Kirsty Young calls it a “complete one-off” — an interview like no other she has done, and a very long way indeed from Desert Island Discs. Others might call it one of the radio events of the year, so unique are the circumstances in which it came about, and so remarkable are the results.
The programme in question is George Michael: Red Line — to be broadcast in two one-hour episodes on Radio 2, the first of them tonight (Wednesday 1 November). In it the pop superstar — who died just under a year ago — opens up to Young in a way that someone so famous rarely does.
There is a reason why the programme has such a special quality. When the recordings were made — as it turned out, only three months before Michael’s death — neither Michael nor Young had any notion that they would ever be heard by the public. “If I’d known what was going to happen, I’d have asked him a lot more,” Young tells Radio Times.
The story goes like this. In 2016, Michael and his collaborator David Austin were making the documentary about Michael that became George Michael: Freedom, broadcast in mid-October on Channel 4. Michael wasn’t happy with his own voiceover. “He wanted to sound as if he was speaking more off-the-cuff,” Young explains.
Michael was friends with Young, knew he could relax with her — he had been a Desert Island Discs castaway in 2007 — and he hit upon an idea. Young would be invited to interview Michael, focusing on the areas that the documentary wanted to explore, and the musician’s answers would then be fashioned into a voiceover that sounded the way Michael wanted to sound. The promptings of Young would make all the difference.
And indeed they did. Michael’s narration was constructed out of the answers he gave Young, with the only clue to her involvement in the project provided by a credit to her in the closing titles.
“He liked talking to me,” Young says. “He felt comfortable doing it. He knew I wasn’t trying to spin him. I was interested in him and he trusted me. He was always willing to be absolutely candid.” The conversation quickly started ranging way beyond the brief. “George and I were just sitting there as two people who knew each other and enjoyed each other’s thoughtful company. Mentally, we’d kicked off our shoes.”
The result was that there was a wealth of material left over, to be stored away in the Michael vault, quite possibly for ever. Except that as Young was leaving Michael’s house, he said something to her that turned out to be eerily prophetic: “You should turn this into a radio programme.”
At the time, that wasn’t Young’s prerogative — the recordings belonged to Michael, not the BBC. But after Michael’s death, David Austin remembered the comment, and he came to Young and said, why don’t you do just that?
Young says she thinks it would have been impossible to create such a programme in any other circumstances. “Neither of us ever thought that any of this would be broadcast, and that’s why everything sounds the way it does, quite loose and informal. With hindsight there are all sorts of things I now wish I had asked him about. I do have a kind of regret about it. We were at a fascinating moment in gay culture, and he would have had a great perspective on it. If only I’d known.”
But of course nobody knew, and therein lies the paradox of The Red Line. It’s a programme that wasn’t really planned and possibly misses stuff out, but is all the more compelling for the things Michael did talk about – notably his first real love Anselmo Feleppa, who died of an Aids-related illness in 1993, and for the atmosphere that prevailed when he and Young sat down together and embarked on what seemed like quite a limited exercise with a very specific purpose.
Highlights from the first programme include Michael remembering the beginning of his career and teaming up with his school friend Andrew Ridgley to form Wham!, and how his decision to pursue a solo career almost felt pre-destined for him. He talks about putting music before his personal life, becoming wary of using his appearance to promote his music, meeting Feleppa and entering into his first long-term relationship, and finally, how he felt after losing his court case against Sony Music.
None of this would have come about if Michael hadn’t meant so much to Young. She recently wrote about her relationship with him in an article in The Times, and while she baulks at the paper’s description of her as “a close friend”, they knew each other socially, and there is no disguising her huge respect not just for his talent but for his willingness to be honest about himself.
“Of course, I am the George Michael generation, but for me he really was unsurpassed,” Young says. “He wrote exquisite pop songs.” Getting to know him, Young could see the toll that celebrity took, and the challenge he faced trying to deal with it. “There was a tension within him. He craved privacy. I think he would much rather not have been famous.”
The problems that beset Michael — his arrest in Los Angeles, crashing his car while under the influence of drugs, his contractual battles with Sony, his pneumonia — were ones he was forced to endure in the public eye, but Young says that for all the pain that went with it, “he was always accepting of his own foibles. He was always able to step back laugh at himself.”
So could this be the start of a new-style Kirsty Young interview? The down-home conversation that doesn’t have to break off every few minutes to play a piece of music? She laughs. “I don’t think so! There really isn’t anyone else I can imagine this happening with, and 42 Desert Island Discs a year is quite enough to be going on with.”
George Michael: Red Line is on Radio 2 on Wednesday 1st November at 10pm, with part two at the same time next Wednesday