- Lights Out
- The Rest Is Entertainment
- Ghost Story
- Class of '88 with Will Smith
- How to Win an Election
- The Conflict
- Understand: Israel and the Palestinians
- The Rest is Politics
- A Race Around the World
- Keys to the Kingdom
- McCartney: A Life in Lyrics
- Have You Heard George's Podcast?
- The Gift
- The Immortals
- Beyond the Bathroom
- The Missing Madonna
- Outlaws: The Good Thief
- I’m Not Here To Hurt You
- Four Sides of Seamus Heaney
- Fall of Civilizations
- Sharing Plate
- The Reunion
- The Santiago Boys
- Where Should We Begin?
- Get Birding
- The Retrievals
- The Girlfriends
- The Crossbow Killer
- The Travel Diaries
- Pack Your Bags
- Into The Dirt
- Believe in Magic
- Call Jonathan Pie
- Martin Wolf on saving democratic capitalism
- Hard Fork
- Filthy Ritual
- Badger and the Blitz
- Rylan: How to Be a Man
- Archive on 4: Charles – the Making of a King
- The King's Garden
- Stone of Destiny
- Where Are You Going?
- Hands of Time
- A Very British Cult
- The Debutante
- Terri White: Finding Britain's Ghost Children
- 900 Degrees
- Cover Up: Ministry of Secrets
- Who Killed Aldrich Kemp?
- Shock and War: Iraq 20 Years On
- The Coldest Case in Laramie
- Amol Rajan Interviews
- The Rabbit Hole Detectives
- The Therapy Crouch
- Jermain Defoe: Outside the Box
- I Am Not Nicholas
- Why Women Grow
- The Last Soviet
- The Sound: Mystery of Havana Syndrome
- Havana Syndrome
- Weird Studies
- Dan Carlin's Hardcore History
- Love, Janessa
- The Director's Cut
- I'm Not a Monster
- Frozen Head
- Noble Blood
- Bone Valley
- The Evaporated
- Three Bean Salad
- My Therapist Ghosted Me
- This is Love
- Wolf and Owl
- My Dad Wrote a Porno
- The Studies Show
- They Like to Watch
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The documentary strand "Lights Out", made by the production company Falling Tree for BBC Radio 4, elevated sound design "to the realms of high art", said Fiona Sturges in the FT. Each of its 29 half-hour episodes (available on BBC Sounds) is a "small masterpiece of soundscaping and storytelling". One episode from 2019, "A Sense of Quietness", won the Prix Europa for best radio documentary. Now a sixth series has landed, and it is as impressive as its forerunners. In "Dead Ends", writer-producer Talia Augustidis uses the fragments of surviving audio of her mother, who died when Augustidis was three, to "create an intimate and moving collage of absence and loss". In "Dust", Icelandic writer Andri Snær Magnason and Scottish conceptual artist Katie Paterson explore the landscapes that have inspired their work. We hear the sounds of breaking waves, wind, the deep rumbling of a volcano and footsteps on snow; evocative music (by Phil Smith) drifts in and out. Listen via headphones for the full immersive effect; it is "simultaneously poetic and apocalyptic".
The Rest Is Entertainment
"Being intelligent about showbiz is usually a fast route to pretension," said James Marriott in The Times. That's emphatically not the case with "The Rest Is Entertainment", the latest, excellent, addition to Gary Lineker's empire of "The Rest Is…" podcasts. The new venture pairs Guardian columnist Marina Hyde with author and TV presenter Richard Osman, to discuss "showbiz, gossip, music and celebrity scandal". In lesser hands, such a "fluffy" and unfocused brief might lead to trouble. But Hyde and Osman are "superb". These are "smart people", and the tone is enjoyably "sarcastic and sceptical". Hyde is "hilarious", while Osman brings "insidery" insights from his years as a TV producer. Together, they provide listeners with a "practical, funny, well-informed guide to a mad and fascinating industry".
The journalist Tristan Redman's new podcast has an "unremarkable" title, but the tale "Ghost Story" tells is astonishing and gripping, said Fiona Sturges in the Financial Times. It's a haunted-house story, in that it begins with a Victorian house in London – Redman's childhood home – and sightings of a ghostly faceless woman. But it is also a real-life murder mystery: Redman discovers that in 1937 his wife's great-grandmother, Naomi Dancy, was killed in the house next door. She was shot in the face, supposedly by her brother, who had returned from the First World War with shrapnel in his brain. "I hesitate to reveal more, though I can tell you that there is a spy subplot and a cameo from the crime writer Dorothy L. Sayers." The podcast has many narrative strands, and features a series of jaw-dropping coincidences and connections, yet to his great credit, Redman holds it all together to create a "hopelessly addictive" treat.
