The presenter of the iconic Radio 4 programme talked about providing early morning pre-interview vodka to Morrissey and what she learnt from Newnham’s Professor Dame Carol Black as she recounted her 10 years as the host of Desert Island Discs.
It would be easy to imagine that Kirsty Young’s long and illustrious career was the result of a clearly defined career plan, but despite growing up avidly watching Panorama and Newsnight and writing for the school paper, she told a packed audience of students that as a child she didn’t dare imagine herself on a television screen.
Speaking at Newnham College, University of Cambridge, she said: “I was mesmerised when I heard a Scottish accent on Newsnight – as everyone usually spoke in RP. I went to a very good state school where people went to Oxford and Cambridge but I still didn’t know anyone who worked in the media, it was a closed world to me. My dad was a carpenter and my mum was a PA so my role models were on the telly, not coming round for Sunday lunch. I was a restless young woman, I didn’t want to go to university so I started as a runner then I got a job as a researcher.”
Young is best known as one of the original news anchors of 5 News on Channel 5 which she presented from its launch in 1997 until 2007, only leaving briefly in 2000 for ITV News before returning in 2002.
Since 2006 she has been the main presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs and previously presented Crimewatch on BBC One from 2008-2015. She has interviewed everyone from Theresa May to Bill Gates.
Professor Dame Carol Black, Principal of Newnham, who was a castaway on Desert Island Discs last year, invited Young to Cambridge. She was in conversation with Srishti Krishnamoorthy-Cavell, a final year PhD student in English at Newnham at one of the many career seminars run by the College.
When asked about her career progression, Young said: “I never had the nerve to have a plan, but I found that if you work hard, you get the breaks. I have always been gung-ho and that has been my friend.”
Desert Island Discs, which Young describes as being ‘the longest running format in broadcasting’ has brought her together with internationally high-profile people from every conceivable background.
She added: “We have a high bar and we feature everyone from James Corden to Professor Dame Carol Black – that is the beauty of the programme. Some people turn us down because their parents are still alive, people undoubtedly feel more comfortable talking about their inner landscape – their truth – if their parents have died. Dame Carol said something that has stayed with me, she said ‘I really found my feet when I was 50’ – that struck a chord.”
Whilst some interviews were far trickier than others, Young described how she uses a myriad of techniques to make her subjects feel more comfortable, she said: “We had it on good authority that Morrissey (singer and lead singer of the Smiths) liked Grey Goose, a type of vodka rather than a cup of tea or coffee.
“So for his 10.30am interview, we provided vodka on a little tray. If someone is known for dressing very smartly, I will also make sure I wear formal clothes. Interviewing is a consensual activity, they have to want to be interviewed – I’m there to make a good radio programme. But I’m aware that the worst that can happen is that I make a fool of myself, I’m not a brain surgeon – no-one is going to die on the table.”
And although she didn’t reveal any specific tracks she would personally like to be castaway with, she revealed: “I have a few certainties but I don’t know how to choose eight!”
Photograph caption: Srishti Krishnamoorthy-Cavell, Dame Carol Black and Kirsty Young