Almost a year has passed since I lamented the departure of the Queen of the Castaways from one of my favourite radio programmes, Desert Island Discs. Somewhat melodramatically I described the news as “earth-shattering”.
Kirsty Young’s shock exit, I reassured myself, was only temporary. Last month, however, the great Scot announced she was stepping down permanently as the host of the iconic Radio 4 show. For a moment I was inconsolable. Woe, woe and thrice woe, as the distinguished broadcaster Lord Francis Alick Howard, OBE, might have put it.
Then I realised – fickle devotee of The Big K that I am – I had not really missed her “intelligent, assured, sensitive and thoughtful interviewing style”. This is because her replacement, Lauren Laverne, has displayed a style that is equally intelligent, assured, sensitive and thoughtful.
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Laverne has grown brilliantly into the role. The 41-year-old musician has been warm, lively and empathetic, frequently displaying a sharp wit, constantly bringing out the best in her castaways. Two of her guests – Bob Mortimer and John Cooper Clarke – have been up there with the classic interviewees of all time.
Which, given the show has produced hundreds of gold-plated radio moments in its distinguished 77-year history, is high praise indeed.
Surprisingly – or not, given the snobbery that continues to infect the poshocracy – there has been a backlash against the 6 Music presenter.
The very idea that a 6 Music presenter, who is more used to spinning pop songs than classical discs, should follow in the footsteps of Roy Plomley, Sue Lawley and Young – for some reason, they always miss out Michael Parkinson – is anathema to them.
But this goes further than the obligatory disdain for non-elitist forms of entertainment.
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The most vociferous critic, The Spectator’s Melanie McDonagh, revealed the true extent of her bigotry when she wrote last week: “It’s not her fault, obviously, that she will always be compared with former Desert Island Discs host Sue Lawley, a woman who could make a moment’s silence really tell. Lauren is northern, not a common type on Radio 4.”
And there we have it. Like Mortimer, Cooper Clarke – whom McDonagh implies is a nonentity – and Parky, Laverne had the audacity to be born north of the Watford gap. And she has – please cover your delicate ears – a regional accent. This, apparently, is most off-putting to Radio 4 listeners. Even, one supposes, the northern ones.
“There’s no getting away from it,” the Spectator writer continued. “Lauren is lightweight and uncerebral.” To restore the natural order of things, BBC bosses should re-think her appointment as Young’s successor and go for a cerebral heavyweight. In other words, a southerner.
I have been reading a book about George Orwell’s time at the BBC and have just come across an essay he wrote, in 1941, lambasting “the unbearable voices” of the station’s announcers. He wasn’t talking about northern or regional voices.
This was the year before the stiff-upper-lipped Plomley introduced Discs to a grateful nation. In the previous decade newsreaders had been obliged to wear dinner jackets.
Plomley personified a certain kind of old school, upper-middle-class, RP charm, a voice mostly confined to London and the south-east, and reportedly took his castaways to a lunch at the Garrick Club before recordings. The male castaways, of course.
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McDonagh is not alone in her antipathy towards Laverne. Two of the Daily Mail’s leading critics, Jan Moir and Sarah Vine, have jumped on the bandwagon. The Sunday Times reviewer Gillian Reynolds and the Daily Telegraph’s Charlotte Runcie have also weighed in.
And so, for the crime of hiring a witty, personable and unpretentious presenter who hails from Sunderland and possesses a mild, north-east twang, the BBC has been castigated for “sucking up to PC idiocy”. Desert Island Discs, declared McDonagh, has lost the plot.
On the contrary. It is the poshocracy’s infamous five who are out of touch with the real world.
It was a relief to hear The Beeb state that Laverne, initially drafted in as cover, would continue “for the foreseeable future”. But they should now give her their full backing as Kirsty’s permanent replacement.
All hail the new Queen of the Castaways.