13 Best Desert Island Disc Episodes

Whether you’re a die-hard fan or haven’t yet tuned in, Desert Island Discs is one of the best discussion topics of all time. Many presenters have asked numerous guests the same question over its 77-year run: if you could take just eight songs to a desert island, what would they be? Here, we’ve picked some of our favourite responses from guests who have answered that question with humour and raw emotion, and provided us with more than enough new music to listen to.

Dawn French

Dawn French of course is guaranteed to be a good laugh, but what might surprise you is the deeply moving story she tells about Etta James’s ‘At Last’ being played at the funeral of her mother, who believed that she would be reunited with French’s late father when she passed. As well as Elbow’s ‘On A Day Like This’, which French says she wasn’t aware anyone else knew of beside her – she introduces the song by saying “This is Elbow singing for me, for my future”.

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Henry Marsh

Talks about his son having a brain tumour at the beginning of his general training. Between Marsh’s choices – which range from BB King to Beethoven – he talks about the psychological toll of becoming a surgeon, and the therapy he’s had to undertake to deal with the enormity of having people’s lives in his hands and dealing with their expectations when people often forget that surgeons are humans too, and they can make mistakes. He was also Kirsty Young’s last guest before she took leave from the show for medical reasons. 

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Louis Theroux

We couldn’t miss King Louis off the list, could we? Besides his top notch music choices – as well as some rouge choices, such as ‘Heaven on their Minds’ from the Jesus Christ Superstar album – the journalist discusses getting his first TV job from Michael Moore, how film director Joe Cornish fuelled his love of rap music, and how having a widely-published dad does have its pitfalls (“It’s an odd thing reading a graphic sex scene in a novel that your dad has written, when you’re seven or eight years old.”) And if you’re a fan of Louis’ episode, you’ll even get a snippet of his father, the author Paul Theroux’s Desert Island Discs episode from 1976. 

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Simon Cowell

What does the king of the music industry choose as his favourite songs of all time? Well, some might be surprised to hear Simon Cowell’s got a soft spot for Daniel Bedingfield… 

Speaking to Kirsty Young’s predecessor Susan Lawley, the music mogul talks about being a naughty child and his start in the music industry – working with singing wrestlers, the Power Rangers and Teletubbies – before finding success with Westlife and Robson and Jerome. Never one for modesty, Cowell states his number one item to bring to his desert island is a mirror, because “I’d miss me”. And not all the songs are so left-field – Mack the Knife by Bobby Darin is a classic. 

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Stephen Hawking

Under Sue Lawley’s watch, the presenter grilled Stephen Hawking for his eight favourite tracks in 1992. With his positivity, Hawking talks about how he feels fortunate to be loved and appreciated, and how he’s lucky to have music in his life. Accompanied by his trademark classic wit, Hawking chooses such tracks as ‘Please Please Me’ by The Beatles and ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’ by Édith Piaf, which he says sums up his life. 

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Tom Daley

At just 25 years old, Tom Daley has managed to pack plenty into his life so far. Daley’s Desert Island Discs episode is a poignant one, as he shares with current presenter Lauren Laverne everything from life with his late father and the moment he passed, taking part in the Olympics and being bullied at school, and becoming a father with his husband Dustin Lance Black. Daley’s songs all evoke personal memories for him, with Heather Small’s ‘Proud’ reminding him of the London 2012 Olympics, and how ‘Dry Your Eyes Mate’ by The Streets used to make his dad laugh. Get ready to feel emotional and uplifted all at the same time. 

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Tom Hanks

The beauty of Desert Island Discs is how it manages to encourage a guest to talk about subjects they might not usually divulge, but in a way that doesn’t feel invasive. In his episode, everyone’s favourite Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks, talks about feeling lonely due to his nomadic childhood and turning to the theatre to conquer those feelings – he even sheds a little tear. It’s a really touching moment. 

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Yoko Ono

A moving and frank interview to say the least and also one of Kirsty Young’s favourites, this 2007 episode is one not to be missed. She tells Young about the hostile reaction to her relationship with John Lennon and describes the night he was shot as they walked home together. One of the songs chosen by the Japanese artist was her late husband’s track ‘Beautiful Boy’, written about their son Sean, who was five-years-old when his father died. “When I was listening to 'Beautiful Boy',” Ono said, “I felt John just jumped out in the corner saying, 'Good idea…’ He is always somewhere, jumping out and saying things."

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David Nott

Vascular surgeon David Nott might not be the biggest star to grace the DID studio, but it’s one of the episodes that everyone remembers. He describes in vivid detail the work he has done in warzones, making life or death decisions for the victims of bombing. It changed him, and that was never more evident to him than when he met the Queen ten days after returning from Syria. “I didn’t know what to say to her. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to speak to her. I just couldn’t. I could not say anything.” The Queen sensed there was something wrong, and instead suggested they feed biscuits to her corgis. “The Queen and I, during this lunch, just fed the dogs.”

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Pat McGrath

The ever-inspirational make-up artist Pat McGrath talks about her entreprenureal spirit that she got from her mother who once told her that if “you can’t buy it, make it”. Within just a few years of starting her career, she was working with the likes of John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Dolce and Gabana, Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, Prada, Lanvin, Calvin Klein and Balenciaga. She also talked about racism growing up in the 70s, but said she was “very lucky, having the mother I had, who was like, 'Oh look at that person, they're racist, poor things, let's go shopping.'"

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Sheryl Sandberg

COO of Facebook and author of the infamous book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg gives an emotional interview about family, leadership and coping with grief. Not only does she talk about the power of women (choosing ‘Run the World (Girls)’ by Beyoncé to back her up), but openly dicusses the death of her husband Dave, who died suddenly from a heart attack in 2015. She describes Dave as “a smart, loving, just… wonderful man” who she and her children still talk about “all the time”.

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Mary Berry

Mary Berry is one of the UK’s most well-known and best-loved bakers, with more than six million of her books sold - not bad for a girl who failed her school certificate in English. It was in domestic science lessons that she discovered her love of cooking and she is in no doubt of the importance of teaching cookery in school: "When everybody leaves school, whether they are a boy or a girl, what do they have to do in the home? They have to produce a meal. They haven't been taught to do it. I think it should be essential." Berry’s choices are a mix of golden oldies such as Rod Stewart and Cliff Richard and classical music by Vivaldi. 

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Lily Allen

We’ve always known Lily Allen to be outspoken – it’s what we love her for. This 2014 episode shows how the singer isn’t afraid to talk about her feelings. Allen talks about her miscarriage in 2010 and how it made her “neurotic” that her first child might also die. Her daughter Ethel was diagnosed at birth with a condition that made it hard to put on weight, and was tube-fed for seven months: "I was so scared of losing her the whole time really and I tend to go into shut-down mode when things are bad. But Sam was amazing. He would go and defrost the breast milk and try and try to feed her all night. I don't know where I would be without him," she tells Kirsty Young.

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