Anthony Clavane: Why national treasure Kirsty Young is Queen of the Castaways

Kirsty Young has a firm supporter in Anthony Clavane.
Kirsty Young has a firm supporter in Anthony Clavane.
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So, here’s the good news. Desert Island Discs returns in nine days time. The bad? After the first two episodes, featuring opera singer Danielle de Niese and neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, the great Kirsty Young will take a break from presenting the programme for “a number of months” to seek treatment for fibromyalgia.

I am a big fan of both the iconic Radio 4 show and its softly-spoken Scottish host. The format is simple. Famous guests – whether opera singers or neurosurgeons, pop stars or politicians – select the eight records they would take to a fictional desert island. In between Kirsty playing their favourite tunes, they tell her about themselves. Then they choose a book and a luxury item to accompany them on the island.

I love the fact that Discs – as those of us in the fandom call it – has, throughout its 76-year history, steadfastly refused to move with the times. Why tamper with a winning formula? Ms Young is only its fourth presenter, following in the footsteps of Sue Lawley, Michael Parkinson and, of course, Roy Plomley, who guided listeners through the first 43 years.

From the moment you hear the cawing of plaintive seagulls, and the waves lapping against the sand, you know exactly what to expect. As the hypnotic theme tune – The Sleepy Lagoon – fades, Our Kirsty’s inimitable purr takes us on a journey into the lives of the great, the good and the downright annoying. Yes, I’m talking about Chris Evans, a guest back in 2005, who chose swimming goggles as his luxury item. The fact that I remember such a detail shows how much of a Discs devotee I am. Or, if you prefer, how much of a saddo.

I have never taken to Mr Evans’ style of broadcasting. It was annoying, if somewhat inevitable, that his melodramatic exit from his Radio 2 breakfast show overshadowed Our Kirsty’s news. While his announcement on air that he was leaving because he had run out of mountains to climb – he failed to mention reports that Virgin had lured him over to the commercial station for £2m a year – dominated the headlines, the other, more earth-shattering, departure hardly raised a murmur.

And yet it is more earth shattering. More significant. As Lauren Laverne, the new Discs presenter, tweeted, she will be stepping into “the biggest shoes in broadcasting for a while”.

Young’s intelligent, assured, sensitive and thoughtful interviewing style is an antidote to the current toxicity of public life and a refreshing contrast to the ego-driven grumpy old men who have dominated the airwaves for so long.

Personally, I would love to see her gently interrogating the great, the good and the downright annoying on current affairs shows. There is a growing sense that grand old inquisitors like John Humphrys, Andrew Neil and David Dimbleby are yesterday’s men. Last June’s general election campaign saw the elevation of a fresher, more diverse breed of interrogators like Sophy Ridge, Emma Barnett, Steph McGovern and Mishal Hussein. Indeed, there are rumours that when she returns – and if she feels fit enough – Young will replace Dimbleby as the new Question Time supremo, following the 79-year-old veteran’s retirement.

This would be a very welcome development but, to me, she will always be the Queen of the Castaways. I know this view won’t be popular with the fandom, but she is far and away the best ever Discs host. Much as I admired Plomley’s old-school charm, he was a bit too stiff-upper-lipped for my liking. I will always love Parky but he appeared to be more suited to television than radio.

And I agree with Plomley’s widow, who took issue with Lawley’s “obsession with other people’s sex lives” – especially, for some reason, Gordon Brown’s. As sociologist Jo Littler argued, in a book I recently came across, Lawley’s era marked a shift “towards the hyper-intimate confessional”.

The book, which I would never take with me on a desert island, was called Defining the Discographic Self: Desert Island Discs In Context. I had hoped it would prove a trip down memory lane but it turned out to be pretentious, pompous and elitist. All the things Our Kirsty isn’t.