On a darkening winter’s afternoon, in a gently lit studio apartment in west London,KirstyYoung sits forward on a sofa looking composed and groomed.The presenter of Desert Island Discs is 41, and today, dressed as she is in black trousers and top, with black varnish on her nails and ash blonde highlights in her shoulderlength hair, she looks like a deftly poured glass of Guinness. In her low and rolling Scottish voice, she is talking about sexual intercourse, for reasons I will explain in a minute.
‘My first boyfriend’s parents had a copy of The Joy of Sex on their shelves,’ she says.’I did look at it, but not properly. I was probably too young to deal with it, even though I thought I was pretty sophisticated. My parents certainly didn’t have a copy.’ By parents she means her mother and the stepfather she has always thought of as her father.They married when she was three. Her biological father, a policeman, walked out on the family when Kirsty was three weeks old. She was born in East Kilbride, near Glasgow, and raised from the age of eight in Stirling, where she attended a coeducational state school.When I ask if she was precocious there, she says:’Yes.Yes I was.’And how old was she when she first had a boyfriend? ‘I suppose my first boyfriend was the one who took me skating, and who walked me home from school. I was 12. I had my first kiss when I was 13. On my parents’ driveway. It was a moment of great magic,actually.’And when she first had sex? How old then? ‘Oh much older. I was a good Protestant girl. I was living in Scotland.Too cold there.You don’t take your vest off until you are 21.’
So she was 21? She laughs.’I’m not telling you how old I was when I lost my virginity!’ So, why are we talking about sex? Well, it is one of the central themes of KirstyYoung’s thought-provoking new four-part documentary series, about to be screened on BBC Two. Called The British Family, it explores the changing nature of the family from the Second World War to the present day, taking in the institution of marriage, the Women’s Liberation Front, contraception, money, divorce, modern parenting and sex.
‘Every generation thinks they invented sex,’ she says.’Yet during the war people were even more promiscuous than they are today. War is very reductive.The prospect of death brings out the most primitive instincts.We look quite puritanical today by comparison.You only need look at the Tiger Woods story to see how puritanical we are.’
The British family is a good subject forYoung because she speaks as a mother (to an eight year-old and a three year-old), a stepmother (to teenage children, 14 and 16) and a daughter of divorce. Did she talk to her mother about what went wrong in her parents’ marriage? ‘When I was very young, my mother told me she had been married before and she must have also told me I was the daughter of that marriage, and so was my sister. She told me again when I was five or six and she said:”Do you remember I told you?” but I didn’t. So she talked about it in a glancing way.We didn’t really talk about it properly until I was in my mid to late teens, but at that age you are only focused on yourself.To her credit, my mother wore her divorce very lightly. It was not her identity. It is not a painful subject for her.’
Even so, there was still a stigma attached to divorce by society at the time. Her mother remembers someone saying ‘and you with those two young girls as well’, as if it was a stain on her character.And if her mother wore her divorce lightly, it may have been for her daughter’s benefit, because, for all her precociousness, the teenage Kirsty did have, as they say nowadays,’issues’.
She suffered from bulimia for a while.Also,you suspect she doesn’t have as much closure on the subject of her parents’ divorce as she claims. ‘Without wishing to sound glib about it, it did happen at a good time for me because I had no memory of it. I never called my dad my stepdad. He feels like my dad. He’s been married to my mother for 37 years. This is the man who walked me up the aisle.The time when it did strike me forcibly was when…’ For a moment she loses her composure. There is a catch in her voice and a wet film appears on her eyes.’When my first daughter was born and she was three weeks old. It seemed a very significant moment, because that was the age I was when my parents split up. I was sitting in the bath wondering how I would feel if my marriage was imploding, when I had this tiny baby in the cot. I felt immensely vulnerable. I thought: “Good God.”‘ She swallows.’The emotional force of it hit me like a ton of bricks.’
