: Ken McKay/REX/Shutterstock
Kay Mellor, 2017

Kay Mellor had her first daughter at 16, and her second by 19. This interview is first a delight for Kay’s accent and easy, northern charm, and second for her very inspiring journey to success as an award-winning screenwriter and director. She talks about going from being “a young, working class girl from Leeds” to winning Baftas for her shows. Her anecdotes about her mother are particularly funny, and about her husband particularly astute; she talks sensitively about his struggle to keep up with her when she went back to school to study Shakespeare and Sophocles – “I was moving away from him intellectually, and he felt left behind […] he couldn’t relate to this girl who was morphing into something he didn’t understand.” With excellent song choices, from Amy Winehouse’s “Our Day Will Come” to The Beautiful South’s “Perfect 10”, the theme tune to her hit show Fat Friends, this interview will lift your spirits and make you feel like going out and getting a dream.

The artists: The Beautiful South, Amy Winehouse, Procol Harum, The Rolling Stones, Louis Armstrong, George Harrison, Diana Ross, John Legend

The book: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

The luxury item: Coloured pens and paper

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Photo: David Fisher/REX/Shutterstock
Kathy Burke, 2010

Kathy Burke says she once found herself so funny watching Gimme Gimme Gimme one night while babysitting at her friend’s house that when she heard the key in the door, she quickly switched the channel as if she was watching porn because she was embarrassed that she was laughing so hard at herself. This interview is full of gems – about how Burke thinks Gary Oldman sounds just like her auntie Joan, about how she had to get a private jet to Cannes when she won Best Actress because she didn’t have a passport. She talks about growing up in Islington and about her mother, who died when she was two, and her father, who had an alcohol problem, and her brothers, who looked after her. Burke says she hated being a teenager and actually based Perry from Kevin & Perry on herself at that time. As a wayward teen, she found solace and a sense of belonging in punk, and her song choices include the Sex Pistols. Burke talks of the freedom she felt the moment she realised she didn’t need to be in a relationship, because she was done doing everything for everyone. The last song she chooses for her desert island is “Get Your Freak On” by Missy Elliott, and you just imagine her dancing to it as Perry in Ibiza. Her last hilarious request is a life-size cutout of James Caan from Dragons' Den as her luxury item, which she’d like laminated so she could body surf on him.

The artists: Lady Gaga, The Specials, Joy Division, Sex Pistols, T.Rex, Frank Sinatra, Gorillaz, Missy Elliott

The book: The complete works by Graham Linehan

The luxury item: Life-size photo of James Caan

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Photo: Jonathon Hordle/REX/Shutterstock
Zadie Smith, 2013

The author of bestselling books White Teeth (which she started writing at 21), On Beauty, NW, Swing Time and most recently Feel Free, Zadie Smith has had the rare privilege of being a famous author for all of her adult life. And yet, the success never seems to go to her head; she appears to remain untouched by the media’s obsession with her books and her looks and her cool, north London demeanour. On being an ‘overweight’ teenage girl she says, “There was one way to be, and I was, in many ways, the wrong thing”. She talks about not feeling attractive when she was growing up, and about how her now husband was “not at all interested” when they first met at university. The interview provides a rare insight into the author, who keeps herself to herself and away from social media. You’ll feel more like being yourself after listening to this.

The artists: Notorious B.I.G., Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Madonna, Prince, Mozart, Wretch 32, Wagner

The book: A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu by Marcel Proust

The luxury item: Goggles for swimming

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Photo: Richard Young/REX/Shutterstock
Caitlin Moran, 2017

If you know Caitlin Moran’s work, you know her politics and her standpoint, but the reasons behind her politics are nowhere better relayed than in this interview piece. Kirsty asks her why she [Caitlin] sums herself up with the catchphrase “I was raised on benefits” and she answers, brilliantly, that the reason she talks about her background so often (growing up as one of eight children in a three-bed council estate on benefits in Wolverhampton) is because she feels a responsibility to represent: “Culture and art and the media are supposed to be a mirror to show us what we are and that mirror is so hopelessly bowed and broken and distorted that we do not see what we are as a country […] It’s incredibly important for me to try and be a bit of the mirror that can represent the people who are on benefits and go ‘Yeah, you are seen, you are heard, I will talk about your story'.” Now one of the most prolific journalists in the UK, Caitlin has a column in The Times and has written several books, including bestsellers How To Build A Girl and How To Be A Woman. Caitlin talks so incredibly quickly in this interview, it sounds like you’ve accidentally pressed the fast-forward button on her audio, while Kirsty remains at normal tempo. Kirsty almost tells Caitlin off for talking too much during the course of the interview, saying, “I like you but you’re slightly infuriating to interview.”