Class of '88 with Will Smith
These days, Will Smith is known as the man who "wrecked the biggest moment of his life", said Miranda Sawyer in The Observer – pivoting in an instant from "beloved Oscar winner to out-and-out loser" by assaulting Chris Rock on stage at the Academy Awards ceremony last year. But before Smith even turned to acting he was a hip-hop star, one half of DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince ("Smith was the Fresh Prince, young 'uns"). Listening to his "tremendous" new podcast series about the music of that era, "Class of '88", there's no trace of the troubled actor. Instead, there's "laughter and warmth", and a mix of gossipy anecdotes – such as the time Smith went on a date with Pepa from Salt-N-Pepa – and more serious reflections on "what it felt like to be called a sellout". Featuring some stellar interviewees (Run DMC, Queen Latifah, Chuck D, Rick Rubin), this is a fascinating account of the era when rap broke through to the mainstream.
How to Win an Election
As an "ethically minded" critic, said James Marriott in The Times, I try to avoid reviewing shows by my "splendid and charming" colleagues. But it would be perverse and "foolish" to ignore "How to Win an Election", the terrific new politics podcast by The Times chaired by Matt Chorley, timed to lead us into an election year. The panel is made up of a trio of election strategists from the three main parties: Daniel Finkelstein, who has worked with several Tory leaders, Polly Mackenzie, who worked alongside Nick Clegg in Downing Street, and Labour's Peter Mandelson. Chorley sets a buoyant fast pace; Finkelstein brings his "political mega-brain" to proceedings; Mackenzie has a quick wit; and Mandelson slots in as a "drier, downbeat presence". What sets it apart from other political podcasts is that it's funny, with a bit of a "Have I Got News for You" vibe. "It's fantastic. I'm not just saying that."
Amid the deluge of horrific news from Israel and Gaza, podcasts are proving to be an "invaluable, and nimble, source of measured reporting", said Charlotte Runcie in The Daily Telegraph. The BBC has faced stinging criticism, from both sides, for its handling of the conflict. But I would strongly recommend a new podcast series, "The Conflict", from the broadcaster's superb chief international correspondent, Lyse Doucet. The 20-minute episodes offer expert and "fiercely immediate war reporting" that is "immersive, immediate, detailed and evocative".
Understand: Israel and the Palestinians
Similarly, Katya Adler's new daily explainer series "Understand: Israel and the Palestinians" (Radio 4) has "just been parachuted into the schedules at the last minute", said Charlotte Runcie in The Daily Telegraph. Like Doucet, Adler has "a depth of experience" gained as the BBC’s former Middle East correspondent and returns to explore the "social and political structure" of the region "she knows so well".
The Rest is Politics
Meanwhile Rory Stewart, on his "The Rest is Politics" podcast, gave "one of the most succinct and accessible, even-handed explanations of the history of the conflict that I've ever heard", said Charlotte Runcie in The Daily Telegraph. That was in "Episode 178: Israel at War", but several other recent episodes on the subject are also well worth listening to. "In a time of dehumanisation, violence and fear, listening to clear and insightful programmes like these feels like a way to hold onto a little more humanity, and a little more hope."
A Race Around the World
"A Race Around the World" tells the story of two intrepid American women, said Fiona Sturges in the FT. The first was Nellie Bly, a journalist who had made her name by going undercover as a patient at the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Roosevelt Island. In 1889, she pitched the idea to the New York World newspaper of trying to beat Phileas Fogg's (fictional) 80-day journey around the world, and within days had boarded a steamship to London. In response, Cosmopolitan convinced a reluctant staffer, Elizabeth Bisland, to try to beat her by heading round the other way. She was given six hours to pack before heading west for San Francisco. The podcast, produced and hosted by Adrien Behn, has a "novelistic feel", with dramatised bits that get a "little hammy" for my taste. Yet the tale, and the "propulsive storytelling", are "nonetheless gripping".
Keys to the Kingdom
A podcast about what it's like to work at a Disney theme park might sound niche, but "Keys to the Kingdom", a "cute and funny" new eight-part series from Apple, is a treat, said Miranda Sawyer in The Observer. The hosts, Amanda Lund and Matt Gourley, are a married couple who met working in the theme park business, and who offer many interesting anecdotes and tips of the trade. (To learn how Disney princesses are trained in how to stop "lecherous dads" grabbing them, listen in.) The series has great music, interesting interviews and an excellent script – and the way it's presented makes it all "light as a feather".
McCartney: A Life in Lyrics
A remarkable new podcast, "McCartney: A Life in Lyrics", consists of conversations between Paul McCartney and the Irish poet Paul Muldoon that were not originally intended for public consumption, said Fiona Sturges in the FT. The former Beatle granted Muldoon the interviews for their book "The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present", which came out two years ago. While "reflecting on his inspiration and artistic processes, McCartney ended up recalling snapshots from his life, making the book the closest to an autobiography he is likely to get" (he has always rejected the idea of writing one). Muldoon describes this podcast as "a masterclass, a memoir and an improvised journey" – a billing that "sounds a lot like hyperbole but turns out to be entirely accurate". McCartney is on charming, insightful and warmly enthusiastic form, and the series is rare among music podcasts in including lengthy excerpts of the songs under discussion – such are "the perks of interviewing a copyright-owning Beatle". All in all, it is a "triumph".
