There is a popular BBC radio program called Desert Island Discs. The idea is that the guest chooses the songs or recordings they would wish to have with them if trapped on a desert island for the rest of their lives. The literary variation is to choose the one book you would take to such a peculiar destination. I was such a literal-minded youth that when first presented with this dubious choice, all I could think was that if you only had one book for the rest of your life you would want it to be the longest one possible. So I always nominated Anthony Powell’s novel A Dance to the Music of Time, which ran to 12 volumes, though War and Peace would have been a good choice for the same reason.
In Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust the hero, Tony Last, ends up in something quite like this situation. The prospect of reading volumes of Dickens aloud for the rest of his life renders even the great Victorian storyteller a kind of torture.
There is an inherent silliness to the concept, of course. How would you know, before you were shipwrecked on a desert island, that you would only get to take one book?
Such cavilling is not, of course, in the spirit of the jest. Recently, to my amazement, my wife and I experienced circumstances that produced a useful facsimile of the Desert Island Discs scenario.
We were in an apartment for a couple of days in which we couldn’t operate the television. Baby boomers are still remarkably dependent on television, to fill the inevitable interstices of even a full life.
During the day we were busy and had no need of the box. And we chatted contentedly over dinner. But between dinner and bedtime there is an addictive attachment to a bit of harmless entertainment on the tube.
We could have read, of course, but that’s not very sociable when there are two of you. Similarly with the normal diverting things available on our respective phones.
But we had in our possession an ancient laptop. What a bonanza we discovered, and what fun we had. A laptop is just big enough to make viewing by two enjoyable, yet it is also an intimate and cosy experience. It was like going for a picnic and sharing a plate.
And we worked out the TV series we would take to a deserted island. It turns out that often the very first episode of a series is easily available on the net. So we watched the first couple of episodes of One Foot in the Grave, that bril- liant British satire of self-destructive frustration mixed with the challenges of growing older, not having a job but still being healthy.
One Foot in the Grave is infinitely more clever, thoughtful and amusing than that recent dreary British film The Golden Years, which also tried to deal with the frustration of the retirement years but had all the merriment of boiled cabbage.
By far our biggest and best discovery was the very first episode of My Three Sons, from way back in 1960. That is almost prehistoric in television terms.
Yet all the essential techniques of successful television were there: good script, superb acting, precise timing, flow and sequence and character development. As a sitcom My Three Sons, which starred the legendary Fred MacMurray, could be humorous or occasionally mildly dramatic. The idea of an all-male household — a widower, his three sons, their grandfather, fashioning a fine family life together — must have been moderately unconventional in 1960.
That first episode was in its way TV perfection. And what different values it represented.
The older sons wore suits on anything remotely resembling a special occasion. Dad naturally stood up if a lady came to or left the table. MacMurray asks his youngest son, Chip, who has been unkind to a girl at school: How does a gentleman behave?
What a savaging any modern TV show would get for using the term gentleman without layer upon layer of postmodern irony and selfreferential faux cuteness. Given that My Three Sons ran for 12 years, it would surely be the choice for Desert Island TV Show.