The artists: The Beatles, Kate Bush, Flowered Up, Crowded House, Madonna, David Bowie, Pulp, Ameriie

The book: The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ by Sue Townsend

The luxury item: Laptop

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Photo: Brian J Richie/REX/Shutterstock
Sue Perkins, 2017

The best Desert Island Discs are the ones where you realise that that person from a quite rubbish TV show is actually incredible. This realisation happened for me with Sue Perkins and with Davina McCall, but first to Sue Perkins. Famous for being part of the comedy duo Mel and Sue, for presenting The Great British Bake Off for six years, and most recently for delivering a searing takedown of Harvey Weinstein on The Last Leg, Sue has been a recognisable face on British television for ages, but before this Desert Island Discs interview, she was just that really: a recognisable face on British television. Since this interview, Perkins has become something of a personal hero – for many women, not just for me. She talks to Kirsty about finding her confidence as a comedian, about the experience of being brought up working class and inadvertently becoming “posh”, and about the experience of realising she was gay following a heterosexual relationship that had a profound effect on her.

The artists: Sylvester, Lonnie Donegan, The Smiths, T.Rex, Kate Bush, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Nick Drake, Philip Glass

The book: How To Clone Your Dog [this book doesn’t actually exist]

The luxury item: A bit of hair from her beagle, in order to clone him

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Photo: Ken McKay/REX/Shutterstock
Davina McCall, 2016

“Big Brother house, this is Davina, please do not swear!” Presenting Big Brother on Channel 4 for 10 years from 2000 to 2010, Davina McCall was the voice and the face that everybody who owned a television in the noughties knew about. She also notably presented Comic Relief for years, and found additional success later with a series of fitness DVDs. In a similar vein to Sue Perkins, Davina McCall’s Desert Island Discs interview transformed her from a loud TV personality that you didn’t feel either way about, to a truly inspiring woman that you feel a lot about. In the interview she talks about her relationship with her mother, who was an alcoholic and a drug addict, with such searing honesty that it’s a surprise she doesn’t cry on air. From her mother to her own problems with addiction before getting clean at 25, and finally to her amazing 500-mile triathlon experience, which raised £2 million for Sport Relief in 2014, you start to see McCall as a pillar of strength and a prime example of resilience.

The artists: The Divine Comedy, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, Syreeta, Funkadelic, Todd Terry, Kate Bush, Andrew Gold, Sarah McLachlan

The book: Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins

The luxury item: A bath

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Photo: Wiktor Dabowski/REX/Shutterstock
Theresa May, 2014

This Desert Island Discs was recorded at a time when Theresa May was Home Secretary and described as “a very popular choice among Conservative voters to be the next PM”. During the interview, Kirsty keeps pressing the rumour that May is gunning it to the top spot of PM and May keeps answering that it’s simply not true. Aside from the typical politician spin, this interview does show a nice side of May – a human side to the only child of a vicar and his wife, who loved reading and debating at school. We learn that her life has not been without tragedy; her mother suffered from multiple sclerosis and was in a wheelchair by the time May got married to her husband, who she met at an Oxford University disco, introduced by the former Pakistani Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto. May talks about coping with the death of both of her parents when she was young; her father died in a car accident, and her mother soon after. She talks about losing confidence the first time she had to debate, at school – it was her turn to present and she couldn’t think of anything to say. She goes on to say that the skills she learnt in the debating society at Oxford put her in good stead for the House of Commons – which anyone who’s ever tried to have a conversation with someone from Oxbridge knows all too well. And she wore flares, tank tops and voluminous sleeves in the '70s. And she says this good quote: “I’m very clear that women, in politics, in business, in whatever field they’re in, should be able to do the job as themselves, and not feel they’ve got to walk like a man.” I mean, if you took this interview out of its time and context, and listened to it just as an interview with a woman who worked in politics, you might actually think ‘Oh, she’d make a good prime minister’. At the very least, it makes you wonder if, when the Brexit result came in, Theresa May didn’t put on “Dancing Queen” by Abba in her living room.

The artists: The Jersey Boys, Capella Gregoriana, Elgar, Abba, Mozart, Paul Eddington & Derek Fowlds, Isaac Watts

The book: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

The luxury item: Lifetime subscription to Vogue

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