Listeners to BBC’s Desert Island Discs have split into factions this weekend as fans of its latest presenter, Lauren Laverne, left, have mounted a high-profile defence of her in the face of calls for Radio 4 bosses to re-think her appointment as Kirsty Young’s successor.
The outpouring of love on social media has come from famous names such as Matt Lucas, Irvine Welsh, Robert Webb and Caitlin Moran, and prompted Laverne, 41, to post a warm message of thanks on Twitter on Friday night.
“Today has been an entirely unexpected inventory of who is in my corner. I have to say I couldn’t be happier. In fact it’s been the best day in ages. Isn’t it funny how it goes that way sometimes? Thanks very much to everyone who has been so kind,” Laverne wrote.
Radio critics such as the Sunday Times veteran reviewer Gillian Reynolds and the Telegraph’s Charlotte Runcie had already expressed doubts about the future of the music-based interview format with Laverne at the helm. Then the Spectator magazine weighed in. In a piece published online yesterday columnist Melanie McDonagh suggested Laverne had no enthusiasm for classical music. “There’s no getting away from it,” wrote McDonagh, “Lauren is lightweight and uncerebral. Her capacity to come up with the forgettable phrase is quite something.”
But McDonagh’s words have now prompted an avalanche of social media support for Sunderland-born Laverne, a former columnist on this newspaper. Other vocal defenders include David Lammy, Sara Cox, Mark Kermode and two former Desert Island Discs guests – singer Tracey Thorn and composer Nitin Sawhney.
“I am very much in your corner,” said Thorn, while Sawhney told Laverne: “A great interviewer has compassion, empathy, interest in their subject, sharp wit and an ability to extract the heart and soul of a personal journey. All traits of yours.”
The nub of McDonagh’s contentious argument is that Laverne’s appointment was a vain effort to attract younger listeners. She also claimed the speech radio station’s new controller, Mohit Bakaya, is looking for another presenter. And another female Radio 4 presenter with a regional accent is also in McDonagh’s sights. Kathy Clugston’s new role chairing Gardeners’ Question Time was described as “the worst appointment Radio 4 has made in its apparent effort to alienate its listeners”.
Young stepped down from the role after 12 years because of her struggle with a chronic health condition, fibromyalgia, and her departure was lamented by Reynolds, among many others. The critic has since admitted that when Young first took over from Sue Lawley as the host of Desert Island Discs in 2006 she was not convinced. Back then Reynolds wrote: “[Young] asks questions with the answers already built in, cuts across what the interviewees are saying, doesn’t pick up what’s being said, seems to attach no significance at all to the choice of records.”
Young has also spoken in the past of her harsh reception in 2006: “I knew it was coming, but it’s not very nice when you get hit in the face with a concrete slab and that’s what it felt like,” she once told John Bishop.
The programme that asks its guests to imagine they are castaways on a remote island, with only eight tracks to listen to, was the creation of Roy Plomley and was first recorded in a bomb-damaged Maida Vale studio on January 27, 1942. Sir Michael Parkinson took over the role before Lawley became the first female host.
The Observer’s radio critic Miranda Sawyer has welcomed the arrival of Laverne, who is also a 6 Music host, and who is paid more than £300,000 by the corporation. “Since she began sitting in for Kirsty Young, Laverne has been good, but she’s really hit her stride in the past few episodes. Last week’s interview with Bob Mortimer was a delight: good questions, easy atmosphere, excellent interviewee. And great listening from Laverne,” wrote Sawyer this February.