Leslie Howard: A Castaway for BBC Desert Island Discs

Desert Island Discs is a very popular programme of BBC Radio. Since 1942, a very long list of castaways have presented their musical choices, answering the question: ” if you were to be cast away alone on a desert island, which eight gramophone records would you choose to have with you, assuming of course, that you had a gramophone and an inexhaustible supply of needles?”

Leslie Howard was the castaway for July 23, 1942. Unfortunately, the programme is not available today: at that time most radio programmes were live, and generally not recorded. Anyway, there is a page about Leslie’s broadcast on the BBC site: Desert Island Discs: Leslie Howard.

The eight discs were:

  1. Sir William Walton: Spitfire Prelude and Fugue (from The First of the Few). Orchestra: Hallé Orchestra
  2. Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra: Say It With Music
  3. Bing Crosby: The Folks Who Live On the Hill
  4. Claude Debussy: La fille aux cheveux de lin (from Préludes, book 1), soloist Alfred Cortot
  5. Charles Trenet: J’ai ta main dans ma main
  6. Edvard Grieg: Piano Concerto in A Minor, soloist Arthur de Greef, Orchestra: Royal Albert Hall, conductor: Landon Ronald
  7. Peter Dawson: Phil the Fluter’s Ball
  8. Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Orchestra: NBC Symphony, conductor: Arturo Toscanini.

I have tried to re-create Leslie’s programme on YouTube. Here is my playlist:

I found Leslie’s choices very interesting. It is an eclectic playlist, and it says much about Leslie’s personality and tastes.

William Walton’s Spitfire Prelude and Fugue is a rather obvious choice, since it was composed for Leslie’s film, The First Of the Few. Yet, there is much more of Leslie in this choice, too. He had clearly expressed his ideas about the musical score for his film to Sid Cole, the supervising editor;  Cole accurately reported them to Walton, who “listened very carefully and said:  Oh I see, Leslie wants a lot of notes, and he went away and wrote the Spitfire Fugue” (Eforgan, E. :  Leslie Howard: The Lost Actor, p.183).

Paul Whiteman and his orchestra were very popular during the Twenties. Say It With Music was America’s #1 song for five weeks in 1921; it was included in the Music Box Revue of 1921, songs by Irving Berlin, staged at the Music Box Theatre, Broadway: 440 performances from September 21, 1921 to September 30, 1922.

I’ve already written about Leslie and Bing Crosby, so I am not surprised at all that one of Crosby’s songs was included in the list. The Folks Who Live On the Hill is a 1937 song, composed by Jerome Kern, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. It was included in the musical film High, Wide and Handsome, starring Irene Dunne, Randolph Scott, Alan Hale, Sr., Charles Bickford and Dorothy Lamour. Crosby recorded this song in 1937.

Debussy’s prelude and Trenet’s chanson say much about Leslie’s love for France and French culture. He certainly suffered the German occupation of France as a personal injury. I cannot avoid remembering Horatio Smith’s smile when asking the pretty salesgirl (Violette…): “Born in France?”. And Leslie probably regarded Trenet as the most French of the French chansonniers.

Debussy’s prelude says much about Leslie’s love for piano, too. He played by ear, and his father, Frank Steiner, had been a good musician. Leslie Ruth Howard says that when her grandfather was still young, he  “managed to increase his meagre salary by accompanying on the piano the singing efforts of young ladies at their mothers’ ‘At Home’ parties”. Leslie’s love for piano music is clear in his choice of Grieg’s Piano Concert, too.

It is more difficult, for me, to guess why Leslie chose Percy French’s song Phil the Fluter’s Ball. Percy French was a popular Irish songwriter and entertainer. I can only imagine that he liked Peter Dawson for its unquestionable voice and the zest he added to his performance.

Last – but not least – Beethoven’s 5th Simphony. There is nothing to say about this choice; if I were asked to choose something immortal to bring with me on a desert island, I would probably choose the same. And I am particularly pleased with the conductor Leslie chose. Arturo Toscanini. A legend.

Leslie Howard