Red alert: I actually like Sue Lawley

RADIO

Here is a warning. Today's column sings the praises of Sue Lawley so, if you can't stand her, either stay to reconsider or switch off immediately. She is that kind of person. There are some radio programmes that excite such emotions that the very sound of the theme music is enough to make you spring to the set reaching either for the volume or the off button. (In our house, it's the maddening little tune announcing Saturday's Sport on 4 that, unfortunately, has the latter effect on your critic.)

Desert Island Discs (R4), like Today or The Archers, is a British institution. An extract from one of these three is immediately recognisable and can often form the major topic of newspaper leaders. Recently, Lawley was perceived to have questioned Gordon Brown MP too closely about why he was unmarried. If you actually listened, you would have heard very little to fuss about, and Brown himself seemed quite unbothered by her probing - but you didn't have to listen. One foot out of line and Lawley's whole existence becomes the subject of national debate.

Yet she is a worthy successor to the programme's ``onlie begetter'', the late lamented Roy Plomley. He was inclined to tell the story of his grand idea at every possible opportunity. In November 1941, he would say, he was cold in his pyjamas one night when his brainwave occurred, out of the blue. This was a little disingenuous. Two earlier magazines - The Music Teacher and Rhythm - had already tried asking their readers to suggest what music they would enjoy if marooned on a desert island, and it is likely that Plomley had seen them.

Be that as it may, the programme was Plomley's for life. It began by being at least two-thirds music, with only seven minutes of conversation scheduled. (Those listeners who miss that particular arrangement are discovering that it still exists on Saturday mornings, under the benign and definitely un-probing management of Michael Berkeley in Private Passions on R3.) These days, the music matters less: castaways are required to talk for about 27 of the 40 minutes. Gradually, too, the idea of more baggage has evolved, in the form of a book and a luxury to accompany the castaway (originally called the "shipwreckee"), and the whole concept has changed. It has become an opportunity to discover the real character of famous people, revealed, of course, by their choices, and by their answers to standard, if whimsical questions.

Some manage better than others. Nobody who heard it will ever forget Otto Preminger's ferocious response to Plomley's routine question about building a shelter. "A hut?" he thundered. "Vy should I be vanting a hut? And vy are you going red in ze face - and vair your hair should be?" Sue Lawley tends to rephrase the question - once, marvellously, asking Frank Bruno if he was good with his hands - but at least she plays the shipwreck game. Michael Parkinson, the first, disastrous Plomley replacement, could never enter the spirit of the thing.

Lawley combines the fantasy element with a convincing interest in each of her subjects. Inevitably, she does better with some than others. Recent successes have included the delightful old silent-movie star Chili Bouchier, a real find, who cheerfully admitted to disgraceful behaviour in the Harrods Small Ladies department, and Pauline Quirke, who completely demolished the vision of her presented by her television roles and proved to be utterly charming.

Only occasionally does Lawley give up and sound bored. A recent example was her interview with the impresario Michael White - nothing to do with my esteemed colleague of the same name. This was a 60-year-old obsessed with staying young, whose voice and choice of music were so tiresome as to make you want to serve lunch early. In the event, I stayed long enough to discover, to my satisfaction, that, of course, his book was to be Proust and that his luxury was a blooming bicycle. Last week's guest looked to be equally unpromising: the integrity of a successful businessman seldom survives the flattery that surrounds him. Yet Lawley brought out the best in Gerry Robinson, who responded gamely and, apparently, accurately, as she asked him exactly how much money he had made. It was, by that point, what we all wanted to know.

Self-delusion does not last long on the island. We addicts soon spot the castaways who, like the character in Tom Stoppard's play The Real Thing, are determined to choose far more highbrow pleasures than they can sustain in conversation. Some deliberately set themselves up: Mai Zetterling insisted on an extra record made up solely of applause, which she couldn't survive without. And politicians have a doomed tendency to choose tub- thumping music to emphasise their patriotism, which nobody could survive for long with.

Though the Prince of Wales was probably right to decline the invitation, few others can resist. It has become the supreme accolade of success, far better than a knighthood. When Susan Hill ended her interview, some time ago, she sighed that now she had no ambitions left, nothing more to dream of. In fact a few years later, they asked her again, as sometimes happens to the best of them.

In the end, it is often the luxuries you remember. Invited back for the third time, Dame Eva Turner, by then as old as Methuselah, chose castanets so that she could return and play Carmen; Terry Jones chose dry sherry, because he needed a glassful before Sunday lunch; Hermione Gingold felt that she required the Albert Memorial and Alfred Hitchcock had a railway timetable. Three people, including Stephen Fry, have wanted instruments of suicide. Can't wait to hear what Peggy Mount will choose, at about 12.50. It's a good game to play, just in case they ever ask you. What would you have? I can't think why nobody ever asks for Room Service.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
musicBand's first new record for 20 years has some tough acts to follow
News
peopleAt least it's for a worthwhile cause
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Life and Style
Sexual health charities have campaigned for the kits to be regulated
healthAmerican woman who did tells parents there is 'nothing to be afraid of'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

    £300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

    High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

    £70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

    Teaching Assistant

    £50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

    Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

    £400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

    Day In a Page

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments