Listeners sail to the rescue of Kirsty Young on 'Desert Island Discs'

Like many castaways, Kirsty Young was forced to cross some choppy water on her journey to the presenter's chair at Desert Island Discs.

News that she was to replace Sue Lawley as host of the long-running Radio 4 programme sparked a barrage of negative headlines that portrayed the "auto-cutie" newsreader's appointment as "dumbing down."

Young's debut show, which featured the children's illustrator Quentin Blake, received several hostile reviews and prompted a tabloid newspaper profile that dubbed her "ruthless, disloyal, and chillingly ambitious."

Yesterday there was further controversy: the chef Heston Blumenthal was accused of using this week's edition of the BBC programme to "plug" BMW cars. The firm had recently held several business events at his Berkshire restaurant.

Yet despite the media hoo-hah surrounding her appointment, Young has managed to gain approval from the one group that really matters: Desert Island Discs' loyal band of listeners. Sources at the BBC say audience figures for her opening five programmes - which have featured interviews with the actress Jane Horrocks, and The Independent's Robert Fisk - have far outstripped those achieved in the final days of Sue Lawley's reign.

Calls and e-mails to the BBC's "audience line", in which viewers and listeners can pass comment on programming, have endorsed Young's style of interviewing by a majority of roughly two to one.

Official figures are not due to be released by Rajar, the radio monitoring service, until 18 December. But the increase in audience is larger than would normally be expected.

Correspondents on the BBC's internet message board appear to endorse the positive viewpoint.

"She is such a wonderful relief from the hectoring style of Sue Lawley, whose interviewing technique only served to bring out the defences of interviewees and annoy the hell out of me!" wrote one listener, going by the name of "Bluescout".

"Kirsty has a wonderful way of making a relationship with her guest, which then allows them to really open up about themselves."

Although the BBC is able to delete negative and abusive comments from its internet site, sources at the corporation insist that reports of it having received a "barrage" of complaints form dissatisfied listeners are simply untrue.

"We can't find any record of complaints being received," said a senior colleague of Young. "In our view the negative press that her shows received have been attacks on her personally, rather than the substance of her actual shows."

The colleague claimed that critics have unfairly focused on Young's nationality and membership of a supposed media elite. Her husband, Nick Jones, runs the Soho House members' club in London.

"She's a successful woman who has worked her socks off to get where she is," said a friend. "None of the criticisms levelled at her would have applied to a man. It's so sexist, and really such a pathetically English thing to do."

Young herself has refused to be drawn on the matter, but shortly after her appointment she did break ranks to deny that a "tartan mafia" had helped her to land the prestigious job.

"I know we Scots do have quite a lot of good jobs, but all I can say is that I'm not part of some underground Scottish group who roll up their trousers to give each other jobs," she said.

What the critics said ...

* The Daily Telegraph - Gillian Reynolds

"It pains me to say this, not least because I forecast the opposite, but she isn't very good at this programme... Maybe she's just too nice."

* The Times - Chris Campling

"Quentin Blake is obviously a very nice man, and Young was enjoying talking to him. But it wasn't right for the first programme."

* The Observer - Miranda Sawyer

"Though she's picked up Lawley's meticulous research habits, and, spookily, her way of summarising a person's life and then pausing for them to elaborate, Kirsty hasn't yet acquired Sue's killer touch."

* The Independent on Sunday - Nicholas Lezard

"My only problem, if you can call it that, is with Kirsty Young's voice. Low, luscious and slightly husky, I found it rather more full of erotic suggestiveness than Sue Lawley's, or even Michael Parkinson's. I found it hard to concentrate, what with having to rush off for a cold shower every few minutes."

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