Desert Island Discs (partially lost episodes of BBC Radio interview show; 1942-present)

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Logo for Desert Island Discs.

Status: Partially Lost

Desert Island Discs is a BBC Radio talk show which initially aired from 1942 to 1946. The show was revived in 1951 and has since become the United Kingdom's longest continually-running interview radio show at over 3,000 episodes. Its premise involves notable guests opening up about interesting life experiences while pretending they were marooned on a desert island. However, many broadcasts have since become partially or fully lost media, having never been recorded or were subject to the BBC's wiping practices.


Desert Island Discs was conceptualised by its original host, Roy Plomley.[1][2][3][4][5][6] In November 1941, Plomley was among many to be affected by the Blitz.[2] Following yet another attack, Plomley resided at his Bushey, Hertfordshire cottage where he began to develop a radio show concept set miles away from the horrors of World War 2.[2][3][5] Called Desert Island Discs, the show was greenlit by BBC Gramophone producer Leslie Perowne initially for a trial run of six episodes.[2][1] As part of this deal, Plomley, who was not a BBC employee but an independent contractor, retained full rights to the show.[7] The first episodes would be recorded at Maida Vale Studios, which despite being greatly affected by the Blitz,[8] remained functional in early 1942.[1][3] The inaugural interview was initially set to feature the philosopher C. E. M. Joad,[9] but a busy schedule delayed Joad's appearance until October 1945.[10][6] Instead, the comedian and musician Vic Oliver was his replacement.[10][1] Having obtained fame on radio and in music halls, Oliver also married Sir Winston Churchill's daughter Sarah and subsequently endured a tumultuous relationship with his famous father-in-law.[11][4][10][3] The interview was recorded on 27th January 1942 and aired on BBC Forces Programme two days later.[12][1][10] Like other radio programmes of the era, the script and interview were reviewed so they complied with strict wartime censorship.[1][4]

Desert Island Discs' wartime format was somewhat different to the modern variant.[13] In it, "castaways" were tasked to envision themselves stranded alone on an unknown desert island.[13][3][2] With them are eight gramophone records, which they share a personal connection with.[2][13][3] They are also marooned with a copy of the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare.[1][3] Throughout the episode, the interview is structured around excerpts from the records and books.[13][10] During the War, Desert Island Discs was almost a generic radio music show, but its unique island setting captured the British public's imagination and gave them precious moments to distance themselves from a bleak reality.[2][13] Hence, the show's original run lasted throughout the War's remaining duration and into 1946.[2][10] In that period, Pat Kirkwood became the first female castaway in Episode 5,[12] while Plomley himself was marooned in May 1942 and interviewed by Perowne.[10] Rather interestingly, theatre critic James Agate became the second castaway and was the show's first homosexual interviewee.[14][10] However, as male homosexuality was criminalised in Britain until 1967,[15] it meant this subject matter was not discussed on the show until decades later.[10]

The show originally came to an end in 1946, following a reshuffle of post-war BBC programming.[10][1] However, its popularity convinced the BBC to bring it back five years later, this time on BBC Home Service.[1][10] The first guest for the revived show was the actor Eric Portman, whose interview was broadcast on 3rd January 1951.[10] 1951 also saw a period of experimentation, which prompted the introduction of two long-lasting features for the show.[13][1][4] The first was allowing guests to bring a single luxury with them, introduced in actress Sally Ann Howes' episode on 16th September 1951.[10][1][12] Though her luxury of garlic appears unusual at first, one must note that Britain's food rations did not end until 1954,[16] thus making garlic valuable throughout the War and its immediate aftermath.[10][12] Luxuries are subject to the host's approval; no living beings or means of escaping the island are allowed.[6] Beginning from actor Henry Kendall's episode broadcast on 9th October 1951, guests were also allowed to bring an additional book with them, Kendall's being Who's Who in the Theatre.[1][10][6]

