The Handbook
The Handbook

Since 1942 the BBC have been casting guests off to a desert island with nothing but eight tracks to listen to, a book to read and one luxury item. Six hosts may have sailed pasts – those include Michael Parkinson, Kirsty Young and current host Lauren Laverne – but the radio show still remains as popular as ever and the show’s ability to dig deep into the personal lives of its guests through the power of music can be funny, charming, shocking and at times very moving.

Whether you tune in religiously or are new to the much-loved show, now is a good a time as any to get stuck into the fat back catalogue – and pretty much all of the episodes are available to stream on BBC Sounds. We’ve sifted through almost 80 years of the iconic show (OK, maybe more like the last decade) to bring you some of the most memorable and moving episodes, from national treasure David Beckham to poet and activist Maya Angelous and the A-lister who knows a thing or two about being a castaway, Tom Hanks.

Read on to listen to the soundtrack of their lives…

David Beckham

2017

How can we forget ex-England Captain and all-round national treasure, David Beckham’s 75th anniversary show? While he’s not known for his particularly charismatic public speaking, his disc selection is full of absolute bangers – The Rolling Stones’ Wild Horses, Ella Fitzgerald’s Every Time We Say Goodbye and Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney’s The Girl Is Mine (presumably back when people were still listening to Jackson songs.

But it is the way he talks about Mancunian indie band The Stone Roses and their iconic song I Am The Resurrection in reference to his time at Manchester United Football Club that is most poignant.

“This is from the 1990s in Manchester, there were so many things going on. It was the time of the Hacienda,” Beckham tells host Kirsty, “I probably only went there once, but certain songs remind me of Manchester.”

The episode gives us a closer look at David’s personal life and tastes and it’s genuinely a cracking a playlist – probably why he failed to include any of his wife’s tracks on there.

Music played:

  • The Stone Roses: I Am The Resurrection
  • The Rolling Stones: Wild Horses
  • Elton John: Something About The Way You Look Tonight
  • Ella Fitzgerald: Every Time We Say Goodbye
  • Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney: The Girl Is Mine
  • Michael McDonald and the Doobie Brothers: What A Fool Believes
  • Alejandro Sanz: No Es No Lismo
  • Sidney Bechet: Si Tu Vois Ma Mere

Book choice:

  • On Fire by Francis Mallmann

Luxury item:

  • His England Caps

Sheryl Sandberg

2017

Despite being regarded as one of the most successful digital forces in recent times, author and Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg’s Desert Island Discs is remarkably raw and candid.

Recorded just two years after her husband Dave died suddenly of a heart attack, Sheryl gives a heartbreakingly vulnerable account of how she and her two children coped with the grief of losing her “smart, loving, just… wonderful man” who they still talk about “all the time”.

Warning: you’ll need to get the Kleenex out for this one but it will certainly offer some comfort to those who have or are suffering a great loss.

Music played:

  • Beyoncé: Run The World (Girls)
  • Dixie Chicks: Landslide
  • Queen: You’re My Best Friend
  • Jonathan Groff: You’ll Be Back
  • James Taylor: Sweet Baby James
  • Counting Crows: A Long December
  • Elton John: I’m Still Standing
  • U2: One

Book choice:

  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Luxury item:

  • A journal

listen here: www.bbc.co.uk

Louis Theroux

2019

Best-known for this unique documentary-making, Theroux has found himself in the lives of everyone from Joe ‘Tiger King’ Exotic to Jimmy Saville, Max Clifford to the inmates of death row, but Lauren Laverne is asking him the questions this time and delves deep into his music collection.

Theroux’s music taste is solid, with tunes from Marvin Gaye to Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell to The Smiths. Curve balls come in the form of Fat Joe and Ashanti’s What’s Luv and a random tune from the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack (WTF?). But it’s Louis and he delivers it in the only charismatic way Louis can.

