Kirsty Young reflects on her most memorable castaways – and what they taught her
In celebration of the 75th anniversary of Desert Island Discs, Young recalls her greatest interviews
Kirsty Young won’t tell me who her favourite Desert Island Discs guests were. “It wouldn’t be fair,” says the presenter. But she just can’t help it – after a short pause the names come tumbling out. “Victoria Wood,” she says. “That was an absolute thrill. Dustin Hoffman, of course. Zaha Hadid was remarkable. And Bruce Springsteen, what a delight! Steve McQueen’s absolutely enthralling and AC Grayling – well, I mean, what a brain to be allowed to pick for 45 minutes.”
And there you have it; a Lancashire comic, a bona fide Hollywood legend, a visionary architect, rock ’n’ roll’s greatest living practitioner, a revolutionary film-maker and artist, and our leading public philosopher. Though the mix could just as easily have been an emeritus professor specialising in heart disease (Jane Somerville), a dauntless campaigner for social justice (Doreen Lawrence) or an Olympic gold medal-winning cyclist (Sir Bradley Wiggins).
All these and many many more have appeared on a radio programme that was first imagined by Roy Plomley during the bleakest moments of the Second World War and asks only of its guests that they talk about their interesting lives and pick eight pieces of music, a book and a luxury to take into briny exile.
But isn’t she forgetting someone?
“Bloody hell,” Young gasps. “David Attenborough! Oh my God! I mean, if I only ever did one, it would be that one. Honestly, he was a total, pure highlight. Absolutely bloody marvellous.” You sound like you fell in love with him. “But that’s the thing about David – you can’t help falling just a little bit in love with him.”
Attenborough appeared on the 70th anniversary edition of the show (his fourth turn as a castaway). Now Desert Island Discs is approaching another hugely significant milestone: 75 years of broadcasting.
Young has been the presenter for ten of those years, after replacing Sue Lawley in 2006. It was a daunting proposition: Lawley, in the job for 18 years, was regarded as the perfect Desert Island Discs presenter (though not by Plomley’s widow, who thought she asked too many questions about sex).
“I don’t scare easily,” says Young, now 48. “But I was nervous. I thought it would take a few weeks, but it took a year before I felt like I was wearing my own shoes rather than someone else’s. The idea of getting my little dirty mitts on a long-form interview was hugely appealing to me and it probably mattered a bit too much. Perhaps they weren’t the ideal circumstances in which to take a job. You feel the weight when it is that important.”
Others feared the 5 News presenter, famous for reading the headlines while standing up, would oversee a dumbed-down Desert Island Disc. No danger of that – in conversation Young is as happy with Bill Gates as she was with George Michael. However, there has been a diminution of classical music during her time, with Bach and Beethoven giving way to ballads and chart hits.
The late George Michael gave a rare interview on Desert Island Discs in 2007
“That’s a reflection of the burgeoning of pop culture,” she says. “Guess what? Rock ’n’ roll happened, pop happened, punk happened, thrash metal happened, garage happened, and we’re going to play that stuff, because it’s important to people. What we do is reflect; we’re not there to make the medicine go down.” But isn’t Mozart intrinsically more important than, say, the Smurfs? “Absolutely not. If people want to choose the Smurfs, then Smurf away.”
She says it’s the power of pop culture that is driving the show’s growing download audience. “People who wouldn’t even know what Desert Island Discs was ten years ago are attracted to it because James Corden tweets about it to 8.2 million followers. Then they’ll think, ‘I like James Corden, so what’s this programme? And what are these 3,000 other editions online?’ ”
It’s the guest’s record choices, however esoteric, that make the show such a wonder for Young. “Talking about music can be absolutely illuminating,” she says. “When Tom Hanks tells me, ‘I was in my room, I was 16 years old, I played this bit of music and I knew that I was not alone’ – what a gift! I would really have to be a total klutz to make a dull interview out of that.”
Kirsty Young isn’t a klutz. Famously self-assured, Young has been criticised, as no man would be, for the way she has successfully engineered her professional life, from beginning her career with STV in Scotland to joining 5 News then ITN and back again before coming to Desert Island Discs, picking up a trophy husband – Nick Jones, chief executive of the Soho House Group – and homes in Oxfordshire and LA along the way. “I know,” she says. “How dare I? Uppity woman, the f***ing cheek! Though I shouldn’t say f***ing, should I?”
