Desert Island Discs has completely lost the plot

10 August 2019

9:00 AM

10 August 2019

9:00 AM

There’s a cultural problem at the BBC, isn’t there? The Corporation is trying to attract under-35s — the sort who don’t really listen to scheduled radio programmes and who probably listen, if to anything from the BBC at all, to Radio 5 Live.

This is the most obvious way to explain what’s happened to Desert Island Discs. It’s the only possible reason why Lauren Laverne, DJ, pop musician, a face for television rather than radio, replaced Kirsty Young for her sick leave.

The bad news is that Kirsty isn’t coming back. She was good: she knows everyone, she’s probing and she’s sympathetic. Given that the programme, with its brilliantly simple premise, has been going since 1942, this is an appointment people really care about. It’s also the gig every presenter wants: Sunday morning, somewhere between late breakfast/church and lunch. If you’re on Desert Island Discs, people know about you. Or used to.

The reassuring news is that Radio 4 controller Mohit Bakaya is apparently looking for someone other than Lauren to front the programme. The real question is, why was she put there in the first place? She runs Kathy Clugston of Gardeners’ Question Time close as the worst appointment Radio 4 has made in its apparent effort to alienate its listeners.

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. She’s also patently nice. Certainly, she isn’t mean; she doesn’t press home an advantage with an interviewee or even spot that she could be following up answers at all. Her interview with Louis Theroux comes to mind.

There’s no getting away from it: Lauren is lightweight and uncerebral. Her capacity to come up with the forgettable phrase is quite something; she introduced Mary Berry as the woman ‘who has sold more cookbooks than most of us have had hot dinners’.

When I asked a former radio critic what he thought of her he answered instantly: ‘Awful. I heard her with [poet] John Cooper Clarke and it was sucking up to PC idiocy and brandished plebbiness. But that’s what the programme is for now… Guests can be nearly anonymous provided they are vibrant and diverse.’ A BBC journalist observed: ‘The latest run of programmes have been really flat — is that her or is that the selection of guests? Nobody chooses anything or says anything that is surprising — perhaps her lack of big interview experience tells.’

The recent programme with Tim Waterstone, the bookshop man, was an exception — it was good listening — but then, he practically interviewed himself. He also cares about music, but because it was classical, it elicited no enthusiasm from Lauren.

Under her, the show has become that bit more politically correct. When she had the Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies on last month, the one thing she pressed her on was the advertising campaign against obesity, and ‘how to remove the stigma and shame from that conversation’ — that is, the indignation fatties would feel at the suggestion they are eating themselves into the grave. Dame Sally gave that usefully short shrift.

She knows her stuff with contemporary music — she was plainly at ease interviewing Emily Eavis — but on classical she’s out of it, which is a pity when some castaways, like the geographer and social scientist Jared Diamond, are so interesting and informed.

The issue here isn’t the merits of one presenter; it’s the BBC’s reflex when it comes to appointments like this. Simply put, being youngish, regional, a pop presenter and a woman really isn’t enough. Choosing interviewees on the basis that they’re not Establishment, posh, white, elite, male, isn’t enough either. The BBC needs to pick the best person for the job; it says a good deal that this is now a controversial view.

Granted, not everyone was a fan of Roy Plomley, the inventor and original presenter of the programme: some thought him obsequious as an interviewer, though overt flattery did quite often persuade guests to expose themselves amusingly. But he did have a stellar cast of guests.

Who might be better? Sarah Montague is an excellent interviewer. Mark Lawson, presenter of the BBC arts programme, is plausible. But the person I’d like to see presenting would be Michael Berkeley, host of the Radio 3 version of Desert Island Discs, Private Passions. His interview with Jo Brand was a revelation. He’s polite, informed, intelligent and knows about classical music. He gets guests to talk. But he’s male, 71 and posh. No chance then, I suppose.

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