Desert Island Discs’ stock has never been higher – but it will miss the great skill and subtlety of Kirsty Young

Young always gave the impression that there was nowhere else she’d rather be, writes Simon O'Hagan

Desert Island Discs - Kirsty Young (BBC, EH)

Desert Island Discs has been going since 1942 and over the course of its 77 years has had only four permanent presenters. Any change in the presenter’s chair is a major moment in the life of Radio 4, and indeed in the life of its audience, and with the confirmation of Kirsty Young’s departure from the programme after being sidelined through ill-health, the radio landscape shifts and millions of listeners — however much they are enjoying Lauren Laverne as Young’s stand-in — will be saddened.

Advertisement

When, earlier this year, Radio Times ran a poll of luminaries to find out the greatest radio programme of all time, Desert Island Discs topped it by some distance. The format might be unbeatable, but for the way Young moved the programme forward once she took over in 2006 — building on the work of Roy Plomley, Michael Parkinson and Sue Lawley — she must take enormous credit for the accolade.

There was the voice itself — calm, mellifluous, but with just a hint of steel. There was the mastery of her brief. And there was her inscrutability. Never sycophantic, but never hostile either, she probed her interviewees with great skill and subtlety while giving away nothing of herself. What did she really think and feel about her guests? It was hard to tell, which is exactly how it should be.

At the time of DID’s poll triumph, the word that the programme’s longtime producer Cathy Drysdale used to describe Young was “fearless”. Which indeed she was – quite unfazed by the status of any of her guests. All were treated with the same consideration and respect. The professional distance — from Hollywood stars to eminent scientists — remained constant.

Kirsty Young, presenter of Desert Island Discs

Drysdale also mentioned the importance of the in-depth research by the DID team but when it comes down to it, the presenter is on their own. Young always gave the impression that there was nowhere else she’d rather be.

Desert Island Discs’ stock has never been higher. The hundreds of past programmes now available to download add up to a treasure trove of pure broadcasting gold but Young ensured that this was never just heritage radio going through the motions. Younger listeners continue to discover the programme – its relevance, impact and the general joy it brings greater than ever.

Young presented 496 editions of the show. It’s sad she never got to 500 and much sadder still that her 12-year stint has been cut so prematurely short.

Advertisement

Laverne, the BBC says, will continue to present for the foreseeable future. Maybe she will become the permanent face of the programme. Whoever ends up in that role will bring their own stamp to bear on it but it’s hard to see the template laid down by Kirsty Young being improved upon.