So I was listening to Desert Island Discs. It’s generally a pretty good programme, and Kirsty Young is a good interviewer, usually managing to get something interesting, and potentially revealing, out of even the dullest guests. True enough, the premise for the programme is starting to look pretty thin – if I was escaping from a sinking ship, why on earth would I go to all the trouble of dragging a CD player and a handful of CDs with me, rather than just picking up the MP3 player that contains my entire music collection? – but then again it always was paper-thin: in the days of lead-heavy vinyl, who would honestly have taken their record collection with them on a boat trip?
This week’s guest (download the podcast or listen on the iPlayer here, for the next few hours, at least) was Duncan Bannatyne, the obnoxious dickhead millionaire entrepreneur from Dragon’s Den. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t especially expecting to enjoy it since I’ve pretty much always assumed he’s one of those aching scrotums of people who think the fact that they’re rich makes them somehow interesting, or admirable. (Don’t get me wrong, rich people can be both, but that will always be because of something other than their wealth. People who are fascinated by money – either for its own sake, or because it buys them power and influence – are always going to be pretty dull, and, probably, obnoxious.) Anyway, the principle of the programme held true, and Kirsty did manage to draw out quite a lot of interesting information about his life. The early parts of his life in Clydebank were clearly not easy, and he had some fairly difficult things to deal with, including a period of time in military prison.
Not everything showed him in such a good light, though. For example, his decision to try and get famous on the TV was motivated by a nasty attack of jealousy when his ludicrous sense of entitlement wasn’t matched with an invitation to Tony Blair’s infamous ‘Cool Britannia’ party at Downing Street. (And why should it have been – there were literally hundreds of businessmen as successful as him.) It also turns out that he made much of his money running care homes for the elderly, which makes me feel a lot better about my instinctive dislike of the man – there can’t be many areas besides social care where the moral case for operating on a not-for-profit basis is so strong. Half a moment’s thought, after all, would reveal that the multi-million pound fortune he built up could have been better used to subsidise the fees for people who otherwise couldn’t afford decent quality care.
Something else he revealed was that his kids will only inherit his money if they adhere, even as adults, to a bunch of petty rules, such as never smoking. Personally, if I’d been spawned from his loins, I think I’d be very tempted to light up a massive Cuban cigar in front of him, blow smoke rings in his face, and tell him to take his trust fund and shove it up his arse. (To be fair, that’s probably one of those things that you don’t actually do when you have the promise of several million quid dangled in front of you.) There was also the obligatory paean of praise for his charitable and philanthropic work, which, as always, left a bad taste in my mouth. Come back when you’ve given away £319 of your estimated £320 millions, Mr Bannatyne, and maybe I’ll applaud. While you’re giving away amounts of money you won’t miss you’re being a great deal less generous than the people earning minimum wage who stuck £20 they couldn’t really afford into the Haiti appeal.
Anyway, that wasn’t what I really wanted to write about. No, what I wanted to write about was his taste in music, as reflected in his 8 choices on the show. I don’t usually like all the selections someone makes on Desert Island Disks, but Duncan Bannatyne’s choices went way beyond something that can be covered with a ‘well, we clearly have different tastes’ shrug. Some of his choices weren’t just bad, they were lavishly, cartoonishly awful, so terrible that you almost couldn’t believe that the whole thing wasn’t a big joke at the listeners’ expense. In fact, it would only have taken one more song from the Notoriously Terrible category – “Don’t It Make You Feel Good”, say, or “The Birdie Song” – and I’d have been convinced the entire 68-year history of DID had been nothing more than an elaborate setup for this one gag.
These were his choices:
1 – “Maggie May” by Rod Stewart. Bannatyne’s reason for choosing this song was that, as a Scotsman living away from Scotland, he likes to hear a Scottish voice. Strangely, he seems to have overlooked the fact that Rod Stewart was born in Essex, speaks like an Englishman, and sings like an American. If he wanted a Scottish-sounding song (and given his decision, like so many of his fellow countrymen, to leave Scotland in the 1980s), perhaps The Proclaimers’ “Letter From America” would have been a more appropriate choice.
2 – “Don’t You Want Me” by The Human League. Ok, so I realise this will be a controversial view, but The Human League are a dreadful, awful band, or at least they were by the time they released this utter pile of wank single. To be fair to Bannatyne, he selected this song because The Human League are his wife’s favourite band, rather than his own. Although I got the strong impression he only brought the whole subject up so that he could boast about having hired them to play a private gig for her. It’s hard to know who comes off worst from that story – Bannatyne for being so much of an arsehole as to hire a band for a private gig, or The Human League for being soulless money-grubbing whores.
3 – “Green, Green Grass of Home” by Tom Jones. Don’t get me wrong, Tom Jones is great, but this song is completely wrong for him, and his worst hit by miles. It’s schmaltzy, fake-sentimental, and bland. (Are you beginning to notice the pattern yet, btw – fake sentimentality and blandness are going to feature in a big way.) Again, Bannatyne selected this song because it speaks to him about the desire to go back to his roots, and again he seems to have conveniently overlooked the fact that the green, green grass is growing in south Wales, not west Scotland. Also, what the hell’s stopping him? I haven’t done any research, but I’m guessing that, with £320 million in the bank, the property prices in Clydebank aren’t going to be a major obstacle.