Since 2016, the US podcast series "Heavyweight" has won a loyal fanbase and has regularly featured on best-of lists, said Anna Leszkiewicz in The New Statesman. The set-up is that friends, acquaintances and listeners come to its host, the writer Jonathan Goldstein, with questions, "existential and eccentric", relating to feuds, regrets, estrangements, bereavements and so on. In response he offers emotional support and advice, interspersed with "comic personal tangents". The latest series kicks off with an episode in which Goldstein's own life takes centre stage: it focuses on his decision to contact his childhood best friend, Lenny, who he has heard is terminally ill. The show is compelling, funny and moving, its therapeutic qualities and heavy themes "tempered by Goldstein's wry cynicism".
Have You Heard George's Podcast?
George Mpanga's "beautiful, hard-hitting, wildly soundscaped" podcast – a thrilling blend of poetry, documentary, music and history – has been going for about five years now; yet "Have You Heard George's Podcast?" still has no imitators, said Miranda Sawyer in The Observer. In his new series, the Cambridge University-educated poet and rapper (aka George the Poet) looks at modern African history, with a specific focus on the independence movements of the 1960s and their legacies. "It's all immensely detailed, layered, subtle stuff, a little like Adam Curtis, though less conspiratorial." Mpanga, who was born in northwest London to Ugandan parents, makes these stories sing – to the "accompaniment of the BBC Concert Orchestra playing the compositions of his collaborator-in-sound, Benbrick". The series is "unmissable, as ever"; and perfectly timed for Black History Month.
A new series from Radio 4, "The Gift" is the "kind of radio that makes me sit in my parked car in rapt awe until it's over", said Charlotte Runcie in The Daily Telegraph. The gift in question is a home DNA-testing kit – often bought as a present for loved ones, letting them send off a saliva sample to an ancestry-tracing website. Some recipients merely discover that their family "really is 1% Spanish, as Great Auntie Beth always claimed". But others have their lives turned upside down by the secrets thus unearthed, and it is these gripping, sometimes chilling, tales that journalist Jenny Kleeman explores in this "important" show. One Australian man discovers that his father was a wanted killer who had escaped from prison in Nebraska decades before and started a new life Down Under. Other subjects learn that their families were the "victims of horrifying malpractice, and even fraud, at the hands of dishonest fertility doctors". It makes for an "utterly compelling" and at times "heart-rending" series.
"The Immortals" (BBC Sounds) is a "knotty but rewarding" tenparter about the frontiers of extreme longevity, said Patricia Nicol in The Sunday Times. Hosted by Aleks Krotoski, an American psychology and technology journalist, the series focuses on the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who are "heavily invested – monetarily and spiritually – in an industry predicted to be worth $600bn by 2025". Among the subjects is Bryan Johnson, the high-profile anti-ageing pioneer (and "potential narcissist") who spends about $2m a year trying to turn back time and "retell the origin story of the human race", as he immodestly puts it. The series becomes particularly gripping in episodes eight and nine, which explore the "sci-fi spectre of a 'post-human' AI-driven future when man and machine are merged". The series rather skirts over the ethics of all this, but in other respects "The Immortals" is both "thorough" and "thought-provoking".
Beyond the Bathroom
The interview podcast "Beyond the Bathroom", from beauty writer Sali Hughes, has returned for a new series, said Miranda Sawyer in The Observer. Not being much of a "beauty type", I had never listened to the show before – but I'm glad I tuned in. It turns out that the podcast doesn't just concern itself with make-up and skincare: it's about all aspects of appearance, so there is also detailed discussion of hair and clothes, both of which are "much more my bag". Hughes is a "warm" host, who has clearly done her research, and the new series kicks off with the "fabulous" author and TV presenter Candice Brathwaite. She proves a captivating guest, reminiscing about her "impeccably turned-out" grandfather, and reflecting on how her decision to get a very short hair crop had affected her life. "What a lovely, enlightening listen."