Kirsty Young married Nick Jones in 1999
It’s apparent that Young isn’t quite as refined as we think. “I started life in a council house in East Kilbride,” she says. “When I moved to London I went to a dinner party and mentioned that I went to state school; you could almost hear people checking their wallets to see if I’d nicked them. But the huge advantage of being Scottish, of this accent, is people find it harder to place you in class terms.”
Not everyone likes the way Young talks. When she began in news, a producer asked her, “Are you going to do it in that voice?” “I said, ‘Well, it’s the only one I’ve got’.” It turns out to be perfect for Desert Island Discs – confident without being plummy, rounded without being too soft, it has rarely faltered.
“There have been two or three times when I’ve been overcome by emotion. Ben Helfgott is a survivor of the concentration camps, and he talked about his mother and sister being shot. He was nearly 80 [when they met in 2007], and he spoke very movingly. He wasn’t crying but I just could not not cry and I had to stop the show. I apologised to him because I didn’t have the right to be crying, but I couldn’t help myself.
“One of our most moving programmes was with David Nott, the brilliant surgeon who works in war zones. He told a very, very sad story about a young girl and we both cried.
Then we went into the music I got a tissue and we pulled ourselves together. But that’s very rare.”
David Nott in the studio last summer
Young is not a natural wobbler; she claims a “built-in resilience” that gets her through tough shows. “Not every one is going to be an absolute belter and sometimes a guest is a bit more of a grumpy b*****d than I thought they would be.”
When she was younger, the same resilience helped her face the everyday indignities many ambitious women face in the media. “Looking back there were a few things that happened,” she says. “I just got on with it. I made a lot of tea but nobody pinched my bottom. Is that a comment on my bottom? Now I don’t meet it at all, because those who practise it do it to people who are young and don’t have power. They don’t visit it on me, because they know what I’d do if they did. I’d rip them to bits.”
She says Desert Island Discs has changed her. “I’m much less black and white about things and I understand privilege a lot more. I had a clichéd view that privilege was a top-drawer education and lots of money. Now I think it’s what I had: stability and love and a sense that ‘We’re here for you’. Cheesy but true. I also have a different view of resilience. A lot of high-achieving people I speak to have a lot of things going down in their heads but you know what? They’re resilient. They don’t stop.”
Young prepares for guests very carefully. She has “a huge team of helpers” to cover the research required. “I’ve got to know it,” she says. “When a guest tells me, ‘Well, in 1973 my third wife died in a car crash,’ I have to be able to say, ‘Yes and your third wife was 12 years younger than you, and you had a six-month-old baby.’ ”
She also prepares sartorially. “I try and make my castaway at ease. Once people relax, they’re more likely to open up. Bill Gates always wears an open-neck shirt so I wore an open-neck silk ladies’ shirt. For Paul Weller I wore a sharp suit. And we had it on good authority that Morrissey drinks neat vodka, so we made sure we had a bottle. When my producer said, ‘Would you like some tea or coffee... or vodka?’ Morrissey said, ‘Vodka.’ I had one as well. I wasn’t going to have a cup of tea when Morrissey was having a vodka. I didn’t drink it, he did.”
Bill Gates became one of Young's castaways in January 2016
Young admits she can still be naïve. Before Steve McQueen, the film director and artist, came on the show, she was warned that he was “a difficult guy, tricky. But I loved meeting him, and the way he articulated himself. So I asked, ‘Why do you think people say that about you?’ And he said, ‘Because I’m black’. I thought, ‘Why didn’t I, as a white person, think of that?’”
Young won’t be around for the 175th birthday of the programme, though she predicts Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending will no longer be the listeners’ most popular choice. “It’s probably going to be the Beatles.” So how long will she stay? “I love it more now than I did when I first started, so I’m not about to give it up.”
But will it become impossible as she increasingly becomes as well known as her guests? Who is she, one of them or one of us? “I might be a wee bit well known but when I’m interviewing people my job is to get the best out of them. I’m one of us,” she says. “I’m definitely one of us.”