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  1. Culture
  2. TV & Radio
2 January 2020updated 03 Aug 2021 12:59pm

How policing Desert Island Discs became a national tradition

Lauren Laverne is just the latest presenter to be condemned upon taking over the Radio 4 institution.

By Rachel Aroesti

Lauren Laverne – coolly competent, chronically genial – has spent the majority of her two-decade broadcasting career singularly untouched by controversy. Lately, however, the tide has turned rather dramatically for the radio host: her interview technique has been ridiculed, her intelligence scoffed at, her vocal inflections picked apart. She’s been called “uncerebral”, “lightweight” and “out of her depth”. She’s been dismissed as resembling a middle manager, a call centre worker and a self-service checkout. Her crime? Being appointed the new presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs.

In our age of daily outrages and minute-long scandals, this is a knocking with an impressively long shelf life. Kicking off when Laverne began standing in for Kirsty Young in 2018, the negative press found a second wind this summer when the BBC announced she would continue hosting the show “for the foreseeable future”. Notable works in the new wave of Laverne-savaging have included a vicious Spectator review and a particularly sour Sunday Times profile.

If there’s one thing that dulls the sting of this extended slating, it’s that none of Laverne’s detractors has bothered to come up with any original insults for her. Though Young is now venerated as a paragon of interviewing excellence, she faced almost identical criticisms upon her arrival in 2006. She was accused of being “too nice” (the Telegraph for Young, echoed in the Mail for Laverne), not asking difficult questions (the Observer) and, simply, not being “very good at this programme” (also the Telegraph). The Mail worried the former Channel 5 newsreader was too “low-brow” and published a picture of her dolled up on the red carpet on its front page. Meanwhile, Laverne was described as having “a face for television” by the Spectator.

The dogwhistle misogyny is hard to deny, but Desert Island Discs’ male presenters have hardly fared better. When Michael Parkinson was appointed in the mid-Eighties, the widow of the show’s creator and previous host Roy Plomley complained that he wasn’t “civilised enough”. Bizarrely, the BBC board of management claimed that all his guests had, like him, been born in Yorkshire, when in fact only one had. (In turn, Parkinson described Plomley as a “man who seemed bored with the show”.) The Times wrote of his “complete inability to conduct an interview”, while Private Eye’s Richard Ingrams described his presenting style as appearing “bland and obsequious”.

Clearly, the claws have always been out for anyone with the temerity to think they can get away with hosting Britain’s best-loved slice of celebrity chat (even the show’s patron saint, Sue Lawley, was criticised for asking about her guests’ sex lives).

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Policing the intellectual wavelength of Radio 4 institutions is, of course, a cherished national pastime, but the Desert Island Discs post is undoubtedly taken more seriously than most – as far back as 1985 the Sunday Times was comparing the search for Plomley’s replacement to “naming a new pope”.

How did it come to pass?

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The first clue can be found in the show’s initial reception. In his 2013 history, Sean Magee shares a piece of listener feedback from 1942, in which the author admits to being “deeply disappointed” with a guest’s musical picks, before offering some superior choices of his own. It seems that the temptation to put yourself in the castaway’s waterlogged shoes was overwhelming from the very start. After all, who hasn’t drifted off into an interior monologue about their own selections, school days and gracefully endured setbacks halfway through an episode?

Offering a seductive framework for parsing one’s own life, the Desert Island Discs format has become internalised by its fans. As the subject of a million reveries, it’s no surprise that the real thing rarely lives up to the fantasy. 

Even for its actual guests, Desert Island Discs is the stuff dreams are made of; becoming a castaway is an honour routinely compared to an OBE. This prestige has helped it weather some extreme changes in the surrounding interview landscape.

Nowadays, famous people operate almost entirely on their own terms press-wise: glitzy but often spiky TV chat shows have been replaced by rambling Instagram posts or back-slapping celeb-on-celeb chats for glossy magazines. The in-depth podcast interview may be insightful, but it is also scrupulously chummy.

Meanwhile, Desert Island Discs has maintained a reputation for being probing, rigorous and authoritative, operating on the principle that the host is able to sum up a life more efficiently than the person who has lived it. The only reason the great and the good are prepared to relinquish control of their biography is because of the kudos bestowed by taking part. 

It is, then, little wonder that commentators are anxious to preserve the show’s cachet, lest the insightful celebrity chinwag be lost entirely to the annals of history. And, admittedly, some of the criticisms of Laverne are valid; she has herself acknowledged that she needs to learn to “lean in to the end of a question”. Hopefully, our snap judgement-centric cancel culture will afford her the opportunity to do so. If not, Desert Island Discs tradition dictates that whoever takes over had better prepare themselves for the trouncing of a lifetime.