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.”
YOUNG WAS, HOWEVER, ACCUSED BY SOME LISTENERS OF BEING HARSH WHEN INTERVIEWING FORMER LABOUR LEADER ED MILIBAND.
“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