4 – “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree” by Dawn featuring Tony Orlando. This is the point at which I started to suspect satire, since this song is one of those routinely cited as the worst of all time. To be fair to Bannatyne, the song has personal associations for him. To be unfair, the song was released years after the events he associates it with, which makes me question how sincere the association is. Anyway, let’s take note: fake sentimentality and blandness once again to the fore.
5 – “Love Changes Everything” by Michael Ball (from the musical Aspects of Love by Andrew Lloyd-Webber). Amongst all the genres of music, the stage musical is the most bland; amongst all the practitioners of the stage musical, Lloyd-Webber is the most bland; amongst his entire oeuvre, Aspects of Love is the most bland of Lloyd-Webber’s musicals; and, finally, amongst the range of ineffably bland songs from Aspects of Love, “Love Changes Everything” is the most bland of all of them. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the very quintessence of blandness (actually the quatressence, but, hey, who’s counting?). Apparently, the song ‘speaks’ to Bannatyne about the mysteries of love, which begs an obvious question: how shallow must your inner life be for lyrics such as ‘love changes everything, how you live and how you die’ to seem like blinding insights into the human condition? The mind boggles. This is also, we must note, another song regularly identified as one of the worst of all time, and full of insipid sentiment to complement its blandness.
6 – “Shoulda Coulda Woulda” by Beverly Knight. This is gritty, urban music for people who find Sade edgy; the acme of cool sophistication for the kind of person who think the Crazy Frog is ‘fun’. Bannatyne claimed the song makes him reflective about the path his life has taken because he’s so ‘driven’ and ‘ambitious’. Given that the lyric is nothing but a string of sententious clichés, I’m inclined to think it’s more likely he’s dimly aware that self-reflection is what you’re supposed to do on DID, and this is as close as he can get. Plus it gave him an opportunity to describe how he’d hired Beverly Knight for a private gig, too. Is there any purveyor of ultimate blandness he won’t rent for the night?
7 – “The One and Only” by Chesney Hawkes. Apparently not, since Hawkes provided the music for Bannatyne’s 60th birthday. It was all a big joke, apparently, Bannatyne up on stage with Chesney singing ‘I am the one and only’ with his tongue in his cheek, while all his guests joined in with ‘you are the one and only’. Presumably they had their tongues in his cheeks as well, or, at least, between them… Seriously, how much of a narcissistic knob-end do you have to be to arrange a stunt like that for your birthday party? Anyway, this is yet another song that features prominently on ‘worst ever’ lists – you see what I mean about it only taking one more to make you assume that it must be satire? I mean, be honest, you’re half-thinking it already aren’t you? I mean, Chesney Hawkes? As the performer of one of the eight songs you couldn’t live without? Chesney Hawkes?
8 – “Give Peace a Chance” by The Plastic Ono Band. It’s impossible to disagree with the sentiment of this song – well, unless you’re Dick Cheney, that is – but musically it’s awful, and comes from that part of his career when John Lennon was metamorphosing into the po-faced, holier-than-thou bore he became in his post-Beatles years. Anyway, Bannatyne obviously wasn’t put off by the lecturing tone, as he used this as an opportunity to tell us all about his deep-seated opposition to war, as though this was some special thing that only he recognised. Having bragged earlier in the programme about the easy access he has to politicians as a result of his generous party donations, he said after listening to this that politicians should be forced to hear this song at least once a month. Because, of course, when you can arrange ‘face time’ with any of the party leaders with a click of your fingers, having a brief snatch of a 40-year-old record played on Radio 4 is so obviously the most effective way of pursuing your deeply held anti-war agenda.
One of the very interesting things about Desert Island Discs is that a person’s musical choices, because they are so personal, can end up being very revealing. The guests going on the programme know this, of course, and some try to use it to their advantage. It was pretty clear what Duncan Bannatyne was hoping to get across about himself – that he was a thoughtful man, profoundly committed to world peace, still affected by his experience of military detention, but kind-hearted, and with a mischievous, playful sense of humour. What he actually revealed is a preoccupation with the status his money can bring him (making a point of telling us about all those private gigs), and a strong preference for bland, anodyne, safe, unchallenging, unremarkable music.
Because of the relaxed, free-flowing style of the programme, guests on DID are always given a wide latitude. Some surprising people really benefit from this, emerging from behind their public persona in order to show themselves as interesting, nuanced people. Others end up being allowed enough rope to hang themselves, because the format doesn’t flatter pretension, or grandstanding. Duncan Bannatyne falls into the latter category, not because he revealed something terrible about himself – he didn’t – but because he showed himself to be utterly shallow, preoccupied with his wealth and what it has bought him to the exclusion of almost everything else. In other words, the programme did what it usually does for all its guests, whether for good or ill – it showed him up for exactly who he is.