For­ever Young

From mak­ing Tom Hanks cry to ask­ing Theresa May about her cook­books, Desert Is­land Discs host Kirsty Young is an ex­pert at teas­ing out the truth. Dolly Alder­ton turns the ta­bles on the iconic Scot­tish in­ter­viewer


She’s made Tom Hanks cry and flirted with At­ten­bor­ough. Ba­si­cally, Kirsty Young is the best in the busi­ness, says Dolly Alder­ton

Imag­ine be­ing handed a gui­tar and the chords for Layla, then be­ing asked to give a pri­vate per­for­mance of the song to Eric Clap­ton. Or cook­ing lunch from scratch for Michel Roux. Well, this is the daunt­ing mag­ni­tude I feel when Red ask me to in­ter­view Kirsty Young. Desert Is­land Discs, the iconic Ra­dio 4 pro­gramme in which peo­ple of note imag­ine them­selves cast away on an is­land and choose eight records to take with them as the sound­track to their life, is cel­e­brat­ing 75 years. For 10 of those the show has been pre­sented by 48-year-old broad­cast jour­nal­ist Kirsty Young. Be­fore her came Sue Law­ley, Michael Parkin­son and Roy Plom­ley, who hosted for 43 years. I share the opin­ion of many when I say Young is the best pre­sen­ter the show has had; us­ing her fa­mously warm man­ner to con­ver­sa­tion­ally coax rather than probe in­tru­sively. She is, in my mind, the per­fect in­ter­viewer. So as an ob­ses­sive Desert Is­land Discs

lis­tener, you’ll for­give me for feel­ing ner­vous about at­tempt­ing to re­flect her role back to her.

We meet in Soho House, one of the clubs founded by her hus­band, en­tre­pre­neur Nick Jones. She is as im­mac­u­late as she looks in pho­tos, dressed in black with a per­fect blow-dry; her flaw­less com­plex­ion poured over high cheek­bones. The ex­pres­sive, twinkly eyes are what you no­tice first, once de­scribed by her cast­away John Lloyd as “those huge blue eyes” that will have you “flum­moxed and put off kil­ter, ready to re­veal some­thing of your­self”.

“I’m go­ing to have a proper drink,” she says, set­tling into an arm­chair and or­der­ing a gin and tonic in her sump­tu­ous, low Scot­tish ac­cent, now al­most as much an in­sti­tu­tion as the pro­gramme it­self. She’s just come from a record­ing of “Discs” (as she af­fec­tion­ately calls it) which she does once – some­times twice – a week.

The show is 45 min­utes, but takes a huge amount of prepa­ra­tion, “Like a nice dress – it should look re­ally sim­ple, but how it’s cut and what’s un­der­pin­ning it is what makes it do its thing” she tells me.

In the days be­fore an in­ter­view, she im­merses her­self in her sub­ject like a method ac­tor – “It’s like they’re liv­ing in your head.” But that ex­tra dig be­low the crust and into the man­tle of a per­son’s essence pays off; her episodes are of­ten full of mo­ments of to­tal hon­esty, such as Tom Hanks’ re­cent episode in which he speaks mov­ingly of his lone­li­ness in early life – “What have you done to me?” he jok­ily asks her through tears.

Some peo­ple will record for an hour, some for an hour and a half. “I think Dustin Hoff­man might still be there talk­ing,” she says. “That is if his ve­loci­rap­tor LA pub­li­cists hadn’t said: ‘Wind it up, wind it up’. He [Hoff­man] was bril­liant and very funny with them. They were say­ing, ‘Has any­body just done six records, be­cause we gotta go’ and he was mouthing, ‘FUCK OFF!’ through the glass.”

Her style is markedly dif­fer­ent to her pre­de­ces­sor Sue Law­ley, who quickly no­ticed the de­fence mech­a­nisms of her guests, then bull­dozed through them. Young is more al­low­ing of any self-im­posed bound­aries, mov­ing around them with em­pa­thy. “There are times when my heart

beats a lit­tle faster be­fore I ask a ques­tion and I think, ‘OK, we’re go­ing in’, but there are times when I look at some­body and I think it would be too much to ask any more. It’s about treat­ing peo­ple with de­cency; I’m not in the busi­ness of pin­ning a but­ter­fly to a board.”


“I’m sorry if any­one found that an un­com­fort­able lis­ten, but I don’t agree that I was hard on him,” she says calmly. “I did ask one ques­tion that didn’t make the fi­nal edit. I said, ‘Ed­mund Burke said ambition can creep as well as soar – what do you make of that?’ And I thought that mo­ment felt like quite a punch in the face.”

Cut­ting through po­lit­i­cal spin is a tricky task, but she thinks she got a true sense of Theresa May. “She was un­doubt­edly care­ful, and why wouldn’t she be, but I very much felt like the per­son I might meet at the church hall do­ing a bit of line danc­ing was the same per­son sit­ting op­po­site me.”

Af­ter lis­ten­ing to 10 year’s worth of episodes, I say I have a hunch about which guests Young wants to be friends with or might have a crush on. She laughs. “Tell me!”

“Did you fancy El­bow’s front­man Guy Gar­vey?” I ask. “Though I know you’re a hap­pily mar­ried woman...”

