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Arts & Culture Series: Research Spotlight

Music professor explores history of Desert Island Discs in new book

Defining the Discographic Self: Desert Island Discs in Context is co-edited by Professor Stephen Cottrrell

by Ed Grover (Senior Communications Officer)

A music professor from City, University of London has explored the history of the BBC Radio 4 programme Desert Island Discs in a new book.

Stephen Cottrell is a co-editor, together with Nicholas Cook and Julie Brown, of Defining the Discographic Self: Desert Island Discs in Context.

The book provides the first academic consideration of the programme and brings together musicologists, sociologists and media scholars to explain its significance.

Professor Cottrell, of the Department of Music, also contributed a chapter, Musicianly lives musically told: Oral history, classical music and Desert Island Discs, which considers the contributions to the programme of the many musicians who have appeared on it over the years.

He said: “This book is important because it represents the first time that a group of academics have taken a close look at a radio programme that is so well known, and widely loved, in the UK.

“I decided to focus on the classical musicians who had appeared on the show because until recently they comprised a very significant proportion of the programme’s castaways. It was interesting to reflect on what these musicians – who were in part providing the music that other castaways were choosing – said about the place of music in their own lives.”

75 years

Desert Islands Discs was first broadcast in 1942 and celebrated its 75th anniversary during 2017.

Defining the Discographic Self reflects on the show’s iconic status and significance, its position within the BBC and Britain's continually evolving media, its relationship to other comparable programmes and the musical choices of its guests.

Of particular interest to Professor Cottrell and the book’s contributors are the meanings attributed to music by both castaways and interviewers, and how music is used by individuals to help define their public image.

The book also looks as at changes in musical tastes during the seven decades spanned by the programme.

Celebrity culture

Dr Jo Littler, a Reader in the Department of Sociology at City, is among the contributors. Her chapter, Adrift or ashore? Desert Island Discs and celebrity culture, discusses the role of Desert Island Discs in the promotion of modern attitudes towards celebrities.

Dr Littler argues that the programme promotes the idea of individualism and exceptionalism. She argues Desert Island Discs presents celebrities as distant from the rest of the public even while the programme gives us ‘special access’ to them.

She also tracks changes in the programme’s attitude to celebrities, arguing that there has been a shift “towards a less white and male-dominated demographic, towards the hyper-intimate confessional, and towards expanding celebrity power”.

The four sections of the book are: Desert Island Discs in Historical Perspective; Cultural Ideologies and the Politics of Sound; Desert Island Discs and British Identities; Narrativising and Caring for the Self.

Each section includes interviews with former castaways from Desert Island Discs, who gave personal accounts of their experience with the programme.

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