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Kirsty: 'When I talk to someone I feel supercharged, my ears grow'

Interviewing Kirsty Young is like being Lewis Hamilton’s chauffeur: they're the pro, you’re just the pretender, says Rosamund Urwin

As the queen of Desert Island Discs - Young has been hosting the castaways for eight years - she’s played inquisitor to the saintly (the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, Sister Wendy Beckett), the sinning (Piers Morgan, Russell Brand), the adored (Clare Balding, Aung San Suu Kyi) and the abhorred (Alex Salmond - on one side of the Scottish border, at least).

The 46-year-old, one half of a power couple with Soho House millionaire Nick Jones, has a knack for getting people to spill secrets. Welby told of a bleak Christmas with his alcoholic father, Damian Lewis described being sent to boarding school as a “sphincter-tightening exercise” and Sarah Millican revealed she married her husband to the sound of Paul McCartney and the Frog Chorus (not all scoops are created equal). The woman once dubbed “too glamorous” for the Radio 4 job has proved the doubters wrong.

When we meet, she’s in Clark Kent rather than super-glam mode, clad all in black (poloneck, jeans and courts) and with thick-rimmed glasses. It’s obvious why people open up to her. There’s that soothing, sonorous, Scottish voice — the one that got her thrown out of the school choir for sounding “too bassy”, the firm gaze that seems to probe deep into your soul, and an easy charm.

A good interview, she says, relies on research: ‘You can’t just breeze in and do the same thing with everybody; you have to get the heft of somebody’s cloth. You can’t be clouded by other people’s opinions of the person, but absorb their work, then weigh them up when you meet them.” After that, listening is all. “I feel supercharged when I’m talking to somebody — my ears grow. People often reveal or betray themselves with language: it’s indicative of things that are much deeper down.”

Presenting Discs, as she affectionately calls it, makes Young audacious: “I ask things I would never have the balls to ask normally. The music quickly enables you to go to places with people you couldn’t otherwise go.”

Ricky Gervais was a favourite: “If I’d listened to the people who had an opinion about him — some of whom had worked with him — I’d have thought he’d have been a right bloody you-know-what. I found him to be the most affable, down-to-earth guy.” There have been tricky interviewees, too. Yoko Ono left her sunglasses on throughout: “It’s difficult if you can’t make eye contact.”

Young, who also presents Crimewatch on BBC One, took an unconventional route into journalism. Born in East Kilbride, just south of Glasgow, she wrote for the school paper and was in the debating team, but didn’t match that to a future career: “I wasn’t connected to anyone who got those sorts of jobs.” At 17, she worked as an au pair for a Swedish family in Barcelona and Geneva. “That was just so I could get on a plane,” she recalls. After returning to Scotland, she worked in a pub. One of the regulars was a cameraman. “His runner was sick and he needed someone to lift cases, so I said I’d do it.” After a year and a half slaving away, Young got a job as a researcher at an independent production company in Glasgow, before moving to BBC Radio Scotland.

I ask Young, the daughter of a joiner-turned-shop-owner father, if she thinks too many journalists come from privilege. “That’s a problem in many areas. So many young people come to London and can’t support themselves. They’re not paid enough in entry level jobs, so only people from those backgrounds can afford it.” Here, I confess to being part of the diversity problem (Oxford, PPE — sorry). “God, I would have loved to have gone to Oxford and read PPE.”

Young didn’t need to. Her career advancement was swift and she was hired to front Channel 5 news when it launched in 1997. Self-deprecatingly, she attributes her success to fortune: “Good luck always plays a part and it certainly played an enormous part with me.”

A decade, two daughters and the Discs gig later, Young decided to step away from news. “I was doing two jobs and Nick was travelling more (he now has a dozen Houses across the world, plus Istanbul opening next month), so something had to give. I thought it was going to be me. And Discs is very engaging — I write the scripts — whereas news is something of a sausage factory.”

She also wanted to avoid being “the old grump in the corner of the newsroom talking about the old days”.

Now, she works from home, only coming to London for recordings. Young and Jones moved out of their Notting Hill mansion three years ago and have been doing up a 17th-century house in Oxfordshire. “We like to do up properties together. Nick is out of the country as much as he is in it, so he didn’t need to be at his desk in London every morning. We just decided to live our lives differently.”

Although her husband is “not a party guy — his life is running a demanding business”, their world still sounds pretty A-list. Young recalls being at the Hotel du Cap during the Cannes Film Festival (“brilliantly glamorous and all it appears to be”) and watching Beyonce tuck into food at Jones’ pub in West Hollywood.