The Missing Madonna
"The true-crime murder podcast format has been done, quite literally, to death," said Charlotte Runcie in The Daily Telegraph. But if you're in the mood for something pacy, filled with "intrigue, plucky detective work, a criminal edge and an atmospheric setting", then "The Missing Madonna" – about Britain's biggest-ever art heist – fits the bill. In 2003, Leonardo da Vinci's "Madonna of the Yarnwinder" was stolen from Drumlanrig Castle, near Dumfries, by thieves who had disguised themselves as tourists to get into the castle – the seat of the Duke of Buccleuch – and escaped in a beaten-up old VW Golf. The story is "absolutely chock-full of bizarre twists and turns", and Olivia Graham tells it with "nous, verve, wonderment, and affection for the painting itself". It is also deeply personal: she's the daughter of the late Robbie Graham, the private investigator who managed to track down the painting. Listen to The Missing Madonna
Outlaws: The Good Thief
In the same genre, I can also recommend "Outlaws: The Good Thief" – a "wildly entertaining" account of the life and crimes of Vassilis Paleokostas, Greece's most notorious robber, said Fiona Sturges in the FT. In a refreshing contrast to the many podcasts that spotlight "grisly stories of abusers and killers", this one focuses on "a criminal who goes out of his way to avoid causing distress". Paleokostas, who has twice escaped from prison and remains at large, is a Robin Hood-style folk hero to many Greeks. He sees himself as a crusader against corruption, and once returned a stolen getaway car to its owner freshly washed and with cash under the carpet. The show is often entertaining: we hear, for instance, about the time he robbed a jewellers directly opposite a police station after padlocking the station's doors. But it's also a more serious portrait of entrenched poverty, inequality and the "celebration of the outsider". Listen to Outlaws: The Good Thief
I’m Not Here To Hurt You
There ought to be a special word, said Jenny McCartney in The Spectator, for that “vicarious fragility you feel when hearing of a minor decision with catastrophically heavy consequences”. In the case of John O’Hegarty – the subject of an “engrossing” new podcast called “I’m Not Here To Hurt You” – the catalyst for disaster was literally taking a wrong turn. An academic with a master’s degree in psychology, O’Hegarty was working as a bicycle courier in Dublin when he took a shortcut down a one-way street. He hit a pedestrian, a 56-year-old auctioneer called Roger Handy, who later died of his injuries. Unable to come to terms with what he had done, O’Hegarty became addicted to heroin and crack cocaine, and slid into a life of crime. Bearing a fake gun and a note that said “I am not here to hurt you or anyone else”, he carried out 16 bank robberies to fund his addictions, and eventually served eight years in prison. It’s a “gripping” tale, in which the academic-turned-robber comes across as frank and likeable. He has an “almost weary clarity that comes from having survived his own worst judgements, and those which others cast upon him”. Listen to I’m Not Here To Hurt You
Four Sides of Seamus Heaney
As a 21-year-old English literature student, I heard the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney read his own work at a book festival, and the experience affected me profoundly, said Charlotte Runcie in The Daily Telegraph. Not only a “literary genius, but a humane, generous person”, Heaney possessed a “strength of wisdom I’d never seen in anyone before or since”. To mark ten years since his death, Radio 4 is broadcasting “Four Sides of Seamus Heaney”. In the first episode of this “deeply beautiful” series, John Kelly looks at the geographical rootedness of Heaney’s work, and the role of his birthplace, Bellaghy in County Derry. The second episode features Heaney’s daughter, Catherine, discussing her father’s love poetry; the other two look at his poetry in response to the Troubles, and his role as a translator of other people’s work. Listen to Four Sides of Seamus Heaney
Fall of Civilizations
“Not many podcasts go for a haunting and melancholy vibe”, said James Marriott in The Times. “More should!” “Fall of Civilizations” is a terrific history podcast that’s been running since 2019, and which I’ve recently been listening to more and more. It’s about “collapsing empires, deposed kings, buried palaces, fading grandeur” – and it has a suitably moody and melancholic tone to go with it. The Romans feature, of course, as well as the Mayans, Aztecs, Byzantines, Assyrians, Incas and more. Host Paul Cooper is a “trove of haunting myths”. And if he “sometimes camps up the doomy seriousness of his narration a bit too much, you can’t blame him. He’s got some great stories to tell.” Listen to Fall of Civilizations
Although I don’t cook myself, said Rachel Cunliffe in The New Statesman, I find listening to those who really know their way around a kitchen to be “deeply soothing” – the “more exotic the food and immersive the sounds of chopping and sizzling, the better”. So it’s no surprise that I find “Sharing Plate” “to be the perfect wind-down podcast”. Unusually, the guests here are not “gourmet chefs or celebrity restaurateurs, but ordinary people in kitchens around the country”. All are refugees, who have fled war zones and civil conflict to make a new life in the UK, and they introduce host Lara Bishop to dishes, recipes and memories that connect them to their homelands and histories. “Sharing Plate” is a “travelogue for gourmands”: we hear of aloo bhazzi, the power of turmeric, the hours spent cooking Ugandan matoke. But it’s also about “suffering, family, faith, diversity, community and British identity. At the very least, it will teach you where to find the best avocados.” Listen to Sharing Plate
One of the very best Radio 4 programmes of recent decades, said Patricia Nicol in The Sunday Times, is “The Reunion”, which has returned to the airwaves with a “characteristically entertaining, revealing and knotty episode” on “Jerry Springer: The Opera”. The programme will shortly mark its 200th edition (the first 163 episodes were presented by Sue MacGregor; in 2020, Kirsty Wark took over). To celebrate this landmark, the whole back catalogue has been made available via BBC Sounds. “These include gripping, moving episodes on the Brighton hotel bombing and the siege of Sarajevo”, as well as lighter fare: there are episodes that reunite 1960s models, and the “Not the Nine O’Clock News” team. “I cannot recommend highly enough catching up with this series.” Listen to The Reunion
The Santiago Boys
At the start of “The Santiago Boys”, a “complex and rewarding” nine-part series about Salvador Allende – the 1970s socialist president of Chile who was ousted in a US-backed coup – Evgeny Morozov, the podcast’s host, warns us: “It might get dizzy at times. But I promise you, in the end, it will all make sense.” He’s right about the dizziness, said Fiona Sturges in the FT. The first episode is so jam-packed with incident – from the CIA’s attempts to block Allende’s election to a bomb blast at a tech company’s offices in Manhattan – that I had to listen several times to get my bearings. But, as promised, everything soon starts to make sense, and by the end “I felt ready to sit an exam on 20th century Latin American geopolitics”. This might not be one for those who prefer their pods in “small, digestible portions”. But the writing is smart and stylish, and the content often astonishing. “Like the best podcasts, it leaves you feeling a little bit cleverer for having heard it.” Listen to The Santiago Boys
Where Should We Begin?