One consequence of those formative years is thatYoung now feels she is not judgmental about other people’s circumstances.’People’s lives are full of grey areas. My mother never demonised my biological father, but divorce is full of pain and hurt. It’s traumatic.’ For a father to leave a baby that is just three weeks old, I press, something pretty dramatic must have happened.’I know. My husband was divorced and I am stepmother to his kids and the idea that he would have a life without his older two children is inconceivable.To watch him as a father…’ She trails off. She has said that she has not had ‘a relationship’ with her biological father since he walked out, but inevitably she must have been curious to know what sort of a person he was. Out of loyalty to her stepfather, did she block that curiosity out? ‘Well I did feel that as a teenager. I felt it would be disloyal. But I wasn’t quelling some well of hurt, because I had two parents who loved me.They were very present. I didn’t feel a gaping emotional hole. There were curiosities of course, there reasonably still are. But there weren’t dark moments when I thought I wanted to follow it. I think it is not in my nature to be nostalgic.’ In the documentary,Young has another interesting perspective, that of the self-assured career woman. She explores what she calls ‘the cult of the housewife’ in the Fifties when women were encouraged to think that their main function in life was to do the housework, prepare meals and make babies.As one of her contributors recalled, it left her feeling ‘bored, bored, bored’.
For her own part,Young abandoned her Highers and left school because she felt restless:’As if life was happening elsewhere.’ She sidestepped university and decided to work as an au pair in Spain and Switzerland, before joining STV as a presenter on Scotland Today in 1992.
Five years later she moved south to join the news team on Channel Five, becoming the first British newsreader to perch on her desk. She soon proved herself cool under pressure; reporting the death of Diana, Princess of Wales at 5am, and later, in an epic five-hour live broadcast, covering the events of September 11 for ITV News. She became the first woman to anchor on her own, rather than being alongside a man.
When researching her new documentary, she was intrigued by the advice given by the Marriage Guidance Council in the Fifties.They wanted to promote the idea of a ‘companionable marriage’ and it gave her a new perspective on her own marriage.’Around that time your wife became someone you socialised with.Went for walks in the park with. Before that, men would just go off to the boozer with their mates. It had a big impact. Some 10,000 pubs shut down in the Fifties when men started to stay at home with their wives. My grandparents were married for 60 years and their marriage only ended when my grandfather died. He didn’t drink the money away. He didn’t beat her up. In working-class Glasgow that made him a good husband. Such low expectations.A matter of two generations later what I expect from this same institution – marriage – is almost entirely unrecognisable.’ Her husband is Nick Jones, the multimillionaire businessman who founded Soho House, the private club in London favoured by media types, and Babington House, its country equivalent in Somerset. He went to a boys’ boarding school.’As a consequence,’Young says,’he was about 18 before he worked up the confidence to have a conversation with a girl, which I find charming.’
The world in which they grew up was pretty sexist by today’s standards. One of the most popular programmes on television in the early Seventies was MissWorld.’Can you believe the way they got the contestants to turn around so as they could see their backsides?’Young says. ‘So excruciating. But it was a big event in our house. In fact, we would go next door to watch it because they had a colour television. It was family viewing. I suppose you could say that at least the objectification of woman was all out in the open then. We are not as explicit about it these days.’We are in sensitive territory here, I suspect.Young is a skilful interviewer, but in the past her critics have suggested that, well, her being easy on the eye has not exactly hurt her career.’That’s a hard one for me to judge,’ she says when I ask about this.’I’m perfectly reasonable looking, but I don’t think I am arm candy. It’s certainly not the case that I was such a stratospherically good-looking person that I think they could only have chosen me for my looks. I think I look presentable. But whatever I say on this subject I am only going to end up sounding stupid.’ I ask if she has encountered sexism in her career. ‘Yes, but not badly enough to make me want to throw in the towel. I don’t think it hindered my progress. There were one or two glancing blows perhaps.And there was one occasion when it did bother me and I didn’t know what to do about it. I didn’t deal with it particularly well, but I was very young.The flip side is I also gained from being a woman and Scottish. Because I came along at a time when networks were wanting to diversify.Thirty-five years ago, there wouldn’t have been Scottish newsreaders.And you certainly wouldn’t have had a young, female Scottish newsreader. So I think probably I would be kidding myself if I thought my being Scottish and my being a woman hasn’t helped me, if I’m being honest.’ She tells me a story about Michael Heseltine at the 1996 Tory party conference. She was trying to persuade him to appear on Channel Five.’He said:”I’m not going to have some little smartarse in a short skirt get the better of me.” And I thought, how interesting.That made quite an impression on me.
