A month in, Kirsty Young still seems out of her depth
Has the moment come for me to share with you what I think of Kirsty Young, the new presenter of Desert Island Discs (Sundays, 11.15am, Radio 4)? I guess it has. By the time you read this, she will have been behind the microphone for a month. Actually, I would have given her a little longer before passing judgement - taking the helm of such an established format is difficult; anyone would need time to bed in - but my hand has been rather forced. First, the Daily Mail did one of its spectacularly misogynistic hatchet jobs on her (apparently, she is very ambitious and, er, happily married, the evil witch). Then Gillian Reynolds of the Daily Telegraph, who possibly regards herself as the doyenne of radio critics, let it be known - more in sadness than in anger - that she believes Young is not up to the job: "She asks questions with the answers already built in . . . She gabbles on, as if to demonstrate she's done the homework."
I wish I could step in for the defence but here, alas, I'm with Reynolds. At the time of writing, I have heard Young interview three castaways: Quentin Blake, Jane Horrocks and Robert Fisk, the war reporter. Quentin Blake comes under the category "national treasure": a jolly, talented chap, but not someone into whom Young could - or should - have sunk her inquiring teeth. Jane Horrocks is an actor and, in my experience, actors make difficult (and mostly dull) interviewees because: a) it is hard to get them to be themselves, and b) when you do get the mask to slip, they are often a good deal less interesting than the characters they play. So, at this point, the jury was still out. But then along came Fisk, a man whose character almost demands to be unpacked - and it was suddenly impossible to ignore how out of her depth Young sounded.
The main problem, it seems to me, is that she does not listen, and because she does not listen, preferring instead to whip on to her next prepared question, she does not respond to - or challenge - anything her guests say. In the case of Fisk, this was especially problematic. He wears his opinions like armour: a protective shield that Young seemed afraid to try to dent. In fact, a lot of the time, it was only thanks to him ignoring her and going his own sweet way that we learned anything new at all.
The eighth record that Fisk chose was "Hatikva", the Israeli national anthem, a surprising choice if you know anything about his attitude to the Israeli government. Young, however, showed no sign of surprise. Luckily, she was saved by Fisk who, knowing that ears would by now be pricked, explained its inclusion exuberantly, and movingly.
Fisk told Young that he does not enjoy his work as a war reporter, a job he has done for 30 years; he is compelled by it, but does not enjoy it. She did not press him on this. Nor did she try to tease out of him any sense of a hinterland. To whom, if anyone, is he close? This was infuriating. I was not Sue Lawley's biggest fan: I found her voice maddeningly affected. But she knew when to go after someone, and she understood the power of silence: the way that keeping mum a few seconds too long can induce a castaway to reveal something they would rather have kept back - simply to fill the unnerving gap. Young, on the other hand, has a voice like crisp autumn leaves. Was it this that distracted those who appointed her? I am beginning to worry that it was.
Pick of the week
Corridors of Power
28 October, 10.30am, Radio 4It’s the president for you. Christopher Meyer considers the cultural legacy of The West Wing.
Kasabian with the BBC Concert Orchestra
28 October, 7.30pm, Radio 1
Part of the six-day-long BBC Electric Proms festival. Groovy.
Don't miss . . .
Paris Calling at the V&A
Tout de suite, mes amies! Paris vous appelle! Christian Lacroix will exhibit exclusive highlights from his Renaissance-inspired autumn/winter collection at the V&A's sumptuous Raphael Gallery during the coming week. Glamorous and dramatic are the keywords for this show under the banner of the Paris Calling season - a six-month-long extravaganza, showcasing the best of contemporary art from across the Channel at public and private spaces around the UK.
"Fashion in Motion: Christian Lacroix" takes place at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7, on 31 October. For more details visit: www.pariscalling.org.uk