Music played:

  • Marvin Gaye: All the Way Around
  • Murray Head: Heaven on Their Minds
  • The Smiths: Panic
  • Eric B. & Rakim: Paid in Full (Seven Minutes of Madness – Coldcut Remix)
  • Bob Dylan: Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
  • Fat Joe: What’s Luv? (feat. Ashanti)
  • Joni Mitchell: California
  • Antônio Carlos Jobim & Herbie Mann: One Note Samba

Book choice:

  • Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust

Luxury item:

  • a 40,000 piece jigsaw puzzle

Yoko Ono

2007

A strange listen at times but musician and artists Yoko Ono has never been one to care about what people think.

Obviously, John Lennon makes the cut with Beautiful Boy, but she always talks candidly about the night he was tragically murdered and how her and John almost didn’t keep their son Sean when she found out she was pregnant. Shockilngly honest but hugely brave and open too.

Music-wise, there’s also a surprise choice of The Cheeky Girls’ Cheeky Song, which, apparently, Yoko would listen to every day.

Music played:

  • Édith Piaf: Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien
  • Lale Andersen: Lilli Marlene
  • Dominic Behan: Liverpool Lou
  • Bob Marley: One Love (People Get Ready)
  • Gracie Fields: When I Grow Too Old To Dream
  • John Lennon: Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)
  • Sean Lennon: Magic
  • Amiina: Seoul

Book choice:

  • Sai-Yu-Ki (Monkey: Journey to the West) by Wu Cheng’en

Luxury item:

  • My life for the next thirty years.

Morrissey

2009

A departure from his usual melancholic disposition, angry vegan and politically outspoken Morrissey’s episode is refreshingly funny and upbeat – apart from when he shares his views on suicide, which at the time led to some serious press criticism.

The Smith’s frontman’s music choices are fairly obvious – Iggy, The Velvet Underground, Ramones, Mott the Hoople    but a cracking list, nonetheless.

Music played:

  • New York Dolls: (There’s Gonna Be a) Showdown
  • Marianne Faithfull: Come and Stay With Me
  • Ramones: Loudmouth
  • The Velvet Underground: The Black Angel’s Death Song
  • Klaus Nomi: Der Nussbaum (from Myrthen
  • Nico: I’m Not Saying
  • Iggy and The Stooges: Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell
  • Mott the Hoople: Sea Diver

Book choice: 

  • The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde

Luxury item:

  • A comfy bed with lots of pillows.

Steve McQueen

2014

Recorded in 2014, artist, filmmaker and London boy Steve McQueen gives an honest account of what it’s like to be a black man in an otherwise very white Hollywood.

He’s known for films which make people question difficult realties, such as his Academy Award-winning ­12 Years A Slave, which he was the first black man to win the Best Director Oscar for, but in his Desert Island Disc episode he talks candidly about how he has been and often still is perceived.

He leaves host Kirsty slightly speechless when she comments on how “affable, giving” and smiley he is, at which he replies with, “I’m a black man! I’m used to that. When I walk into a room people make a judgment, I don’t care. Totally not.”

Six years on and thankfully we are seeing more diversity in film and TV, but McQueen’s interview still rings clear how disparate real life representation and opportunity is in the media world.

Highlights of his choices include Prince’s Raspberry Beret and Tricky’s Hell is Round the Corner. His luxury item of choice is a rather sober, albeit practical, however – a compass.

Music played:

  • Michael Jackson: Rock With You
  • Prince: Raspberry Beret
  • The Specials: Too Much Too Young
  • Miles Davis: Blue in Green
  • Tricky: Hell is Round the Corner
  • Johann Sebastian Bach: Aria (from Goldberg Variations)
  • Kate Bush: This Woman’s Work
  • Kanye West: Power

Book choice:

  • The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Luxury item:

  • Compass

listen here: www.bbc.co.uk

Stephen Hawking

1992

Delving well into the archives here, Sue Lawley speaks to the iconic theoretical physicist and author of the best-selling A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking.