But perhaps its most impactful change concerned the interviews themselves.[13][10] As documented by Formats Unpacked, the show went beyond just about music but focused on connection.[13] Each audio recording and item enabled castaways to reveal detailed anecdotes about their lives, many of which have proven shocking,[17] humorous,[18] exceptionally moving,[19][20] and allowed for the breaking of stereotypes.[13][10] In terms of hilarious moments, Lee Mack discussed his ill-fated attempts to become a darts world champion and a successful jockey, including by riding three-time Grand National winner Red Rum.[18] A September 2023 episode which featured Adrian Edmondson was considered a powerful one as he recalled his friendship with the late Rik Mayall, the pair having worked on such shows as Bottom and The Young Ones.[21] Desert Island Discs has also featured controversial and poorly-aged highlights too.[17][10] For example, future Prime Minister Gordon Brown was quizzed in March 1996 on whether he was gay, considering his long-term single status.[17][10] This occurred years before he met and married Sarah Macaulay in 2000.[17] Brown was praised for his calm response to this question,[10] though it provoked debate on the ethical concerns present regarding direct interrogation of one's sexuality.[22] Perhaps the most controversial episode featured Lady Diana Mosley, who openly expressed her mutual friendship with Adolf Hitler (who referred to her as an "angel"),[23] engaged in Holocaust denial and refused to believe her husband, Sir Oswald Mosley, was an antisemitic.[17]

From 1942-1946 and 1951-1985, Plomley conducted 1,791 interviews.[10] He passed away from pleurisy on 28th May 1985 at the age of 71, his final interviewee being the actress Sheila Steafel.[1][10][6] Beforehand, Plomley was cast away for a second time in May 1958 and interviewed by Eamonn Andrews.[10] Since then, four others have taken over hosting duties;[13] Sir Michael Parkinson, who had previously been marooned in February 1972, conducted 96 interviews from 5th January 1986 to 13th March 1988.[1][10] The show's other hosts have all been women; Sue Lawley, who had only just been a castaway herself in November 1987, took over on 27th March 1988, where she interviewed 750 guests until her departure in August 2006.[1][10] Her replacement, Kirsty Young, interviewed 496 individuals from October 2006 to August 2018.[24] As of March 2024, Lauren Laverne has fulfilled hosting duties ever since replacing Young,[25] having interviewed her predecessor on Christmas Day 2022.[24] The show is also memorable for its sheer diversity of prestigious guests including Sir Alfred Hitchcock, Princesses Margaret and Michael of Kent, Stephen Hawking, Dame Judi Dench, David Beckham, Whoopi Goldberg, Roald Dahl and Yoko Ono, to name but a few.[26][27][10] This contributed towards Desert Island Discs being hailed as the greatest-ever radio show according to a panel of industry experts in February 2019.[28] While the Shipping Forecast is Britain's oldest ongoing radio programme, Desert Island Discs is its oldest interview show still in operation, having become a BBC Radio 4 cornerstone since 1967.[2][6]


Though Desert Island Discs is one of the BBC's biggest radio shows, its episodes were notably absent from the BBC's online services like iPlayer.[7] As previously mentioned, Plomley held exclusive copyright to the show; upon his passing, the rights were transferred over to his wife and family.[29][7] Initial negotiations between the BBC and Plomley's family in 2009 forged an agreement where the latest episodes could be shown on BBC iPlayer for a week.[7] Further discussions yielded a more permanent solution; in March 2011, it was reported that around 500 episodes would be available online as part of BBC Radio 4 Extra's launch.[29] The BBC subsequently contracted Loftus Media to produce a digital archive.[30][31] By the time the project was completed, over 1,800 episodes were available on the service.[31]

However, those eager for Plomley's interviews would be left relatively disappointed.[32][33] Of 1,791 episodes produced,[10] only 456 were publicly available by May 2012.[33] A few factors were responsible for the loss of numerous episodes: firstly, a large proportion of broadcasts were simply left unrecorded.[34][32][10] Back then, expensive acetate discs and 1/4 inch tapes were used to preserve a fraction of BBC Radio output.[34][32] When this was done, it was often only used for tape-delayed broadcasts and not for archival purposes.[34] Thus, some episodes disappeared following their inaugural broadcasts.[32][10] Those that were recorded, including the Oliver interview,[35] were also prone to becoming lost media.[32] Since an archive was considered unnecessary until 1981, the BBC regularly taped over its recordings as part of a cost-savings initiative that limited the need for more tapes and extensive preservation.[34][32] Desert Island Discs episodes were likely further at risk because of their copyright status,[7] making re-airings difficult to achieve.[34] Though the wiping of BBC's television programmes like Doctor Who is well-documented,[36] the reality is that its radio output typically suffered a lot worse.[37][35] Some live DJ programmes for instance were generally left unarchived prior to 2000.[35]

