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Farewell, Kirsty Young – Desert Island Discs won’t be the same without you

Deft in extracting unguarded tears: With Tom Hanks
Deft in extracting unguarded tears: With Tom Hanks

Kirsty Young, don’t go! After taking a leave of absence due to suffering from fibromyalgia, the broadcaster has announced she will step down permanently after 12 years of presenting Desert Island Discs on Radio 4. “I’ve decided it’s time to pursue new challenges,” she said. Well, fair enough, but I’m finding it hard to accept the Young years are over. 

After a shaky start – in 2006, this newspaper described Young as “too nice”, “nervous and gabblesome”, and unwilling to challenge her guests’ assertions – Young grew into the role and came to define in it for a new era, more than 70 years after it first began. 

Roy Plomley, the first presenter for more than 40 years, set the tone for the format. He was a strict host and conducted proceedings with the air of a literary salon that made everyone feel enlightened and enlivened by the end of it. Sue Lawley, who was in charge for 18 years, used to lull her guests into a sense of familiarity before getting right to the jugular, getting them to reveal much more than they intended. Young, for her part, has a gift for clarity of questioning, listening to her guests’ answers and challenging them to think differently about their own lives. All three methods produced gripping programmes. 

Young proved to be just as deft in extracting unguarded tears and truth from Hollywood megastar Tom Hanks as she was in gently, skillfully allowing the rugby union referee Nigel Owens to unfurl his painful story of coming to terms with his sexuality and overcoming suicidal impulses. But equally impressive was her grip on the whole complex purpose of Owens’s professional life in rugby. Young understands her guests so well that we can begin to understand them, too, and whatever their career, they come across as fascinatingly human.

Lauren Laverne, standing in for Young during her sick leave since last year, has not had long to find her feet. I really like Laverne’s work on other music radio, especially on the 6 Music breakfast show, which feels like her spiritual home. But her time on Desert Island Discs has felt like that of a stand-in. She doesn’t have Young’s bloodhound sense for when to follow up a story or a snippet of emotion, and Laverne handles her interviewees so softly that it makes the show feel too much like a cosy chat.

Lauren Laverne interviewing Emily Eavis on Desert Island Discs Credit: PA

She didn’t challenge Louis Theroux enough on his responsibilities as an interviewer of malevolent or vulnerable people, and the resulting programme was vague and dull. Desert Island Discs isn’t supposed to be a tribute to a guest’s unquestioned brilliance. It’s not even really supposed to be about them waffling on fluffily about their favourite songs. It’s a biography with tunes, and the sharpness of the biographer matters.

Kirsty Young gets that. Whoever takes on the job next will have to understand it just as well. If given the job on a permanent basis, the hope is that Laverne could, like Young did, develop as an interviewer and gain the confidence to be tougher on her guests. Like Laverne, Young was initially criticised for not listening to her guests, not challenging them and not leaving silences for them to fill, but over time she became a master at listening and leaving space. 

The fact is that it’s just not a very interesting programme unless a guest cedes some control over how they’re coming across, and we learn a bit about what they’re really like. Challenging a guest on the most emotional moments of their lives must feel incredibly rude when you’re in a nice BBC studio together, and doing it takes complete confidence and command of the situation. This only really comes with time.

Might Emma Barnett step into the role?

It’s difficult to think of other interviewers who could do the same trick as Young of treading a line between interviewer, police inspector and therapist. Emma Barnett comes to mind as a gifted interviewer, but she’s perhaps better at holding people to account than probing their soft emotional centres. Jane Garvey could add a sparky sense of humour. John Humphrys might fancy it after stepping down from Today. Jenni Murray wouldn’t let anybody get away with anything. Maybe it could even be Louis Theroux if he fancies a break from TV.

If the job does go to Laverne on a long-term basis, the programme might end up being more music-focused; Laverne is clearly much more at home when she’s interviewing guests from the world of music, as demonstrated by her successful encounter with Glastonbury’s Emily Eavis the other week. Desert Island Discs is one of those programmes with long eras and it takes a while to adjust to changes. But it deserves an excellent interviewer to carry the torch and see it towards its 80th anniversary in 2022.