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Lauren Laverne is not nosy enough to get to the unexpected emotional truths

Lauren Laverne and Louis Theroux on Desert Island Discs
Lauren Laverne and Louis Theroux on Desert Island Discs Credit: BBC

How do you interview one of the world’s greatest interviewers? Well, if you’re Lauren Laverne speaking to Louis Theroux on Desert Island Discs (Sunday, Radio 4), you ask him that. “As an expert interviewer, do you have any advice on how I get you to open up?” she said.

“I would avoid the question, probably,” Theroux said in a rambling reply. “… And I’m just quite comfortable with my line of defence on certain subjects… Other journalists sometimes see me as fair game. They sort of think, ‘I’m going to Louis Theroux him!’ So I have to be prepared for that.”

“Noted,” said Laverne. Wait, was that it? He didn’t answer her question; she didn’t press him on it. He just gave a waffly, distracting response that completely ignored her. 

It was so frustrating. Why did he even go onto Desert Island Discs? Was he hoping to open up, or close down? What did he think people would take from hearing him being interviewed? I’d have liked to hear the answers to those questions but nobody asked them.

Of course, this was Louis Theroux, an interesting, clever and thoughtful person, and so the episode was still pretty riveting. He revealed carefully selected quirky personal details, such as his decision to go to boarding school off the back of a childhood passion for Enid Blyton. He discussed feeling anxious, the strangeness of having a novelist for a father, and his love for his family.

I’ve always liked Laverne as a cultural presenter and DJ and was optimistic about her tenure with the castaways while Kirsty Young is on sick leave, but this episode was a reminder that she doesn’t have Young’s sniper scope for a revealing detail or an unexpected emotional truth. Laverne is a matey and encouraging interviewer, but she just isn’t nosy enough.

Louis Theroux on Desert Island Discs  Credit: BBC

She did press Theroux on his decision to make another film about Jimmy Savile, and kept asking how the knowledge that he’d missed something so big in one of his subjects had changed him. Theroux dodged and broadened out Laverne’s questions to apply to society more generally, to our failure to recognise sexual abuse, and our willingness to be duped by charming people. 

Eventually, Laverne got Theroux to say that he personally had liked Savile, and though he didn’t say it explicitly, he implied this was something he felt guilty about. But Richard Herring’s 2015 interview with Theroux on Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast, in which the original Savile film was discussed in depth, was much more revealing than this.

The illuminating series New Ways of Seeing (Wednesday, Radio 4), with the artist and technologist John Bridle, concluded last week. The idea was to update John Berger’s 1972 series Ways of Seeing for the internet age, and it worked well. The penultimate episode was all about how prejudiced humans design prejudiced programmes, such as an automated gym registration system in Cambridge not recognising a female gym member because she used “Dr” as a title. And the last episode was all about how technology and the environment could help each other, living out a “cybernetic ecology”. Was that possible? And would it be a good thing? Bridle’s series was very earnest (and pseud bells should ring for anything that starts with “I’m in a co-working space in Berlin…”) but it was also an intellectual treat and I can’t stop thinking about the issues it raised. Serious but hopeful, Bridle made a strong argument for creativity and diversity in technology.

Thankfully humans can override their innate prejudices, and a sense of humanity and community was palpable on Radio 5 Live this week. I’m sure the network will survive having to axe Danny Baker’s tired weekend show (rightly so, because whatever Baker’s intentions were, making monkey jokes about a mixed-race royal just isn’t cricket and he knows it). 

Liverpool fans at the Champions League Semi Final second leg match between Liverpool and Barcelona at Anfield Credit: CameraSport

Both of the dramatic Champions League semi-finals on 5 Live, for instance, were extraordinarily immersive. After Liverpool’s virtuosic triumph over Barcelona, emotion trembled the pundits’ voices, and instinctively they stopped talking and just faded up the sound of the crowd and the Liverpool team singing You’ll Never Walk Alone into the night. The tears flowed and it felt as if you were actually there in the stadium. That’s the gift of sport on radio: with just the sound of thousands of people united in celebration, and without a confusion of camera angles, radio gives you the power of atmosphere.