Understated warmth: One of the finest, most intelligent and likeable voices on Radio 4 is to fall silent — for a while at least — as presenter Kirsty Young casts herself away from Desert Island Discs
Dismay! Even the seagulls are going to sound more plaintive as they wheel over Sleepy Lagoon. One of the finest, most intelligent and likeable voices on Radio 4 is to fall silent — for a while at least — as presenter Kirsty Young casts herself away from Desert Island Discs.
Yesterday, Kirsty, 49, announced she is suffering from ‘a form of fibromyalgia’, a chronic condition that can cause pain all over the body, and must ‘take some time away’ to restore her health.
We wish her well and hope her absence is not for ever, but certainly it will be for a season or so, starting next month after the final two episodes she has recorded go out on air.
It’s a bit of an earthquake. In 76 years, the programme has had only four presenters: Roy Plomley, who invented the format and served a stupendous 43 years; next the relative fly-by-night Michael Parkinson, who did three; then 18 years of Sue Lawley before Kirsty took over in 2006.
For my money, Kirsty is the best presenter yet.
Plomley was a legend all right, but a creature from another century with his heavy, stolid masculine manner (guest Shirley MacLaine’s cheery sweariness made him sweat a bit).
Michael Parkinson never quite suited the show. He never sounded happy and was possibly always a bit too TV.
Sue Lawley, stern schoolmarm that she is, got tremendous revelations out of some of her guests and never hesitated to push at awkward subjects, such as Gordon Brown’s long bachelorhood and the spurious rumours it invited.
She also got Yoko Ono telling the world that when she was pregnant with her son, Sean, she and John Lennon discussed termination.
Yesterday, Kirsty, 49, announced she is suffering from ‘a form of fibromyalgia’, a chronic condition that can cause pain all over the body, and must ‘take some time away’ to restore her health. Above, with radio guest David Beckham
But at other times, Lawley would lurch into a surprisingly flirtatious chase-me-round-the-table manner with, for example, the likes of George Clooney, and quite forgot to pull him up on his answers. She didn’t laugh much, either.
In contrast, Kirsty was relaxed and interested, classless in her soft Scottishness, sounding neither girlish nor stern but oddly maternal: striking up what felt like a real relationship, yet never hesitating to push, contradict or doubt an answer with a calm ‘I don’t believe you’. (She did this to Julie Burchill when the firebrand journalist claimed she didn’t mind what people thought about her.)
That understated warmth is quite different from the soupy gush or playschool-banter of some of the other new generation presenters.
It also differs from the herds of mature gents — Bragg, Marr, Rev Coles, Clive Anderson, etc — who still dominate Radio 4 talk shows.
Born in East Kilbride, Kirsty Young began her broadcasting career in 1989 as a continuity announcer for BBC Radio Scotland, before moving to STV to present Scotland Today.
Her big break came in 1992 when she joined the newly launched Channel 5 as a newsreader on 5 Live, which famously brought its presenters out from behind the desk to deliver headlines. One year after her Desert Island Discs debut, she joined BBC One’s Crimewatch and was with the show until 2015.
As the wife of businessman Nick Jones, the founder of Soho House (with whom she has two daughters), Kirsty has lived a life in close proximity to the celebrity whirl who frequent his international chain of private members’ clubs.
This breadth of experience has served only to hone her interviewing skills, so today her modest-seeming interest in interviewees makes potentially tricky personalities uncurl, stretch like cats and forget to show off, and generally reveal their soft underbelly.
Kirsty’s big break came in 1992 when she joined the newly launched Channel 5 as a newsreader on 5 Live, which famously brought its presenters out from behind the desk to deliver headlines. (Above, on the show in 1999)
Who else would have got Rolling Stone Keith Richards to emerge as such a cosy old boy, with his fulsome praise of rival rockers?
From great lives to lightweights, professors to popinjays, whether it’s the former Irish President Mary Robinson or the preening Russell Brand, Kirsty nailed it.
Even the acerbic, veteran and notably unsisterly radio critic Gillian Reynolds — who had condemned Kirsty’s style after the first three programmes — eventually acknowledged her quality. Oh, and came on Desert Island Discs herself to do so, earlier this year.
Part of the knack lies in trust. The late Terry Wogan went on the show three times and observed: ‘I had Plomley, and then Sue Lawley, and then the wee Scots girl [and] if anybody’s going to worm your more intimate secrets out of you, then Kirsty is the girl.’
Yes. You’d confide. Feel safe.
Actually, that atmosphere of trust is a vital, unacknowledged part of the programme itself. It is considered a kind of honour to be invited on: many interviewees admit they have been secretly listing their eight records and luxury item for years, in shy hope.
The point is that because of this sense of occasion, of being chosen, anyone invited on to Desert Island Discs knows several things.
Meanwhile, though, the Desert Island Discs chair must go to Lauren Laverne from 6 Music for the time being
They know they are considered in some way important. They know that they weren’t just a last-minute filler when someone else dropped out. They know that the research will have been properly done.
So the host is prepared, the guest feels welcomed, and it’s all recorded with no time limits. That helps.
The programme’s other great strength, all credit to the late Mr Plomley, is that a choice of music reveals more about an individual than they are ever likely to reveal for themselves.