“What could be more fun than gawping at other people’s bonkers, screwed-up marriages?” asked James Marriott in The Times. “Ahem, sorry. I mean, exploring the myriad complexities of human relationships, our doomed struggle to truly understand one another.” For those who like to get a glimpse of other people’s emotional turmoil, the good news is that Esther Perel’s acclaimed therapy podcast “Where Should We Begin?” is back for another series – this time weekly – and it’s as addictive as ever. Each episode consists of a taped session between the wonderfully wise Perel and a troubled couple or anguished individual. Some of the guests are so “emotionally intelligent and self-aware”, I start to feel like “a lumbering neanderthal” by comparison. Others have angered their partners in such outre ways (secretly donating their sperm to friends, for example) that it makes me “ashamed of my boring bourgeois existence”. But mainly, this “genuinely touching” podcast is about the very human business of “trying to love and be loved”, only to sometimes get it “magnificently wrong”. Listen to Where Should We Begin?
The nature podcast “Get Birding” is also back for a new run, said Miranda Sawyer in The Observer – and with a new presenter: Kwesia, the blogger known as City Girl in Nature. This is a “sweet” series, billed as “a podcast for birdwatchers and the bird-curious”, and for a “small show, it gets some top guests”. In one recent episode, actress Alison Steadman and US novelist Jonathan Franzen each went on walks with Kwesia, and talked to her about their love of birds. Steadman was delightful, especially about blackbirds (and treated listeners to a recitation of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”), while Franzen recalled once crying out with joy at the sight of a great hornbill. Listen to Get Birding
The mystery of the yeti – the legendary hairy bipedal beast with giant feet – has fascinated explorers, naturalists and folklorists for decades. In “Yeti”, an enjoyable new ten-part podcast from BBC Sounds, “gentleman-adventurer” Andrew Benfield and his “more sceptical pal” Richard Horsey travel to the Himalayan mountains of India, Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan to gather stories of yeti sightings, said Patricia Nicol in The Sunday Times. They explore the potential scientific evidence for such a creature, hear tales from mountaineers who have seen strange things on the high peaks, and photographed weird footprints, and talk to local people raised with yeti folklore. As a narrative series, “Yeti” is “arguably overlong and a tad contrived in places. But as an audio travelogue it is spectacular.” What makes it work are the “precise evocations of scenery, sounds and food... I can’t imagine anyone who has listened to this not adding Bhutan to a bucket list.” Listen to Yeti
I was surprised, said Patricia Nicol in The Sunday Times, to see that the latest “cerebral true crime documentary” from the New York Times-owned Serial Productions had climbed to the top of the UK podcast charts. On the face of it, “The Retrievals”, about a scandal at a fertility clinic at Yale, sounds like “a specifically American story”. But have a listen to this “beautifully produced, thought-provoking” series and you’ll soon realise that it’s a “gallingly universal story”. Women who underwent surgery for egg retrieval at the clinic, as part of their IVF treatment, experienced agonising pain, and were convinced that the fentanyl anaesthetic they’d been given had somehow failed, or been faulty. But they were disbelieved, their pain minimised and dismissed. Some wrongly concluded that they must be insensitive to fentanyl. Others “suffered in stoical silence, blaming themselves and their aberrant bodies”. But it turned out, we learn early in the first episode, that an addicted nurse had been siphoning off the fentanyl and injecting patients with saline instead. It’s a shocking story, compellingly told. Listen to The Retrievals
“The Girlfriends” is about an apparently highly eligible doctor, Bob Bierenbaum, who dated a string of women in Las Vegas in the 1990s, said Miranda Sawyer in The Observer. The women later compared notes, and started piecing together what might have happened to his missing-presumed-dead former wife. The series has a “haunting theme tune, and uses music and real-life atmosphere, along with great plotting, to help keep our interest. It’s all really well done.” Listen to The Girlfriends
The Crossbow Killer
“The Crossbow Killer”, about the murder of a retired lecturer in Anglesey, is even more “imaginative” – incorporating beautifully read poetry, and conjuring an atmosphere of subtle dread, said Miranda Sawyer in The Observer. This BBC Radio Wales show, produced by Overcoat Media, is “paced and realised” and reporters Tim Hinman and Meic Parry are “excellent”. The “gorgeous” Welsh accents of many of those speaking “have an effect, as does the sonic atmosphere”. Listen to The Crossbow Killer
The Travel Diaries
“The Travel Diaries” is a long-established travel podcast that’s like “Desert Island Discs” but “with places rather than records”, said Charlie Lindlar in The Guardian. In each episode, Holly Rubenstein meets a celebrity guest to discuss “the holiday spots that mean the most to them”, and the “bucket list locations” they hope to visit. Listen to The Travel Diaries
Pack Your Bags