“Well, I am… but I’m not dead from the neck down­wards!” she says. “Who wouldn’t want Guy Gar­vey to write a song for them?” I get the feel­ing she en­joys the pres­ence of a mas­cu­line man; in her 2004 episode of

Room 101 with Paul Mer­ton she nom­i­nates men in cow­boy boots as be­ing a gripe, but says she likes tat­toos on men be­cause it makes them look “quite butch and dirty”. Bruce Springsteen was “not short on sex ap­peal,” but her big­gest crush was on a 70-year-old Tom Jones. “Thank God I didn’t do that in­ter­view when he was 42 be­cause I might not have been re­spon­si­ble for my ac­tions,” she says. “He is all man.”

But it would be in­cor­rect to as­sume she har­nesses any spe­cific charm to con­ver­sa­tion­ally se­duce male guests. She says the sim­ple truth is that peo­ple like to be heard: “We all flower un­der­neath the heat of some­body’s in­ter­est in us.”

Young strikes a dif­fi­cult bal­ance of seem­ing open and en­gaged with her emo­tions, with­out ever be­ing gushy or in­ap­pro­pri­ate. So I am sur­prised when I read the sen­tence, “I fell for him like a ton of bricks” about meet­ing her hus­band of 18 years at Babing­ton House

(he owned it as part of Soho House group – leg­end goes she mis­took him for a porter).

“I know, that’s embarrassing isn’t it?” I re­as­sure her it isn’t, but it’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine two peo­ple who seem so pulled to­gether ex­pe­ri­ence those ado­les­cent, heady days of ro­mance. “It was hi­lar­i­ous!” she says. “It was like – we are grown-ups, what the hell are we do­ing? I just thought: I don’t be­lieve in this thing that’s clearly hap­pen­ing to me. I was like a gog­gle-eyed…” she searches for the right word, “tit!” and hoots with laugh­ter. She is clearly en­am­oured with Jones, but is also con­scious not to ap­pear smug as “any re­la­tion­ship can have dif­fi­cul­ties” and doesn’t think she has a “key to hap­pi­ness that doesn’t be­long to other peo­ple”.

Twenty-nine seems like an in­ter­est­ing age to fall in love; she had a suc­cess­ful ca­reer as a news­reader and was liv­ing in Lon­don – had she sewn her wild oats and worked out who she was? “Yeah I did,” she says.

“And I did not think that one day I’d meet some­body, be mar­ried and have chil­dren. I was very busy en­joy­ing my life. I loved my job, I was hav­ing so much fun – I didn’t think other things could be more enjoyable.

And then I met him and it was like I stopped run­ning.” I say that that ex­pres­sion re­minds me of a Mrs Pa­trick Campbell quote, “the deep, deep peace of the dou­ble bed…”

“Af­ter the hurly-burly of the chaise longue!” she fin­ishes the sen­tence. “Yes. It’s a great thing. Al­though, there’s still quite a lot of hurly-burly on a chaise longue, I don’t want to make it seem like it’s bor­ing! Nick’s a re­ally dy­namic guy, creative and full of en­ergy. It’s been the most in­ter­est­ing ride of my life, be­ing with him. He’s taken him­self in all sorts of directions and I’ve been part of that and it’s been fas­ci­nat­ing to watch him grow a busi­ness in a dif­fi­cult area. It’s been in­vig­o­rat­ing and ex­haust­ing and fas­ci­nat­ing.”

Since her de­par­ture from Crime­watch af­ter seven years in 2015, she’s spent the past few years presenting big events pro­grammes, such as The Queen’s 90th Birth­day, The Bat­tle Of Bri­tain 75 me­mo­rial and – her

per­sonal TV ca­reer high­light – At­ten­bor­ough At 90.

“I did flirt with him but he didn’t take me on at all,” she says. “I don’t know how you can end up slightly in love with some­body who’s 90, but I’m def­i­nitely a bit in love with David At­ten­bor­ough.”

Young is very rooted in fam­ily life – she’s mother to two stepchil­dren, Natasha, 22, and Oliver, 20, from Jones’ first mar­riage, and two daugh­ters, Freya, 15, and Iona, 10. She spends most of the week at home in an Ox­ford­shire vil­lage, and when she re­turns to her homeland of Scot­land she feels her “shoul­ders go down a bit”. I ask her how much be­ing Scot­tish forms her iden­tity and she replies in less than a nanosec­ond, “Ev­ery­thing. It’s woven through me; ev­ery­thing from the lan­guage to the laugh­ter.” She teaches me a Scot­tish phrase: “I ken’t yer faither”, mean­ing “I know your fa­ther”. It cap­tures a quintessen­tially Scot­tish at­ti­tude of not get­ting above your sta­tion and is, I think, the an­chor that keeps her so firmly on the ground and able to con­nect with peo­ple, de­spite a life of suc­cess and glam­our.

I shake her hand good­bye and re­sist the urge to do ex­actly what she never does with her cast­aways, which is pro­pose we be­come friends. But I con­clude that who­ever does en­joy the perks of her deep em­pa­thy and lis­ten­ing skills must feel greatly en­riched. For Kirsty Young is nei­ther a woman’s woman nor a man’s woman; she is a hu­man’s hu­man. The skill in her work is that she con­nects – the dots of life to form a nar­ra­tive, seg­ments to songs, her lis­ten­ers to sto­ries. Her real pas­sion is hu­man na­ture and ob­serv­ing it with an open heart and mind.

Ra­dio 4 are lucky to have her, and so are we.

Young says of her Scot­tish iden­tity: “It’s wo­ven through me; from the lan­guage to the laugh­ter”

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP: In­ter­view­ing Bruce Spring­steen for Desert Is­land Discs; with prime min­is­ter Theresa May; with hus­band Nick Jones in 2015

BE­LOW: Young pre­sent­ing ITV’S Lunchtime News in the early 2000s

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