Because of this, over 1,000 Desert Island Discs episodes up to the 1980s were lost.[38][33] This included every interview broadcast in the 1940s, with the oldest surviving recording being that of actress Margaret Lockwood on 25th April 1951.[39][33][10] However, some missing broadcasts have since been recovered.[33][30][38] During Loftus Media's initial search, they were able to acquire seventeen home recordings dating between 1951 and 1975, which had been donated to the British Library Sound Archive.[33] Another major find occurred in the summer of 2012 when the British Library discovered 67 episodes in a disused and previously inaccessible storage facility.[30] They had been donated by former producer Derek Drescher in 1999.[30] Of these, Sir Alec Guinness' second interview, broadcast on 27th December 1977, is considered among the most treasured as the episode marked a rare instance where he talked about portraying Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars franchise.[40][30] In some cases, the castaways themselves recorded the interviews for personal use.[33] Quentin Poole, then-Head Chorister of King's College Cambridge, was the show's youngest guest at only 13.[41][33] He donated a mostly complete recording for his Boxing Day 1970 interview.[33]

Though a decent proportion of episodes between 1951 and 1975 survived, only about 43 recovered by May 2012 were full recordings.[33] While some episodes were always partially preserved at the BBC, including that of Hitchcock's interview,[10] the corporation opted to remove the music segments.[42][33] A main motivation behind this was rights issues;[34] even to this day, the BBC can only air short excerpts of copyrighted music and cannot provide certain audio recordings like sports commentaries.[32] Because of this, the BBC also decided to delete the sections where each audio choice was discussed.[33] This created issues when the BBC attempted to re-add the music, as it was often impossible to determine where each was played during the interview.[33] Another problem included the replication of the precise audio being played.[33] For instance, the BBC inserted a 1970 rendition of Vivaldi's Four Seasons into Edward Ardizzone's interview, because this was the exact version selected by the watercolourist.[42][33] Some interviews also lost the discussions of the chosen books and luxuries.[33] Consequently, numerous interviews prior to 1976 survive only in fragments.[43] For example, Hitchcock's interview lasts only seven and a half minutes,[44][10] while historian Sir Arthur Bryant's episode has fewer than two minutes of surviving audio.[45]

In January 2015, it was reported that the entirety of musician Louis Armstrong's interview was recovered.[46][47] Like Poole, Armstrong was keen to preserve his radio appearances, having personally requested a full copy of the interview that was originally broadcast on 5th August 1968.[46][47] It was located in the Louis Armstrong House Museum, with Armstrong having catalogued his collection.[46] Around the same period, three other episodes were fully or partially found: this included The Railway Series creator Reverend W. Awdry's 19th October 1964 episode;[48] The Avengers actress Diana Rigg's 28th November 1970 broadcast;[49] and 16 minutes of First Doctor actor William Hartnell's 23rd August 1965 interview.[50][46]

In October 2022, Lowestoft audio collector and Radio Circle UK member Richard Harrison discovered 92 recordings located within unlabelled reels.[51][52] Harrison listed actor Dirk Bogarde's 1964 interview as the most exciting find.[53][51] Other notable recoveries included that of the actors Bing Crosby (1975), Dudley Moore (1969) and Dame Edith Evans (1964); comedian Ronnie Corbett (1971); two-time Formula One World Champion Jim Clark (1964); musicians Sir Thomas Beecham (1957), Sir Adrian Boult (1960) and Val Doonican (1970); and journalist David Dimbleby (1974).[38] The oldest recording was from 12th December 1955 and featured a rare duo of comedians Bob Monkhouse and Denis Goodwin.[38] While it was claimed the episodes were from the 1960s and 1970s,[51][52] four were broadcast in the 1980s.[38] Amazingly, one episode missing prior to Harrison's find was Lawley's 27th May 1988 interview with The Body Shop founder Anita Roddick, which illustrated the extent of lost radio broadcasts.[54][38] The BBC digitised and uploaded the episodes onto BBC Sounds and provided a list of highlights from these interviews.[55][38] On 23rd March 2023, Radio Circle announced that the 12th March 1973 interview of historian Dame Veronica Wedgwood OM had been found.[56] As of 10th March 2024, the broadcast has yet to be made publicly available on BBC Sounds.[57]

In most cases, the broadcasts resurfaced thanks to off-air recordings made by fans.[55][33] As home recordings were relatively affordable compared to television counterparts,[37] it raised hope that other tapes still exist.[55] On 11th September 2012, as part of BBC Radio's 90th anniversary, an appeal was launched by the Listeners' Archive requesting these valuable tapes.[58] Among sought-after broadcasts include key episodes of the soap drama The Archers; 1970s coverage of the women's liberation movement; the first day of Radio Ulster's operation; and appearances by author George Orwell.[35] On 10th October 2012, the Listeners' Archive added the inaugural interview with Oliver to its most-wanted list.[35] The BBC has also provided a Contact Us form to help assist in the recovery of missing episodes, emphasising those before 1976.[32] As of 10th March 2024, 2,456 episodes can be listened to on BBC Sounds, with over 3,000 having been produced overall.[59]

