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Desert Island Discs – linking Brazil to the West Wing

Desert Island Discs

Desert Island Discs

Confession time – I love Desert Island Discs.

If the old adage goes that the best ideas are often the simplest, may I point at Radio 4’s long-running musical inquisition as being a case in point.

Desert Island Discs has just started its umpteenth season in its 70th year of broadcasting, with two strong episodes featuring actor and activist Martin Sheen and animator and director Terry Gilliam.

Both Sheen and Gilliam are of the same vintage as the show they recently graced, and so make ideal subjects to examine the power of this homely cross between Face to Face and Top of the Pops. Even the least ardent followers of the careers of these two men will be able to reel trivia about their film and TV credits and personal lives.

Sheen’s heart attack while filming Apocalypse Now; his troubled son; political activism and the West Wing.Gilliam, animated Python, his unique cinematic vision, the conflict over the release of Brazil, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the death of Heath Ledger while filming Dr Parnassus…

But the power of the show is that it can add additional layers to our knowledge, the music adding an emotional quality that’s simply not there on any other talk show. Think about it, since Parky finally threw in the towel – there is no platform for broad conversational interviews.  Don’t even think of naming Piers Morgan as an example.

The current crop of talk shows are primarily comedic vehicles – transparent copies of Letterman, Leno and O’Brien offering but a small window of opportunity to plug the latest film or book before plunging headlong into the next knob gag.  Entertaining but not exactly informative.

Which brings us back to DID.

Kirsty Young is a brilliant interviewer. Fact. But would she be as good without the help of her co-inquisitor? The choice of music tells us just as much about the characters, beliefs and ideals of the two men as any of the answers to her questions.

In the two opening episodes of the season Gilliam was funny, recalcitrant, perverse, amusing and a leading advocate for the non-verbal community.

We’ve heard the stories before, but I can’t remember him ever describing his relationship with the Beatles’ Gerorge Harrison with such warmth, or as revealing a description of his need to find the edge:

“I like to k now where the edge of the cliff is, but you only find out by stepping off…”

Martin Sheen revealed some beautifully touching insights into his relationship with sons Emilio Estevez and his troubled sibling Charlie Sheen.

He told some funny stories (his Clinton impression was pretty good) and was seemingly very open about his political beliefs. His musical choices reinforced and reflected his answers, Bob Dylan, Beethoven, Enya (to be fair it was a rendition of a hymn)

I can’t emphasise what a joyous programme this is. The great and the good and the just plain interesting. There is simply no other show like it.

The most fantastic news is that the Beeb have now put every episode online, so you need not miss a thing. Do yourself a favour – go listen. You’ll not regret it…



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