“Much more ephemeral but no less addictive” is “Pack Your Bags”, in which comedian Russell Kane asks his guests what three things they can’t board a plane without, said Charlie Lindlar in The Guardian. Start with Candice Brathwaite’s tales of volunteering in India, or Sue Perkins on her fears of flying and sea sickness. “Of course, it can grate” to hear about the air miles the “rich and famous rack up in relative luxury”, but there’s also the “opportunity to rifle through the carry-ons of the rich and famous”. Listen to Pack Your Bags
For a “lo-fi and local” travel podcast, try “Ramblings”, said Charlie Lindlar in The Guardian. In this BBC Radio 4 series Clare Balding goes walking with “everyday heroes and famous guests” to explore off-the-beaten-track spots in this country. Whether it’s “trudging through Hackney Marshes” with Anita Rani, “roaming the beaches of Sheppey” or “discovering the hidden beauty of the Hebrides”, its “immersive” production and Balding’s “wholesome” commentary will transport you. Listen to Ramblings
The summer’s Ashes series has caught the public’s imagination like few cricketing contests of recent years. As a result, “Test Match Special” is “piling on the runs”, said Patricia Nicol in The Sunday Times – notching up record audiences on BBC Sounds. In podcast world, Alison Mitchell, TMS’s first female commentator, is also the “superbly assured host” of “Stumped”, a weekly survey of the international game from the BBC World Service. Listen to Stumped
Into The Dirt
How about this for an unusual career change? In the 1990s, said Fiona Sturges in the Financial Times, Rob Moore was a TV producer working on Chris Morris’s series Brass Eye, a slick media satire that pranked credulous politicians and celebrities. But he felt he’d hit a wall. “I basically know how to wire up a room and make something stupid happen in the middle of it, and that is a non-transferable skill,” he explains in “Into the Dirt”. But he was wrong: his skills were highly attractive to the corporate espionage sector, and this Tortoise podcast explores his work in it. At first, you think the podcast is going to be about “skulduggery in the asbestos industry”. But it’s “bigger and more compelling” than that. “It is about truth, perception and the stories people tell themselves to justify their actions.” Listen to Into The Dirt
Believe in Magic
With summer holidays beckoning, here are two of the most bingeable podcasts of the year so far, said The Guardian. Anyone who became addicted to Jamie Bartlett’s hit “The Missing Cryptoqueen” will race through “Believe in Magic”. This “multi-layered mystery” unpicks the story of Megan Bhari, a teenager who, inspired by her own cancer diagnosis, launched a charity in conjunction with her mother that granted wishes for desperately ill children. It’s a murky, complex and ultimately tragic tale. Listen to Believe in Magic
Call Jonathan Pie
With the honourable exception of “The Skewer”, the late-night hit that has just returned for a new run, I have often “despaired” at the toothlessness of BBC radio comedy, said Patricia Nicol in The Sunday Times. “Call Jonathan Pie”, however, is a welcome step up in quality. Indeed, to my ears it’s the “most consistent, compelling satire and sitcom to have been aired by the BBC this decade”. The creation of actor Tom Walker, Jonathan Pie is a “choleric” political hack who “rants blisteringly off-camera” before delivering “anodyne, equivocating” pieces on screen. He has already developed an online following owing to clips posted on social media. The set-up for this ten-part BBC Sounds series is that Pie has been parachuted in as a late-night radio phone-in host – which enables him to range freely over a variety of contemporary talking points. “Sharply observed and close to the knuckle (especially about the BBC), it is a spoof that speaks truth to power.” Listen to Call Jonathan Pie
Martin Wolf on saving democratic capitalism
For an intellectually bracing take on the world’s problems, “serious-minded listeners” should not miss “Martin Wolf on saving democratic capitalism”, said James Marriott in The Times. To non-economists, Wolf’s writing in the Financial Times can seem a bit dry – but he proves a “charismatic talker”. In the opening episode, he surveys the crises of capitalist democracies across the world, focusing on how wealth inequalities fostered by unchecked markets can destabilise governments. In search of a resolution, he talks to Hillary Clinton, the sociologist Larry Diamond and the journalist Anne Applebaum, conversations that are “enlivened by Wolf’s honest pessimism”. His family’s history, as refugees from Nazi Germany, is a reminder to him that “there is no bottom to which politics can go if they get sufficiently demented”. This is “superb broadcasting”. Listen to Martin Wolf on saving democratic capitalism
The hottest of hot-button issues right now is the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), said Emma Dibdin in The New York Times. The NYT’s own series “Hard Fork”, in which reporter Kevin Roose reflects on his memorably disconcerting Valentine’s Day encounter with a rogue chatbot, is one of several tech podcasts covering the subject. Others worth seeking out include “Radiotopia Presents: Bot Love”, which also focuses on human relationships with AI companions; and “In Machines We Trust”, from the MIT Technology Review, a weekly examination of how modern life is being transformed by AI. In addition, the long established “Tech Won’t Save Us” podcast has been dominated by AI topics of late. “For anyone alarmed by all of the widespread predictions about AI swallowing whole entire job sectors, the show’s measured coverage might prove reassuring.”