There are some special cases of lost Desert Island Discs media. Though it was preserved in the BBC's archives,[60] Jimmy Savile's interview on 5th April 1985 cannot be listened to on BBC Sounds.[61][62] It was expunged from its online services following the revelations surrounding the now-deceased DJ and entertainer, with the interview containing sinister connotations surrounding Savile's actions in dance halls and at Stoke Mandeville Hospital.[62][60] The interview was uploaded and taken down on YouTube a few times but has publicly resurfaced again courtesy of couchtripper on 29th September 2021.[63] Glam rock singer Gary Glitter's interview, broadcast on 4th April 1981, has also been removed from the archive.[64][10] Though some Missing Episodes forum users claim the episode was previously publicly available, it has not resurfaced on other platforms.[65] Despite having also been disgraced since the episodes aired, entertainer Rolf Harris' interviews on 3rd April 1967 and 3rd September 1999 can be listened to on BBC Sounds.[66][67][10] Just over four minutes of the 1967 interview has been found.[66]

Some episodes also went unaired. The most famous was an interview that featured the "wrong" Alistair MacLean, which occurred in 1972 but was not broadcast because nobody in Britain would have recognised him.[68] According to Radio 4: An Unofficial Companion, one interview featured an inebriated and unidentified male actor, which had to be re-recorded because of obvious quality issues.[68] Both interviews are believed to have been wiped for the same reasons as those that did air.[27][32] Finally, one humorous urban legend concerned an alleged episode featuring French actress Brigitte Bardot.[2][10] According to the legend, when asked about her chosen luxury, Bardot seemingly requested "a-peeniss".[69] A shaken Plomley asked her to elaborate on this, where she clarified that she sought 'appiness because it was what the planet desperately required.[69][10] Ultimately, this urban legend has been debunked because it has transpired that Bardot has never appeared on the show.[2][10]

