“It’s perfect, just as it is”: Lauren Laverne takes the reins of Desert Island Discs

Lauren Laverne talks to the NS about subbing in for Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs, the songs she’d choose if she were on the other side of the desk, and politics’ Halycon days. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Lauren Laverne has been up since 5:30am. She finished a three-hour radio show at 10:30am, and has been answering the phone to members of the public for four hours on behalf of a digital bank. Despite this, BBC 6 Music’s new Breakfast Show host still seems impressively chirpy at 5pm, with time still left to scan the never-ending cycle of Brexit-related news.

There was once a time when she was required to get political every week on TV. “On the Breakfast Show, we don’t really do politics. I mean, I work at the BBC, so you've got to be politically neutral,” she tells the New Statesman, “I saw Charlie [Brooker, creator of Black Mirror] recently, and we had a laugh about working together back then.” She’s referring to presenting 10 O’Clock Live, a weekly comedy news programme that ran from 2011 to 2013, alongside Brooker, Jimmy Carr and David Mitchell. The show was commissioned following the success of Channel 4's Alternative Election Night, hosted by the same four presenters, in May 2010.

That was the election that saw 13 years of Labour government give way to a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. “Actually the biggest complaint everybody [working on the show] had back then,” Laverne says, “was that the old politicians were a bit boring and now, you’re like, ahh, remember when everything was boring? Halcyon days!” She has a point. Think back to that first Cameron-Clegg presser in the rose garden of 10 Downing Street, when they promised to work together “in the national interest”. It now seems a more innocent time, worlds away from our current political climate – yet  that’s the world, just eight years ago, that 10 O’Clock Live was made in response to.

A profile last month in the Telegraph described Laverne as “possibly the most envied woman in British radio”. Aside from Breakfast on 6 Music, she has in the last few months also presented Late Night Woman’s Hour (the later, panel-led version of Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour) and, more recently, Desert Island Discs. Kirsty Young, the iconic show’s presenter of 12 years, stepped away for fibromyalgia treatment in September last year and Laverne has taken over until her return, which is expected to be within months.

But if Laverne were on the other side of the desk, what would her ideal song line-up look like? She thinks it’s hard to speculate, because much of the choice depends on where you’re at in life when you’re asked to be a guest on the show. For her, the dream is to be invited on more than once, and be able to take multiple song selections along. “David Attenborough’s been on it several times and it's interesting to compare how people's choices change,” Laverne explains. “I know Brian Eno last did it in 1986, and I'd be really interested to hear the tracks that he would choose now”.

But go on, humour us, I tell her. “I’d probably have Dick Gaughan and “Now Westlin Winds”, for my dad [her father died in November last year], and I think I'd have “Here Comes the Sun”, because it was played at my wedding. Then I'd have “Feel Too Good” by The Move, just because I love them so much. I think Roy Wood is one of the great underrated geniuses of British music. Then, beyond that... I can't even tell you which Prince song I’d choose, we’d be here all day!”

So how does it feel to sit in for only the fourth presenter of a show that’s been going since 1942? “It’s a bit like being a taxi driver and the Queen gets in,” says Laverne. “You know how to get to wherever it is she wants to go, but you can’t pretend it’s a normal day at work.” Telegraph review of Laverne’s first Desert Island Discs, when she was joined by Olympic diver Tom Daley, captures her sense of awe and subsequent timidity: “Perhaps inevitably, as she read the introductory script, Laverne sounded as if someone had handed her a delicate glass ornament to look after and she was concentrating hard on not dropping it.”

That initial fear is clearly still there when Laverne talks about the responsibility of being the caretaker host. “Sometimes, you just have to trust the people around you, and if they believe that you can do a thing, then you have to trust them and try, and then obviously do absolutely massive amounts of homework, and know what you're doing!”

Having been at the helm for a good few months now, does Laverne think any part of the show needs changing, perhaps to keep up with the podcast competition on BBC Sounds? “No, it's always been my favourite show and something so incredibly precious. I think it's perfect, just as it is,” she says. “It's an incredible format, an eternal way to find out about people, and to take in the atmosphere of their lives.

“You know, I love the fact that you get the life story alongside the music, and something about the combination of those two things takes you back to times and places that meant something to each castaway.”

This resolve was tested by Daley on Laverne’s Desert Island debut. For his luxury item, the diver said, “I’d take my whole kitchen, including all cookware,” an answer that that throws up a whole lot of utilities-based questions about the island he has in mind. Laverne’s response: “I’ve really got to stick to the rules. I think a full kitchen is a stretch”, suggests that the discs are in safe hands for now.

Lauren Laverne was answering calls for TheFeelGood Hotline, on behalf of digital bank Zopa.