Desert Island Discs (lost unaired BBC Radio 4 interview with Alistair MacLean; 1972)

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Logo for Desert Island Discs.

Status: Lost

Desert Island Discs is a radio talk show, which, following its 1942 inception, has regularly aired new episodes on BBC Radio 4. Conceptualised and first hosted by Roy Plomley, it involved Plomley interviewing guests who were instructed to imagine they were washed ashore on a desert island. In 1972, it appeared the show landed a major coup when Scottish thriller author Alistair MacLean seemingly agreed to participate. However, the episode went unaired when it was discovered that the Alistair MacLean who Plomley interviewed was not the one the BBC intended to feature.


Originally running from 29th January 1942-1946 and airing new episodes since 1951,[1][2] Desert Island Discs established a unique format for talk radio shows.[3][4] Each guest who appeared would conform to the idea they had been "castaway" on a desert island.[3][4] With them are eight music pieces that resonate with them, a book of their choosing and a static luxury that cannot aid their escape from the island.[3][4][1] A discussion of these items with the host generally brings with it interesting and sometimes emotional anecdotes from the guests regarding their lives.[3][4] With regular appearances from illustrious celebrities, as well as diverse interviews which can range from humorous to moving,[5][6] Desert Island Discs has enjoyed a seemingly permanent presence on BBC Radio.[2][1] Some, such as The Guardian and a few industry experts, consider it among the greatest radio programmes of all time.[7][2]

Desert Island Discs managed to secure interviews with especially notable individuals, including Alfred Hitchcock, William Hartnell, Louis Armstrong, Yoko Ono and Princess Margaret.[2][4] Others, like Mick Jagger and Prince Charles, have never accepted an invitation.[4] One prominent man who never appeared on the show was Alistair MacLean.[8][9] He was a Scottish author who primarily wrote thriller and adventure novels mainly set in the Arctic and during wartime.[10][11] Some of his most famous works include Ice Station Zebra, Night Without End, The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare, where he also wrote the screenplay for the latter's film adaptation.[10][11] The show could be forgiven for not securing a MacLean interview, as the author was notoriously reclusive and shy.[12][13][8][9] Still, sometime in 1972,[13] the show attempted to invite MacLean.[8] Amazingly, MacLean accepted, much to Plomley and the production team's surprise and delight.[8][2][9] The pair agreed to meet at the Savile Club in London for lunch; beforehand, Plomley conducted extensive research on MacLean and his novels.[8][12]

The Alistair MacLean Interview

At the Savile Club, Plomley and MacLean engaged in small talk.[8][12][13] Though MacLean had slightly more hair and was contrastingly outgoing, Plomley was convinced of the man's authenticity.[8] After all, he maintained a slender build and displayed "pawky Scots humour".[8] It was not until Plomley had his second drink that he asked MacLean about his writing. MacLean was confused by this question, only to soon realise a case of mistaken identity had occurred. The man clarified that while his name was Alistair MacLean, he was not an author. Rather, he was the head of the Ontario European Tourist Bureau.[8][12][2][9] A critical administrative mistake had been made during the invitation process.[9]

Although shocked by this sudden revelation, Plomley felt that Ontario's Alistair MacLean still deserved to be interviewed.[8][12][2] Therefore, with just hours to prepare, Plomley and producer Ronald Cook sourced out MacLean's chosen eight audio recordings, book and luxury.[8] A full thirty-minute interview was then recorded.[8][2][9] Not much is known about what was discussed, though Plomley nevertheless felt MacLean was highly competent within his tourist bureau role.[8][13] It likely did feature some discussion about MacLean's life in Ontario.[14] Cook, not clued in that an interview mix-up had occurred, became frustrated with the interview's direction and demanded Plomley ask MacLean about his books.[12] Plomley was forced to respond that his guest had not written any.[12] Following this, MacLean was eager to know when his interview would be broadcast on BBC Radio 4.[8]

Ultimately, the episode's fate was in the hands of the BBC's top executives.[8] Some hope emerged when the executives actually enjoyed the interview, particularly praising MacLean's charisma.[8][9] Alas, they could not ignore the elephant in the room: nobody in Britain had any idea who this man was.[8][9] Hence, the decision was made to cancel its broadcast, with MacLean subsequently receiving a written apology and his appearance fee.[8][12][2][13] Because of this, The Book of Heroic Failures declared the MacLean interview as the most pointless in radio history.[12]


Because the interview would never air, the BBC immediately wiped the recording.[13][8] Radio tapes back then were expensive to purchase and preserve, resulting in the BBC wiping them at the same ferocity as its television recordings.[15][16] It has also meant many editions of Desert Island Discs that did air have also become lost media.[15] Alas, the recording's destruction means the interview of Ontario's Alistair MacLean will never be heard by the public.[13] Anecdotes from Plomley et al helped to preserve the awareness of this radio faux pas.[8][12][13]

See Also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 BBC summarising the history of Desert Island Discs. Retrieved 29th Jan '24
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 The Guardian listing 75 of the most important moments of Desert Island Discs and declaring it a "radio classic". Retrieved 29th Jan '24
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Formats Unpacked detailing the structure of a typical Desert Island Discs episode. Retrieved 29th Jan '24
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 Nostalgia Central summarising the show, notable guests and some who refused to make an appearance. Retrieved 29th Jan '24
  5. BBC listing seven of the most humorous interviews of the show. Retrieved 29th Jan '24
  6. Stylist listing ten of the most moving interviews of the show. Retrieved 29th Jan '24
  7. BBC News reporting on the show being declared by industry experts as the greatest ever radio programme. Retrieved 29th Jan '24
  8. 8.00 8.01 8.02 8.03 8.04 8.05 8.06 8.07 8.08 8.09 8.10 8.11 8.12 8.13 8.14 8.15 8.16 8.17 8.18 8.19 Desert Island Discs: 70 Years of Castaways detailing the story behind the interview (p.g. 153-155). Retrieved 29th Jan '24
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 9.6 9.7 Radio 4: An Unofficial Companion summarising the incident caused by an administrative error. Retrieved 29th Jan '24
  10. 10.0 10.1 Undiscovered Scotland summarising the life and career of author Alistair MacLean. Retrieved 29th Jan '24
  11. 11.0 11.1 Book Series in Order summarising MacLean's career and his books. Retrieved 29th Jan '24
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 12.5 12.6 12.7 12.8 12.9 The Not Terribly Good Book of Heroic Failures summarising "The Most Pointless Radio Interview". Retrieved 29th Jan '24
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 13.6 13.7 The Daily Telegraph summarising the interview and how it was immediately wiped. Retrieved 29th Jan '24
  14. Archived The Times summarising the MacLean interview. Retrieved 29th Jan '24
  15. 15.0 15.1 BBC explaining why many Desert Island Discs episodes no longer exist. Retrieved 29th Jan '24
  16. The Visitor Magazine summarising the extent of the BBC's wiped radio programmes. Retrieved 29th Jan '24