‘So after that I decided to wear trouser suits and speak their language. I made sure I wasn’t projecting a leggy lovely image. I became more conscious of what the clothes I was wearing communicated.’ She reckons that what people remember from the news is the weather, the sport and what she was wearing.’You are lucky if they can tell you the top three stories. It’s what you expect. It’s a visual medium. I’m working in radio now where none of that matters. As long as the voice doesn’t go. I was thrown out of the choir at school for having too deep a voice.They called me old man river.’
As well as Desert Island Discs and her documentaries, Young also has a nice little sideline as one of the regular hosts on Have I Got News ForYou. She comes across as sardonic and knowing, delivering her scripted lines with a poker face and great comic timing.’I get a real buzz from doing that. I realised early on that it is Ian and Paul’s job to be funny and anything else the host does, any ad libs, are a bonus.’ In person she has a dry sense of humour and a gift for impersonation. Her Celia Johnson is spot on and when we talk about the film Anchorman she even captures Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy:'”Go f—yourself, San Diego [pause] One of the best yet.”When I was watching it with my brother and my husband I had tears rolling down my cheeks.They were looking at me and saying,”It’s quite funny, but not that funny.”‘ She could also relate to Broadcast News, even the moment where the anchor gets the sweats. ‘Yes. It’s a fish in water thing; there are people in a studio who just belong there.They are made better by a studio and I think I’m one of them. And there are people who just shouldn’t be there, who get the sweats and, for different reasons, it is a pleasure to watch both. I was nervous the first time I read the news in Scotland. So nervous I got big spots in front of my eyes and I thought I was going to pass out. But I learnt to love it and I don’t understand why people who are perpetually nervous continue to do it.
‘You have to ride the wave of live television and be enough of a perverse creature to enjoy it, because the opportunity to come a cropper is there.The great thing about news is that you never have to watch yourself.You do it and it’s gone. Watching yourself is rarely a pleasure.’
Is there anything about her own appearance she dislikes? ‘Yes, but women look at themselves so much they no longer see themselves. Most women spend time every day doing their hair and make-up and they just don’t see themselves any more. I can only see the faults when I look at my face. I think I look like I’ve got capped teeth and I don’t. I hate that. Don’t like that.’They are certainly very white.’I know.And I’ve never had them bleached.Yet when I see pictures of myself I think:”Ah, the woman with the fake teeth.” I don’t think it’s why I’m employed. People do refer to you as “blonde”, but all I ever tried to do in my job was look polished and presentable. I don’t think my editors chose me for the job because I was blonde.They chose me because I was a good live performer. I could keep my cool.’ She thinks part of the reason she has composure is that she has perspective.
‘All that can go wrong in a studio is that you make a prize a—of yourself. It’s not like you are doing surgery where other people’s lives are affected.As I get older I’m more happy to admit to gaps in my knowledge, because I regard myself as a reasonably well-informed individual. I think when you are 22 and you are trying to prove yourself, it’s different. I’m more relaxed now. A prime example was Morrissey the other day.On Desert Island Discs he read something out in German, Der Nussbaum, and I translated it asThe Walnut Tree and he said:”You read that!”And I said I didn’t. I happened to know it.Twenty years ago I would have been wrong footed.’
There is no denyingYoung’s powers of empathy as an interviewer, or her ability to inspire candour.The comedian DavidWalliams admitted to her that he had questioned his sexuality and battled with depression. Yoko Ono revealed that she had allowed John Lennon to decide whether or not to abort their son Sean.And David Cameron spoke movingly about his severely disabled son, Ivan.
She is into her fourth season of the show now, having been given a rough ride by the critics in the first few months.’I took it quite personally,’ she says.’But now I feel I can do Desert Island Discs without worrying about what people think. I feel I’m doing it justice.And broadcasting on the radio means you don’t have to watch yourself.You are judged only on the strength of your words, the tone of your voice, the sharpness of your mind.’There was another film we could have discussed, To Die For. In that, the ambitious weathergirl played by Nicole Kidman says:’You aren’t really anyone unless you are on TV.’ KirstyYoung became someone by being ‘on TV’, but she now seems to prefer being ‘on radio’. Perhaps ‘on radio’ she feels she is not only doing justice to Desert Island Discs, but also to herself.