In Tom Stoppard's play The Real Thing, the protagonist, a playwright, agonises about one of the truly agonising decisions in life.
What records should he choose for his upcoming appearance on Desert Island Discs? He knows that for street cred's sake some must be classical, and for further street cred a token pop choice should be Pink Floyd or something equally challenging. But he had always had a soft spot for Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders singing "Um Um Um Um Um Um". Could his reputation survive?
One can lose or enhance one's street cred very easily on Desert Island Discs. There are few better cultural barometers than the Radio 4 programme. Pleasing its indomitable presenter Kirsty Young has become as important as pleasing the wider audience. Interestingly, when Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Park was criticised for choosing a family friend's son's record on the programme just before Christmas, he responded this week that "even Kirsty Young thought the song should be the Christmas No 1 when she heard it". Even! The arbiter of musical taste has spoken.
On Desert Island Discs you lay your soul, or at least the cultural side of it, bare. Its founder Roy Plomley once wrote of the programme: "I believe Desert Island Discs adds a dimension to a listener's mental picture of a well-known person, giving the same insight he would receive from visiting the celebrity's home and seeing the books, pictures and furniture with which he surrounds himself."
You may or may not then want to visit the homes of some of the castaways. When asked which luxury they would want on the island, the former polar explorer Duncan Carse requested an inflatable rubber woman, also the choice of the late actor Oliver Reed, while Norman Mailer chose "a stick of the finest marijuana". As for records, my favourite castaway will always be the diva Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Seven of her eight selections featured the voice of Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.
But Nick Park, in choosing "Plain Song" by family friend Joe Rose, has, perhaps inadvertently, taken the show into a new dimension. Since the show was broadcast there have been more than 2,650 visitors to Rose's YouTube page, 10 times more than two months earlier when the song was launched and sales on his iTunes site have also risen dramatically. And Rose hasn't even got a recording contract yet.
I must admit I hadn't guessed that listeners to Desert Island Discs rush off to YouTube and iTunes as the theme music fades out. But there I am probably guilty of cultural stereotyping. The fact that they do may not go unnoticed by record companies, PRs, pluggers and all the various people that help a song into the charts.
Will they now start monitoring who is scheduled to appear on Desert Island Discs and lobby for all they are worth? I suspect they will. So too will family friends on behalf of their wannabe musician children. A cultural institution might just have undergone an alarming change.
Playwright's story is worth telling
If I'm to pick a cultural highlight of the past 12 months, then for me one must be the moving and poignant play Men Should Weep, still on at the National Theatre. The play about everyday life in the Glasgow tenements of the 1930s was written in 1947 by Ena Lamont Stewart, a name I had never heard of. Her story, it emerges in the programme for the production, is no less poignant than the play itself. Though the first production of the play received rave reviews, she and her subsequent scripts were rejected by the male hierarchy that pretty much ran radical Glasgow theatre, and she only had one further play professionally produced in 35 years. In the year 2000 Men Should Weep was named by the National as one of the greatest of the 20th-century. Ena Lamont Stewart was still alive in her eighties when this recognition belatedly came her way. But she had lost her memory and was not even aware that she had once been a writer.
I hope that a television documentary or drama will tell the story of this great and wrongly neglected playwright.
Stumped by Pinter's cricket talk
Before England's cricketing victory in Melbourne this week, there was much discussion about the state of the wicket and what treatment it might be given. This has a cultural echo, a rather memorable one. In his early play The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter made mention of this, having one character say accusingly to another: "Who watered the wicket at Melbourne?"
This would mean something to cricket-loving audiences in both England and Australia, but little to audiences in Europe. Indeed, in his 1960s essay Pinter Translated the writer Martin Esslin pointed out that translators found it hard to render this accusation in other languages. A German translator tackled it in this way. Wicket? Well, the dictionary defines one meaning of wicket as being gate. Watered? Well, one can guess what Pinter had in mind there. And so in German theatres that line has been rendered: "Wer hat an das Stadttor von Melbourne gepinkelt?" or "Who peed against the city gate at Melbourne?"Reuse content