After 19 years, Lawley deserts her island

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The Independent Online

Her desert castaways have included five prime ministers, innumerable Shakespearean actors and international royalty whose radio requests for rock, soft metal and the Scottish pipes have been granted in her unflinchingly dulcet tones.

But after nearly two decades of exploring the musical tastes of her celebrity guests on Radio Four's Desert Island Discs, its presenter, Sue Lawley, is ready to listen to her last record.

Her final programme, which is as synonymous with Lawley's cool, collected tones as it is with the signature tune of "The Sleepy Lagoon", will be aired on 27 August, shortly after her 60th birthday. Her departure will be regarded by many as the end of an era.

Lawley became the third presenter of the 64-year-old show when she took over from Michael Parkinson in 1987.

She hinted the decision to leave had not been made lightly, saying that it had been "one of the best jobs in broadcasting" but that "the time has come to concentrate on other aspects of broadcasting and maybe a bit of business too".

"I've had more than 18 very happy years and have talked to some extraordinary people as they revealed themselves through their choice of music," she said. She has interviewed some of the most celebrated figures in politics, art, literature and sport in her years as presenter, and her popularity is proved in the programme's ratings, which have risen to their highest since 1999.

While the format of the programme revolves around a guest's choice of eight records to take to a desert island, Lawley has often ventured into deeply personal ground and the programme has been hit by controversy on occasion.

In one episode in 1996, she quizzed the then-shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown, about his sexuality.

Her probing interview technique brought criticism from the widow of Roy Plomley, who devised the show in 1942 and became its first presenter, for straying too much into people's sex lives.

When the newsreader Sir Trevor McDonald was invited on, the show fell under scrutiny after the Commission for Racial Equality revealed that of the many thousands of guests in the series, he was only the 10th non-white guest.

In 1996, then on the verge of election victory, Tony Blair's playlist was criticised for displaying signs of "spin" after he included a ballad about a jobless man's pleas to his love by a band no one had heard of, alongside Bruce Springsteen and Debussy. Cynics accused the list of being the work of Peter Mandelson.

Such is the influence the programme carries that it has been seen to give celebrities deemed worthy of being "castaways" an added gravitas, and in 2002, a line-up of famous castaways celebrated the programme's 60th birthday at a gala evening in the Royal Festival Hall.

Yesterday, Mark Damazer, Radio 4's controller, said he was sad to lose Lawley, whom he had attempted to talk out of her decision to leave. "I tried hard to persuade Sue to change her mind but to no avail. She started her career as a journalist and is still a journalist at heart. She also has an enormous interest in people. Put these two attributes together and you end up with fascinating and entertaining interviews that are now the hallmark of Desert Island Discs. She will be a tough act to follow," he said.

Born in Dudley in the west Midlands, Lawley started her career as a trainee journalist in Cardiff and went on to make her name as a newscaster before venturing into the world of radio entertainment.

She has always had a cool, unflappable broadcasting persona, and while working as a newscaster, Lawley became famous for remaining unruffled when lesbian protesters broke into the BBC's newsroom while she was on air. "We have rather been invaded," she said, as she continued to read the news while protesters handcuffed themselves to studio equipment.

Key encounters

LADY MOSLEY, 1989

The only time that cracks appeared in Lawley's famous cool was in her confrontation with Sir Oswald Mosley's widow, Diana Mitford. Mitford, who had been a friend of Adolf Hitler, was describing the blueness of Hitler's eyes when Lawley asked: "What about the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis", to which Mitford replied: "Oh no, I don't think it was as many as that. I know it was much, much less." After a long pause, Lawley said: "Tell us about your fifth record, Lady Mosley."

GEORGE CLOONEY, 2003:

When Lawley interviewed the actor, she was said to be so intoxicated by his sex appeal, she was reduced to a quivering mess, as he flirted outrageously with her on air.

GORDON BROWN, 1996

Lawley grilled Mr Brown about his sexuality. She began by referring to how he was always asked about marriage. "Does that irritate you?" she said. "Not at all," he replied.

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