New BBC digital station offers 69 years of 'Desert Island Discs'

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The Independent Online

If you want David Cameron singing Benny Hill's "Ernie" on your iPod, or a download of Johnny Vegas talking about how his dad skinned his pet rabbit, or even Kathy Burke requesting a life-size laminated photograph of business guru James Caan to use for bodysurfing, then your time has come.

The BBC is to give public access to the archive of the classic Radio 4 show Desert Island Discs, allowing downloads of the past 500 editions and listing the choices made by every guest since the programme began in 1942. The archive will become live with the launch of the re-branded digital network Radio 4 Extra, which replaces Radio 7 next month. The new station will broadcast classic editions from the past decade, introduced and contextualised by the host Kirsty Young.

Announcing details of the network at Broadcasting House in London yesterday, the head of BBC Radio, Tim Davie, said Radio 4 Extra was not intended to draw listeners away from Radio 4 or other BBC analogue stations but to provide added content that would encourage use of digital radio.

Radio 4 Extra will also feature a series of family-based plays, starting with Ian Fleming's novel Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Magical Car, read by Imogen Stubbs, followed by the children's classic The Silver Sword written by Ian Serraillier. The comedian Arthur Smith has been hired to host the station's comedy club.

Mr Davie said Radio 4 Extra would also provide extended versions of Desert Island Discs shows already broadcast on Radio 4 in the past year. These hour-long broadcasts would contain up to 15 minutes more conversation with the guest.

Online searches of the past selections of the guests of presenters Roy Plomley, Michael Parkinson, Sue Lawley and Ms Young during the past 69 years will reveal many gems. Actor Sir Norman Wisdom requested as his luxury item a pot of stew with two dumplings. Publisher Felix Dennis desired a stainless steel shaft so he might attempt to entice Mermaid pole-dancers. Former chat show host Russell Harty wanted a Union flag and a pole to claim the island for Britain.

The BBC wants to encourage digital listening, which accounts for only 25 per cent of the British radio audience. Just 3 per cent listen via the internet, which Mr Davie believes is a missed opportunity.

Mr Davie said the reception for Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) radios was "like a Swiss cheese" in London and that the radio industry was searching for the highest possible building on which to base a transmitter.

Classic Episodes

Norman Mailer The American author declared he would choose "a stick of the finest marijuana" as his luxury item. The request was politely refused by the programme's creator, Roy Plomley.

Kathy Burke The comedian defended her dislike of relationships and spoke about her alcoholic father. She wanted a life-size picture of businessman James Caan, from Dragons' Den, on which to surf.

Johnny Vegas In a moving episode, the comic discussed the year he spent at a Catholic seminary where other children were abused: "When I left, I felt very guilty. I wanted to take everybody else with me."

Tony Adams Interviews with footballers are rarely as insightful as this one, in which the former England captain opened up about the alcohol addiction that almost wrecked his career.

Oliver Reed The late actor and reveller put in a characteristically rousing performance, nominating a blow-up doll as the luxury item he would take to the island.

Gordon Brown Appearing in 1996 with rumours circulating about his sexuality owing to his bachelor status, the soon-to-be Chancellor said he was straight but that a relationship "just hasn't happened".