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A love letter to Kirsty Young, the unforgettable voice of Desert Island Discs

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Moya Crockett
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The radio host is stepping away from Desert Island Discs due to illness. The airwaves just won’t be the same without her, says Stylist’s digital women’s editor Moya Crockett. 

There are some things in life that always bring me comfort, no matter how anxious or sad or angry I’m feeling. A jacket potato with cheese and beans. Turning off the main lights in my flat, and illuminating everything with lamps, fairy lights and candles. A phone call with my mum. But my number one failsafe comforter is listening to Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs.

I can’t remember the first time I heard Young’s voice floating out of the radio. Radio 4 was often on in the house where I grew up, and in my early teenage years, Young’s soft Scottish accent was just another familiar sound amongst the hubbub of home life: a melodic note amid the rumble of the washing machine and the racket of my brothers playing football in the garden.

It wasn’t until I was 17, three years after she began hosting Desert Island Discs, that I really began to pay attention to Young. I was tidying my bedroom one day, Radio 1 on in the background, when it suddenly occurred to me that I should probably start listening to the news (I was going through one of my sporadic periods of self-improvement). I switched over to Radio 4, and discovered that the news wasn’t on – but Desert Island Discs was just starting.

The show’s theme song, Eric Coates’ By the Sleepy Lagoon, was nostalgically familiar to me: when I was tiny, long before Young joined Radio 4, my twin brother and I would dance in our highchairs whenever it came on in the kitchen. So I kept listening. Young’s guest that day was the veteran broadcaster Dame Joan Bakewell, a charismatic leftie with a shimmeringly posh accent who picked songs by Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan and spoke compellingly about the Sixties, assisted suicide and the phrase “thinking man’s crumpet”.

But what I found most enthralling about that episode of Desert Island Discs was Young’s interviewing style. Her questions were laser-precise, but the manner in which she delivered them – calmly, warmly, in those unmistakeable deep, rich East Kilbride vowels – created an atmosphere in which you couldn’t help but feel relaxed. I was hooked. 

Young in 2006, the year she began hosting Desert Island Discs 

Since then, I’ve listened to almost every episode of Desert Island Discs that Young has hosted, and my admiration for her hasn’t dimmed. Unlike some radio and TV interviewers, she doesn’t bombard her guests with questions, or arrogantly try to dominate the conversation. She lets them tell their stories without interruption, sometimes for minutes at a time, so that it’s almost possible to forget she’s there.

At the same time, she always steps in – gently but firmly – if they begin avoiding a question, or veering too far off topic. Being simultaneously compassionate and authoritative is a difficult tightrope to walk, but Young pulls it off every time.

This technique has created space for some of Desert Island Discs’ most moving, unforgettable moments. I’m thinking of the episode from 2016, when war surgeon David Nott spoke about his attempt to save the life of a small girl in Gaza. Or Sheryl Sandberg’s heartbreaking account of the loss of her husband in 2017. Or Miriam Margolyes discussing her complex feelings about coming out to her mother in 2008.

Young has the ability to make people open up about their life’s most private experiences in front of the world, and she does so without ever being sycophantic or overly matey. “If anybody’s going to worm your more intimate secrets out of you,” Terry Wogan once said, “then Kirsty is the girl.”

Young at the Royal Television Society Programme Awards in 2016

Desert Island Discs will return to Radio 4 on 16 September after a short break. But on 30 August, Young announced that she would be stepping away from her role as the show’s host for much of the forthcoming series, due to illness. She has been diagnosed with fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS), a long-term chronic pain condition that can cause fatigue and problems with memory and concentration. (Lady Gaga also suffers with the condition.)

In a statement, Young said she would be hosting the first two episodes of the new series of Desert Island Discs, but that Lauren Laverne would be covering for her after that point. She also emphasised that this is not the end of her tenure as the show’s host.

“Casting away some of the world’s most fascinating people is a wonderful job – however, I’m having to take some time away from Desert Island Discs as I’m suffering from a form of fibromyalgia,” she said.

“I wish Lauren all the very best, I know she will be great. I very much look forward to getting back to good health and back to work.”

I look forward to Young’s return to health, and the airwaves, too. The radio will be a much colder, less compassionate, less interesting place without her.

Three Desert Island Discs episodes with Kirsty Young to listen to now 

As we bid a temporary farewell to Young, the Stylist team pick their favourite episodes that she’s hosted. 

From L-R: Desert Island Discs guests Nigel Owens, Kathy Burke and Sheryl Sandberg 

“The power of the stories and Kirsty Young’s sensitive interviewing style mean you don’t have to know anything about the subject to be completely absorbed. I’m not hugely into rugby but the episode with international rugby union referee Nigel Owens talking about growing up in rural Wales and the struggle he had coming to terms with his sexuality is one of the most moving episodes I’ve ever listened to – it had me in tears.”

Jenny Tregoning, deputy production editor

“I loved the Kathy Burke episode from 2010. It kicked off with Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance (‘When I’m on me island, I want to dance’), went to Get Ur Freak On by Missy Elliott and climaxed with Burke’s luxury: a laminated life-size picture of Dragon’s Den’s James Caan to bodysurf on. Next time she has a living room disco, I want an invite.”

Helen Bownass, entertainment director

“The Sheryl Sandberg episode made me cry big tears of sadness and admiration for how she coped with her husband’s death. Kirsty got her to open up in a way that was so honest, and so heartbreaking.”

Rosamund Dean, acting deputy editor

Images: Getty Images

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Moya Crockett

Moya is Women’s Editor at stylist.co.uk, where she is currently overseeing the Visible Women campaign. As well as writing about inspiring women and feminism, she also covers subjects including careers, podcasts and politics. Carrying a tiny bottle of hot sauce on her person at all times is one of the many traits she shares with both Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton.

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