If “Filthy Ritual” were a work of fiction, you’d “think it too far-fetched”, said Fiona Sturges in the FT. This riveting new series tells the astonishing story of Juliette D’Souza, who in 2014 was jailed for conning “well-to-do Londoners” out of hundreds of thousands of pounds. D’Souza had gained the confidence of her victims by “telling them – and stay with me here – that she was a shaman who had a special connection to a source of power deep in the Amazon rainforest”. The series delves into themes of class, wealth and coercion – and thanks to the clever storytelling of hosts Suruthi Bala and Hannah Maguire (the duo behind the hit true-crime podcast “RedHanded”), it is “wonderfully addictive”. Wryly funny, yet underpinned by tragedy, this is, “by some distance, the best podcast I’ve heard this year”. Listen to Filthy Ritual
Badger and the Blitz
“Drama is the hardest, most labour intensive audio to get right,” said Miranda Sawyer in The Observer, but Fun Kids (the children’s radio station that also hosts The Week Junior podcast) consistently nails it. Its latest success, “Badger and the Blitz”, is an “engaging and slickly produced” podcast set in the first few weeks of the Second World War, when hundreds of thousands of household pets were put down over fears of impending food shortages. (It didn’t help that many owners mistakenly believed that the government had ordered a cull.) The story centres on 11-year-old Jack, who runs away with his dog Badger, rather than see her put to sleep. Devon Francis is “great” as Jack, and the “always fab” Kerry Godliman narrates. Listen to Badger and the Blitz
Rylan: How to Be a Man
The TV presenter Rylan Clark, he of the sparkling white “gnashers” and glowing tan, started out as an “overwrought comedy contestant” on “The X Factor”, said Patricia Nicol in The Sunday Times. A decade on, he’s in demand on TV and radio – a “mononym star”, billed simply as Rylan. As someone who finds this “stratospheric” rise a touch perplexing, I approached “Rylan: How to Be a Man”, in which he talks to 10 high-profile people about their notions of manliness, with a degree of cynicism. But it’s a belter: a thoughtful, and at times moving and inspiring, podcast about masculinity. Guests include boxer Amir Khan, comedian Phil Wang, the “popinjay interiors guru” Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, and Jake Daniels, the UK’s only openly gay male professional footballer. Clark has a gift for putting them at ease, and “then – often half-joking – asking probing questions that elicit candid answers”. Teenagers might find some of it embarrassing to listen to with a parent, but many might be “grateful to be steered towards it”. Listen to Rylan: How to Be a Man
“Promenade”, an “elegantly produced” podcast about memories, and the role they play in shaping us, is back for a welcome second season, said Fiona Sturges in the FT. Curated by Andy Gaffney, the show offers “beguiling” self-portraits in which individuals “reflect on the sounds, sights and smells that transport them to different times”. We meet, for example, Peter Pallai, a Hungarian Jew, who as a boy was kept hidden by “courageous gentiles” and survived the Holocaust, unlike many members of his family. Pallai describes hearing Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” being played through a window of his apartment building at the end of the War. “I had never heard anything that beautiful before. It gave me a powerful feeling of peace having broken out. There would be no more killing, no more danger, no more hiding.” Ranging widely across the world, from Australia to Jamaica to Ireland, the “episodes are short – between three and 15 minutes – but rich in detail and atmosphere”. Listen to Promenade
From BBC Sounds, “Vishal” is “almost too sad, I suspect, for some listeners to contemplate”, said James Marriott in The Times. It is about the case of Vishal Mehrotra, an eight-year-old boy who disappeared near his home in southwest London on the day of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer’s wedding in the summer of 1981, and whose remains were found months later in woods in West Sussex. “The juxtaposition of tragedy and celebration is eerie”, and the shockwaves the crime sent through the wider community are conveyed with “startling immediacy”. What sets this sensitive podcast apart from the “more garish examples of the true-crime genre” is the involvement of Vishal’s half-brother, Suchin Mehrotra, who is the host of the initial episodes. “If you’re going to do true crime, do it like this.” Listen to Vishal
Archive on 4: Charles – the Making of a King
In the run-up to the coronation, the BBC broadcast three “brilliant” programmes that are well worth seeking out on BBC Sounds, said Charlotte Runcie in The Daily Telegraph. In the “fascinating” “Archive on 4: Charles – the Making of a King”, Sarah Montague explored the King’s life through archive recordings and interviews with his friends and contemporaries. Montague struck a “sensitive balance”, taking in the “very human ups and downs of his life” in a way that was “refreshing and illuminating”. Listen to Archive on 4: Charles – the Making of a King
The King's Garden
“The King’s Garden” was a behind-the-scenes tour of Charles’s beloved gardens at Highgrove, his private home in Gloucestershire, said Charlotte Runcie in The Daily Telegraph. Presenter Zoe Ball led the way “briskly” through the Highgrove gardens, interviewing people who work there and a “few famous friends of the garden and of the King”, including Monty Don and Pam Ayres, who “love to visit”. Listen to The King’s Garden
Stone of Destiny
I’ll tell you what is “a good story”, said Charlotte Runcie in The Daily Telegraph, and that’s the story of “perhaps the most significant heist in Scottish history” – the removal of the Stone of Scone from Westminster Abbey to Scotland in 1950 by four Glasgow University students. In “Stone of Destiny” – a “nimble history” of the Stone of Scone – the 24-year-old Scottish poet Len Pennie explores a “sometimes controversial topic” with “clarity, confidence, authority, and articulate verve”. It’s a “perfect blend of the past and the contemporary”. Listen to Stone of Destiny
Where Are You Going?