See Also

External Links


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 BBC summarising the creation and history of Desert Island Discs. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 History News Network summarising the timeline of Desert Island Discs' conceptualisation, its premise and its legacy. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 The New Yorker reflecting on Desert Island Discs' legacy 70 years after its first episode. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Information Britain summarising the show's original and current formats as well as Oliver's first appearance. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  5. 5.0 5.1 Radio Times summarising how Plomley created Desert Island Discs. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 BBC News reflecting on the show in its 60th anniversary. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 The Guardian detailing how Plomley obtained full copyright for the show, which initially prevented it from appearing on BBC iPlayer. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  8. Sound on Sound detailing the history of Maida Vale Studios. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  9. Spartacus Educational biography on C. E. M. Joad. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  10. 10.00 10.01 10.02 10.03 10.04 10.05 10.06 10.07 10.08 10.09 10.10 10.11 10.12 10.13 10.14 10.15 10.16 10.17 10.18 10.19 10.20 10.21 10.22 10.23 10.24 10.25 10.26 10.27 10.28 10.29 10.30 10.31 10.32 10.33 10.34 10.35 10.36 The Guardian listing 75 key moments of the show to celebrate its 75th anniversary. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  11. BBC summarising the life and career of Oliver. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 Radio Times providing 30 facts about the show. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 13.6 13.7 13.8 13.9 Formats Unpacked detailing the formats of Desert Island Discs. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  14. The Neglected Books Page biography on Agate. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  15. The National Archives summarising the passing of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised male homosexuality providing both parties were aged 21 or above. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  16. BBC News on the removal of Britain's food rations on 4th July 1954. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 17.4 BBC summarising the most shocking episodes of the show. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  18. 18.0 18.1 BBC summarising the most humorous episodes of the show. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  19. BBC summarising the most moving episodes of the show. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  20. Stylist listing its top ten moving Desert Island Discs episodes. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  21. Independent reporting on the reactions to Adrian Edmondson's September 2023 episode. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  22. Independent where Michael Cashman detailed his opinion on the Brown interview. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  23. The Guardian obituary for Lady Diana Mosley. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  24. 24.0 24.1 BBC Sounds providing Young's interview broadcast on 25th December 2022. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  25. The New Statesman reporting on Laverne becoming the next (and as of March 2024, latest) host of the show. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  26. BBC Radio 4 providing a list of podcasts featuring noted Hollywood celebrities. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  27. 27.0 27.1 The Telegraph listing its 45 favourite guests on the show, including the unaired MacLean interview. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  28. BBC News reporting on Desert Island Discs being declared the greatest-ever radio show. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  29. 29.0 29.1 The Guardian reporting on 500 episodes being made available on BBC Radio 4 Extra. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  30. 30.0 30.1 30.2 30.3 30.4 BBC Radio 4 Blog summarising the digital archive project and the recovery of 67 episodes from the British Library. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  31. 31.0 31.1 Loftus Media summarising its Desert Island Discs archive project. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  32. 32.0 32.1 32.2 32.3 32.4 32.5 32.6 32.7 32.8 BBC's Frequently Asked Questions page which explained why certain episodes of Desert Island Discs are not part of the online archive. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  33. 33.00 33.01 33.02 33.03 33.04 33.05 33.06 33.07 33.08 33.09 33.10 33.11 33.12 33.13 33.14 33.15 33.16 BBC Radio 4 Blog reporting on 456 Plomley episodes being made available online and the painstaking work to recover and restore many of them. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  34. 34.0 34.1 34.2 34.3 34.4 34.5 BBC Archive explaining why numerous old radio broadcasts no longer exist at the BBC. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  35. 35.0 35.1 35.2 35.3 35.4 BBC Radio Blog providing an update on The Listeners' Archive appeal and placing the Oliver interview as one of its most-wanted broadcasts. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  36. The Sundae detailing the sheer extent of wiped BBC television programmes. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  37. 37.0 37.1 The Visitor Magazine summarising the loss of BBC television and radio output and noting affordable home recordings may ensure the recovery of radio episodes. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  38. 38.0 38.1 38.2 38.3 38.4 38.5 38.6 BBC Radio 4 listing the 92 episodes recovered in 2022. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  39. BBC Sounds providing Lockwood's interview, the oldest surviving recording in BBC's archives. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  40. BBC Sounds providing Sir Alec Guinness' second interview. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  41. Desert Island Discs: 70 Years of Castaways summarising Poole's episode (p.g. 150). Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  42. 42.0 42.1 BBC Sounds providing Ardizzone's interview, which was rebuilt thanks to the BBC's Gramophone Library. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  43. BBC Sounds providing an archive of podcasts and noting that some episodes up to 1986 survive only in fragmented forms. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  44. BBC Sounds providing the surviving fragments of Hitchcock's interview. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  45. BBC Sounds providing the surviving fragments of Bryant's interview. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  46. 46.0 46.1 46.2 46.3 The Guardian reporting on four episodes being recovered in January 2015. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  47. 47.0 47.1 BBC Sounds providing Armstrong's interview. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  48. BBC Sounds providing Awdry's interview. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  49. BBC Sounds providing Rigg's interview. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  50. BBC Sounds providing the surviving fragments of Hartnell's interview. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  51. 51.0 51.1 51.2 BBC News reporting on Harrison discovering 92 recordings of Desert Island Discs. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  52. 52.0 52.1 The Standard reporting on the discovery of over 90 recordings of Desert Island Discs. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  53. BBC Sounds providing Bogarde's interview. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  54. BBC Sounds providing Roddick's interview. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  55. 55.0 55.1 55.2 BBC Radio 4 listing eight highlights from the 92 recovered episodes. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  56. Radio Circle UK announcing Dame Veronica Wedgwood OM's interview had been found. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  57. BBC Sounds summarising Wedgwood's interview (not available on the platform as of 10th March 2024). Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  58. BBC Radio Blog post by the Listeners' Archive requesting off-air recordings of BBC Radio output. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  59. We Are Cognitive noting over 3,000 episodes have been produced. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  60. 60.0 60.1 BBC News summarising why the BBC removed Savile's episode from its online services. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  61. BBC Radio 4 listing of the Savile episode, which has been made inaccessible on the website. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  62. 62.0 62.1 The Guardian reporting on the Savile episode being expunged from the BBC's online services following the revelations against the now-disgraced DJ. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  63. Savile's interview provided by couchtripper. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  64. BBC Radio 4 listing of Glitter's interview, which has been made inaccessible on the website. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  65. Missing Episodes discussing lost Desert Island Discs media, including the removed Glitter interview. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  66. 66.0 66.1 BBC Sounds providing just over four minutes of Harris' 1967 interview. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  67. BBC Sounds providing Harris' 1999 interview. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  68. 68.0 68.1 Radio 4: An Unofficial Companion summarising the unaired MacLean and inebriated actor interviews. Retrieved 10th Mar '24
  69. 69.0 69.1 The Lady summarising the hoax Bardot episode. Retrieved 10th Mar '24