Desert Island Dylan: Dylan Thomas & the BBC

desertislandIn January 1942, whilst Britain was in the midst of the second world war, a new radio programme was launched on the BBC that would go on to become a national institution. Desert Island Discs was devised by broadcaster Roy Plomley, who, each week, interviewed a distinguished guest ‘castaway’ who would choose a selection of favourite sound recordings to take to an imagined desert island, along with a book and a luxury item. Over 70 years and several hosts later, the programme is still going strong, and the show’s archives present a fascinating record of the selections of the great and good over 8 decades.

By 1942 Dylan Thomas was already making regular appearances on BBC radio, and although he never appeared as a guest on Desert Island Discs, his association with the programme has been assured by the enduring popularity of his work as a choice for castaways. In the past month alone, two guests have chosen works by Dylan Thomas, former President of Ireland Mary Robinson choosing the Rev Eli Jenkin’s prayer from Under Milk Wood sung by the Treorchy Male Voice Choir, and production designer Eve Stewart, choosing the opening to Under Milk Wood performed by Richard Burton. These are the latest in over 50 castaways who have chosen to take the work of Dylan Thomas with them to their desert island, making Dylan the poet chosen most often (excluding William Shakespeare, who’s collected works are an automatic choice for all castaways).

Dylan’s work was first chosen in 1955, two years after his death, when the dramatist and actor Emlyn Williams, and the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, both selected works by Thomas. Williams said that he’d chosen Under Milk Wood in remembrance of having performed it alongside Richard Burton and Sybil Thorndike at the Dylan Thomas memorial service in 1954.

Under Milk Wood has been, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most popular choice, having been selected as an audio recording by over 25 castaways including the actress Dame Peggy Ashcroft, tennis player Virginia Wade, Princess Michael of Kent, opera singer Geraint Evans, poet Roger McGough, and the composer Lionel Bart who selected the work as his book choice. Many of the recordings of Under Milk Wood chosen include Richard Burton’s masterful performance of the opening monologue recorded for the BBC’s adaptation of Dylan’s play for voices in 1954, and Burton’s performance has clearly had an influence on the popularity of the piece. Burton never appeared as a guest on Desert Island Discs, but perhaps an indication of what his book choice may have been was given when Burton was buried with a copy of Thomas’s collected poems following his death in 1984.

The greatest voice there’s ever been in broadcasting

Seven of Dylan’s poems have also been chosen by castaways, with Fern Hill proving the most popular, being selected by 6 castaways including Dylan’s friend, the radio producer and cricket commentator John Arlott, and the children’s author Roald Dahl.  Dahl claimed during his interview that Thomas had “the greatest voice there’s ever been in broadcasting”.

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night has been chosen by five castaways including film director Michael Powell, who told Roy Plomley that “few poets can read their own poems, but this is one poet who I think reads his own poems as no other poet has ever read”. The playwright and screen writer Alan Plater also chose the same poem claiming that it was a “road to Damascus choice”, recalling how he tuned the family wireless to the third programme when his parents were out so that he could listen to Thomas. “I knew him as a buccaneering, bohemian, drunken poet, and that seemed a nice thing to want to be. What I heard was something quite startling and it was the first and most powerful lesson in the strength of the spoken word”.

Other poems that have been chosen include And Death Shall Have No Dominion selected by Yehudi Menuhin and John Freeman, If I Were Tickled By The Rub of Love selected by the writer  Julian Symons, Poem On His Birthday selected by the painter Sidney Nolan, In My Craft And Sullen Art selected by actress Mary Ure, and Poem In October chosen by the BBC commentator Audrey Russell.  Four guests have chosen Dylan’s collected poems as their book choice, actor and comedian Rob Brydon, media executive Greg Dyke, Welsh rugby international Gareth Edwards, and Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts.

Irresistible, it’s one of the great stories, wonderfully told

Dylan’s stories and broadcasts have also proved popular. Actress Miriam Margolyes chose Dylan’s short story A Visit to Grandpa’s, telling interviewer Kirsty Young that “one of the first voices I remember impinging on my life was Dylan Thomas, and the richness of his voice and the particularity of his vision excites me”. The broadcasters Frank Muir and Denis Norden chose Dylan’s talk recorded at MIT in 1952, A Few Words Of A Kind, and two castaways have chosen Dylan’s broadcast talk A Visit to America.  Actor Hugh Griffith wanted Dylan’s broadcast Return Journey, and in choosing A Child’s Christmas In Wales, actor Edward Fox called it “irresistible, it’s one of the great stories, wonderfully told”.

One of the more unexpected selections was made by the writer and editor Desmond Hawkins who’d published some of Dylan’s poems in the New English Weekly, and who told interviewer Roy Plomley that he used to meet Dylan in the Yorkshire Grey public house in London.  He chose a recording of Dylan reciting the music hall song Pretty Polly Perkins of Paddington Green.

2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dylan Thomas and if Desert Island Discs is any guide, his popularity shows no sign of waning. And it’s not just distinguished castaways who would chose to share their desert island solitude with Dylan Thomas. In 2011 the BBC invited the public to vote for their own castaway choices, and over 25,000 people took part. The most popular non musical choice with the public was “Under Milk Wood”.

Andrew Dally
August 2013

NOTE: On 18th January 2015 Dame Julia Cleverdon became the latest castaway to chose a work by Dylan Thomas when she chose Richard Burton’s performance of the opening of Under Milk Wood.

NOTE: On 1st January 2017 Sir Kenneth Grange became the latest castaway to chose a work by Dylan Thomas when he chose Richard Burton’s performance of the opening of Under Milk Wood.

Further information

BBC Desert Island Discs
Dylan Thomas centenary

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