Everyone knows that familiar gentle lilt, with strings accompanied by a soft oboe. Switch on your radio on a Sunday morning and you immediately know you're in the right place. Lauren Laverne is about to whisk her castaway guest off to a desert island, in a tradition that has enticed Radio 4 listeners since Desert Island Discs first began in 1942.


But what is that orchestral tune that opens every episode of Desert Island Discs?

The theme tune to Desert Island Discs is Eric Coates's By the Sleepy Lagoon, a light orchestral piece written in 1930.

In 2012, the piece was even played by the BBC Concert Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the BBC Proms season. It was featured in a concert celebrating the 70th anniversary of Desert Island Discs, in which the programme's then presenter Kirsty Young interviewed guests from the series and introduced the most popular Desert Island Discs musical choices. Included in the line-up was another piece by Eric Coates: 'The Dam Busters' March, as well as Beethoven's 'Emperor' Concerto, Coleridge-Taylor's The Death of Minnehaha, Elgar's Cello Concerto, Handel's Messiah, Puccini's Madam Butterfly and Tosca, plus arrangements of Beatles songs.

We named the best Desert Island Discs interviews with composers and classical musicians.

You might have heard it in a slightly different guise on mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge's album of songs by Eric Coates. Rudge was joined by pianist Christopher Glynn in a vocal version. Although Eric Coates wrote the original orchestral rendition in 1930, lyrics were added with Coates's approval by Jack Lawrence in 1940. It became a popular music standard of the 1940s after its release.

The story of Eric Coates's By the Sleepy Lagoon

In a BBC local radio programme in 1997, Eric's son Austin was asked about his father's music – and how By the Sleepy Lagoon came to be. 'It was inspired by the view on a warm, still summer evening looking across the "lagoon" from the east beach at Selsey towards Bognor Regis,' he said. 'It's a pebble beach leading steeply down, and the sea at that time is an incredible deep blue of the Pacific. It was that impression, looking across Bognor, which looked pink – almost like an enchanted city with the blue of the Downs behind it – that gave him the idea for the Sleepy Lagoon.'


Coates scribbled down the melody while he was in West Sussex, looking at the view, but it wasn't until he returned to London that he wrote and orchestrated the piece.


Freya ParrDigital Editor and Staff Writer, BBC Music Magazine

Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.