Lawley spins final record on Desert Island Discs

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After 18 years inveigling the innermost secrets out of the world's most famous and powerful people, Sue Lawley signed off as presenter of Desert Island Discs yesterday.

The actress Dame Joan Plowright was the last of some 750 castaways, including five Prime Ministers, dozens of Nobel laureates, artists , scientists and athletes to have have appeared on the programme since Ms Lawley, 60, took over.

During this time she has employed her unique blend of flirtation and steel to devastating effect, persuading guests to reveal a little more than they might have wished to the world. As a result, the show's audience rose to two million, the highest in its six decade history. She is to be replaced by former Channel Five newsreader Kirsty Young.

Yet Ms Lawley's tenure has not been without controversy. Many felt the programme had lost its way under her predecessor Michael Parkinson's brief period in charge.

The chat show host had the unenviable task of replacing Roy Plomely, the show's creator and presenter of 43 years. And - not least - coping with the public criticism from his widow, Diana, who retained the rights to the programme after her husband's death.

Mrs Plomley's interventions did not cease with a change of presenter. After her famous confrontation with the Chancellor Gordon Brown in which she repeatedly pressed him over his failure to marry, the widow accused her of harbouring an unhealthy "obsession with other people's sex lives".

But it wasn't just their sex lives that Ms Lawley was determined to drag in to the light. She almost reduced playwright Alan Bleasdale to tears while recalling his early life, challenged comedian Ken Dodd over his financial affairs, and even extracted a staggering confession from the late Sir Edward Heath, that his political life had left him with "a certain loneliness and sense of waste".

Her most infamous encounter however, came in 1989 when she controversially invited Lady Diana Mosely, the widow of Sir Oswald, the founder of the British Union of Fascists.

The former showgirl was waxing lyrical over the blueness of Adolf Hitler's eyes - the Fuhrer was a guest at the couple's wedding - when Ms Lawley interrupted her flow to challenge over the deaths of six million Jews at the hands of the Nazis. "Oh, I don't think it was as many as that. I know it was much, much less," she replied.

After a highly-charged silence, Ms Lawley replied: "Tell us about your fifth record, Lady Mosely."

Critics, however, say that for every one of those who fell foul of her froideur, another luxuriated in the warmth of her charm.

Prime Minister John Major was said to have been given too easy a ride, as was David Frost, while George Clooney's superficial responses went unchecked.

Ms Lawley, who began here career as a reporter on the Western Mail before joining the BBC and fronting the much-maligned Nationwide, expects to continue broadcasting.

As to the secret of her success, she puts it down to the programme's unchanging format. "Castaways may sometimes be boastful or brash, strange or cold, but alone a desert island, with music as the only companion for their memories, they all become better and more likeable human beings."

Notable encounters

* Martha Gelhorn:

The former wife of Ernest Hemingway, her appearance was halted mid-recording when it emerged that she was not prepared to talk about her late husband.

* Lady Diane Mosley:

Challenged over the Holocaust, the wife of the late British Fascist leader insisted that the number of Jews killed by the Nazis was "much, much less" than six million.

* Gordon Brown:

The then unmarried Chancellor's treatment at the hands of Ms Lawley led the widow of Roy Plomley to complain that she had "an obsession with other people's sex lives".

* Jamie Oliver:

The chef confirmed his detractors' opinions of him when he chose a record but failed to choose a book, saying that he didn't like reading.