The icon talks about his life and work, and the illness that left him severely disabled, through a selection of very traditional tracks, from Brahms to Beethoven, The Beatles to Piaf and a George Eliot classic for his book choice.

Music played:

  • Francis Poulenc: Gloria
  • Johannes Brahms: Violin Concerto in D Major
  • Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132
  • Richard Wagner: Die Walküre Act 1
  • The Beatles: Please Please Me
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Requiem in D minor
  • Giacomo Puccini: O Principe, che a lunghe carovane (from Turandot)
  • Édith Piaf: Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien

Book choice:

  • Middlemarch by George Eliot

Luxury choice:

  • Crème brûlée

Listen here: www.bbc.co.uk

Lily Allen

2014

Never one to shy away from saying what she thinks, Lily tells of her approach to songwriting. “The only thing I can do really is write lyrics and the only way I know how to do that is by being honest and doing it with integrity because otherwise there’s no point”.

The most heart wrenching part of the interview is when Lily talks about losing her son after a six-month pregnancy, as she delivers it with a huge amount of brave frankness and raw emotion.

Lily’s outspoken nature has often got her in deep water with the press, but her episode takes a look at what it was like literally growing up in front of the camera and having to deal with horrific life moments at the same time.

Music played:

  • Pulp: Common People
  • Sultans of Ping F.C.: Where’s Me Jumper
  • The Stone Roses: I Am the Resurrection
  • The Streets: Blinded by the Lights
  • Gerry Rafferty: Right Down the Line
  • Etta James: I’d Rather Go Blind
  • General Degree: Traffic Blocking
  • Tommy McLain: Before I Grow Too Old

Book choice:

  • Auntie Mame – An Irreverent Escapade by Patrick Dennis

Luxury choice:

  • Husband’s shirt with daughter’s bunny sewn onto it.

Tom Hanks

2016

Few things can move us like the power of music and not even a Hollywood elite A-lister and real life Castaway Tom Hanks is exempt. In his Desert Island Discs he has a very moving teary moment when he tells Kirsty about his tough childhood growing up between two parents.

Expect some classic dad tunes too, from The Beatles to Talking Heads and Dean Martin.

Music played:

  • Dean Martin & Line Renaud (Leen Reno): Relax-Ay-Voo
  •  The Beatles: There’s A Place
  • Dusty Springfield: Doodlin’
  • Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra
  • Alfred Newman, Ken Darby: Main Title: How The West Was Won”
  • Talking Heads: Once in a Lifetime
  • LL Cool J: Mama Said Knock You Out
  • Derek and the Dominos: Layla

Book choice:

  • A World Lit Only By Fire by William Manchester

Luxury item:

  • A Hermes 3000 manual typewriter and paper.

Maya Angelou

1988

The late Maya Angelou takes a look back at her extraordinary career and even more extraordinary life with then-host Michael Parkinson, and it is without a doubt one of the most memorable Desert Island Discs to date.

The American poet, singer and civil rights activists was one of the most important voices of the 21st Century and her music choices take us through some of the most influential musicians of soul, rhythm and blues and gospel, from Ray Charles to Mahalia Jackson. 

An oldie of an episode but an absolute goldie.

Music played:

  • Mahalia Jackson: How Great Thou Art
  • Max Roach: A Quiet Place
  • Roberta Flack: Killing Me Softly (With His Song)
  • Stevie Wonder: I Just Called To Say I Love You
  • Sarah Vaughan: East Of The Sun
  • Frank Sinatra: One For The Road
  • George Gershwin: Summertime (from Porgy & Bess)
  • Ray Charles: Georgia On My Mind

Book choice:

  • Negro Caravan – selected and edited by Sterling Brown, Arthur P Davis and Uylsses Lee

Luxury item:

  • The Kumasi Market painting by John T. Biggers