There are some tracks so frequently chosen — My Way, Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, etc — that they tell you little. Some are startling, as when the soprano Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf chose seven of her own recordings, and the concert pianist Dame Moura Lympany, eight of hers.
Some guests are instantly loved for their choices: a lot of us purred when, in conversation with Kirsty, the actress Kathy Burke gave us a mixture of Sinatra and Lady Gaga, the Sex Pistols and T Rex, and as her luxury chose a life-sized, laminated photograph of James Caan from the TV programme Dragons’ Den. She wanted it to ‘bodysurf on’. Which topped Oliver Reed’s rather more predictable demand for a blow-up sex doll.
Ambitious politicians’ choices are often cautious, indeed boring, and other guests just seem to choose their discs out of pure perverse desire to be different.
The poet Ian McMillan asked for the American composer John Cage’s 4’33’ — four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. Nigella Lawson asked for Eminem and other rappers and claimed she longed to work with Dr Dre — not a single romantic melody for her fans to imagine smooching with her to.
But there are rare and wonderful moments, especially when someone digs out a record you have certainly never heard before.
I’ve never forgotten Roy Jenkins’s demand for something crackly and ancient called The Soviet Airman’s Song. I still sometimes find myself humming: ‘Higher still and higher, follow the Soviet star / And every propeller is rrrr-roaring — Defend the USSR!’ Even though I heard it only once.
Mostly, people’s choices are heartfelt, reflecting their inward lives, and give the gentle Kirsty a chance to probe further (which she has become ever more adept at doing). Last year, to mark the 75th anniversary of the show, she revealed her own favourite guest was . . . Sir David Attenborough, although Noel Gallagher made her Top 10, too.
She has been a treasure in the job, and I am hoping vigorously for her return before too long.
Some conspiracy theorists say that, once recovered, she might be in the frame to host BBC1’s Question Time when David Dimbleby quits at the end of the year. God forbid — she still has the TV looks, but would be utterly wasted in that ill-tempered bear-pit.
Bring her home to the Island! The gulls will be calling!
Meanwhile, though, the chair must go to Lauren Laverne from 6 Music for the time being.
Lauren is lively and intelligent, and nicely curious about people, but has no journalistic background and is emerging from a noisier, self-advertising pop and social media world.
That is not a criticism: to advance now through the hubbub and squawk of media — that is what this new generation must do; the age of slow-growth is well and truly over.
Laverne may be good. But dammit, Kirsty Young was great!
What is fibromyalgia?
WHAT IS IT?
‘Fibromyalgia literally means painful muscles and it is a collection of symptoms rather than a specific disease,’ says Dr Ganesan Baranidharan, a consultant in anaesthesia and pain medicine at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust.
Symptoms vary from individual to individual: the most common is widespread, often intense stabbing or burning muscular pain. Joints may also feel stiff, especially on waking or after spending even short periods in the same position. Some may also have increased sensitivity to pain, so they find even minimal pressure hurts. Insomnia is another common issue.
‘Up to 90 per cent of people with fibromyalgia have difficulty sleeping,’ says Anisur Rahman, a professor of rheumatology at University College London and spokesperson for Arthritis Research UK. There can be psychological issues, too.
‘They may have problems with memory and concentration — some describe it like having brain fog,’ adds Professor Rahman.
WHO IS MOST AT RISK?
More than a million people in the UK are thought to be affected, and 75 to 90 per cent of sufferers are women. ‘It’s one of the things we don’t understand, but maybe women are more likely to report their symptoms,’ says Dr Baranidharan
It can affect anyone of any age — even children can develop fibromyalgia.
HOW IT IS DIAGNOSED?
There is no definitive test. According to internationally accepted criteria, fibromyalgia is considered as a possible diagnosis if someone experiences chronic pain all over the body every day for at least three months, says Professor Rahman. ‘In addition, they would need to have other typical symptoms such as poor sleep, forgetfulness and increased sensitivity to pain,’ he adds.
‘It can take a long time to diagnose fibromyalgia and patients are often left in limbo with no idea what is causing their problems,’ says Dr Baranidharan.
WHAT CAUSES IT?
This is still not well understood. One theory is that it occurs when chemicals in the brain stop passing on pain messages correctly. ‘Another theory is that it is an exaggerated response to a viral infection,’ says Dr Baranidharan. ‘What we do know is that anxiety, physical or mental trauma and sleep disturbance can play a part.’
IS IT LINKED WITH ANY OTHER CONDITIONS?
Many health problems are more common in people with fibromyalgia including migraines, depression and tension headaches.
IS THERE A CURE?
There is no cure, but there are treatments for the symptoms.
One of the first treatments GPs try with patients is the antidepressant amitriptyline, a muscle relaxant that aids sleep. ‘It is given in a very small dose — one-thirtieth of that used for depression,’ says Dr Baranidharan.
Talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy may also be offered on the NHS. Acupuncture is another option.
IS IT A REAL ILLNESS?
Fibromyalgia was first defined in 1990, but some doctors are still sceptical. ‘I know some think fibromylagia may not be a physical illness but I believe it is, along with the majority of doctors,’ adds Dr Baranidharan.
By THEA JOURDAN