How do they cope as a couple, being so busy? “By a very unsexy amount of scheduling.” There’s a throaty laugh. “Otherwise it falls apart. Nick’s got a travelling schedule like Madeleine Albright. In so many ways, my cup runneth over, but I do not have spontaneity.”

Do they complement each other? “I hope so. It’s tricky to analyse a relationship: you either end up sounding self-satisfied or paranoid. He makes me laugh, I think that’s quite important, but beyond that ...” She pauses to think. “We like the same things. We like to cook together, watch TV together. When we come together domestically, it’s really harmonious. Home is our little sanctuary of domesticity.”

They make sure they go away together at least once or twice a year, and do a “vibrant” Sunday lunch for friends: “We regularly have 18 people around our table; that’s when we relax. Nick cooks because I cook the rest of the week. He’s almost fetishistic about Sunday lunch.”

When they met, Young was 29. She calls it a “coup de foudre”: “I was totally blind-sided by it — much to my own surprise and hilarity — I wasn’t expecting it and I don’t think he was, and it was totally inconvenient.”

Their elder daughter Freya turned 14 this month, while their younger one, Iona, is eight. Is Young scared about their being teenagers? “I’m by nature a worrier. I worried when they were three months old, when they were three, and about Freya at 13. But things seem okay. I’ve watched my stepchildren grow up, and I don’t think children are going to hell in a handcart.”

Those stepchildren, Natasha (21) and Olly (19) are from Jones’ first marriage to Tania. Given the stepmonster stereotype, is step-parenting a difficult path to navigate? “Oh, goodness me. If I were ever going to write a book, that’d be it. It’s a very challenging thing — and that’s to do with the circumstances, not the stepkids. People are fed an awful lot of nonsense about step-parenting. There are an awful lot of “shoulds” in people’s heads — it should be like this or that — but there are only “coulds”: it could be like that.”

She has a stepfather herself: “I just think of him as dad. So there are all sorts of ways of doing it. It evolves and it takes time, and people need to be allowed space to do it their own way. You’re plunged into a situation and you need to be prepared to learn and not to feel like you have to be perfect.”

That extends beyond stepmothers to all women. “We can all get our knickers in a twist trying to be some perfect version of ourselves, but it’s nonsense. It’s good that people are talking about that now, though. We’ve come through that tyranny of perfection.”

As a woman in the media, Young is aware of another pressure, related to ageing. When she replaced Nick Ross and Fiona Bruce on Crimewatch, there were mutterings about ageism at the BBC. Does she now fear that herself?

“I don’t think you can even say ‘Does (ageism] exist?’ for women on TV. We all know it exists. For years, it has puzzled me why British TV has not learned from the US. Their recent tradition of having women like Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer, those women in their sixties, seventies and eighties, on TV is amazing. I look forward to the day that Jon Snow hands over to a lady newsreader and she’s as old as him.’

People want to see older women, she argues: “Look at the amazing older actresses we have. Witness Helen Mirren. The idea that you bung a woman off the telly when she gets older would be hilarious if it weren’t so offensive. I think we’ve finally wised up to that.”

Young is thrilled about the recent resurgence of feminism.

“I did a piece on Crimewatch about a woman who’d been groped on public transport. We wouldn’t have done that 20 years ago; now people are being called on that. This is an enlivening time. I look at Natasha, at Freya, and I think they expect a different sort of world. Soon, we’re going to stop asking those questions: ‘Do you think a woman can ...’

Yes, I think a woman ‘can’ anything.”

  • Kirsty Young hosts Desert Island Discs on Sundays on BBC Radio 4 at 11.15am, repeated on Fridays at 9am

Desert Island Discs: the highlights

Since it first aired in January 1942, Desert Island Discs has played host to some of broadcasting’s most insightful and memorable moments. Among the best are:

Morrissey — the former Smiths frontman isn’t known for his effusive personality, and the spiky and raw nature of his interview certainly matched many people’s preconceptions. Nevertheless, listeners were given an insight into how he had contemplated suicide and admissions that “nothing” comforts him

Ed Miliband — the Labour leader and Prime Ministerial hopeful took a fair bit of mocking for his choice of Angels by Robbie Williams as one of his favourite records. But not as much as his Tory counterpart David Cameron, whose choice of The Smiths and Radiohead seemed a desperate ploy to try and look cool

Michael Caine — the veteran movie star and self-confessed ‘disco fan’ opted for tracks by Coldplay and Elbow, which formed a suitably eclectic backdrop for his anecdotes about life at the top

Tony Adams — the former Arsenal and England footballer Tony Adams took the opportunity of his appearance to give a moving and poignant insight into his battles with alcoholism

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