Catherine Carr, the host of the terrific new podcast “Where Are You Going?”, is “living my dream”, said James Marriott in The Times: “approaching strangers at random and asking them what’s up”. It’s a high-risk strategy, but Carr is very charming; she knows “how to tickle people politely into opening up” – and her encounters are touching and funny. Interviewees include a Liverpudlian shopkeeper, a “jolly conservator cleaning the door of Ely Cathedral, a nice lady who’s just been for a dip in the River Cam in February”, and a farmer who tells her about his love of Friesian cows. What’s striking is “how many conversational habits” turn out to be “shared by Britons of all classes and counties: irony, self-deprecation, a sort of rueful cheeriness”. This podcast “demonstrates that there really is such a thing as a British national character. And what a beguiling thing it can be.”
Hands of Time
A Book of the Week on Radio 4, “Hands of Time” is an engrossing account of the history of timekeeping by the watchmaker Rebecca Struthers, said Rachel Cunliffe in The New Statesman. It proved a “mesmerising, almost hypnotic listen, thanks both to the spellbinding voice of its reader Phoebe Pryce, and the gloriously detailed account from Struthers of her workshop and vocation”. The author, who is also a historian with a PhD in horology, tells the story of humanity’s attempts to measure and make sense of time; she explains how our 24-hour day is probably the result of “humans counting with their fingerbones (eight fingers, three knuckles on each) and why we owe our 60-minute hours to the Sumerians 5,000 years ago”. The five short episodes make up just an hour and 15 minutes in total: and they are “well worth your time”. Listen to Hands of Times
A Very British Cult
We appear to be entering a “podcasting dark age”, in which all the big money goes into producing “inane celebrity pap”, said James Marriott in The Times. So thank goodness for BBC Sounds, which is “still doing proper, old-fashioned, long-form podcasting”. Its latest offering, “A Very British Cult”, is the story of Lighthouse, a sort of self-help business cult “that lures its adherents into ‘investing’ thousands of pounds in various vague schemes” on the promise that they will deliver riches and spiritual enlightenment in equal measure. The podcast is hosted by journalist Catrin Nye, and co-written by Jamie Bartlett, the reporter behind the acclaimed investigative podcast “The Missing Cryptoqueen”. It’s gripping stuff – and “extra creepy because we can hear all the footage of what happened: every single mad call has been recorded” because Lighthouse chairman Paul S. Waugh thinks his teachings should be preserved. Listen to A Very British Cult
Jon Ronson’s 2021 series “Things Fell Apart” – featuring the “origin stories of the culture wars” – was superb. And his new series for Audible, “The Debutante”, is looking just as promising, said Jude Rogers in The Observer. It tells the story of Carol Howe, a white supremacist who became a US intelligence informant – and whose tip-off about a far-right terror plot to blow up a federal building was ignored by the authorities. Months later, in April 1995, the Oklahoma City bombing killed 168 people and injured at least 680. Ronson’s “wide-eyed approach” works because he never sensationalises his subjects, and because he tackles them with journalistic rigour. He tracks down Howe’s old friends, her ex-boyfriends and archive recordings to investigate her story, while leaving “some threads tantalisingly untied. All ten episodes have been released simultaneously. I can confirm the first two are brilliant.” Listen to The Debutante
Terri White: Finding Britain's Ghost Children
Halfway through the first episode of “Terri White: Finding Britain’s Ghost Children”, I burst into tears in the middle of my open-plan office, said Rachel Cunliffe in The New Statesman. When its presenter, Terri White, was a child, her school was a sanctuary from the physical and sexual abuse inflicted by her mother’s various partners. Her outstanding five-part series for BBC Radio 5 Live (which is available as a podcast on BBC Sounds) looks at what happened when countless vulnerable children had their sanctuaries taken away, owing to schools closing for long periods during the lockdowns. Three years on, up to 100,000 children have still not returned to school. What’s happened to them? How much harm have they suffered in that time? And why is no serious effort being made to find them? “It’s a travesty that this series needed to be made at all. But the least we can do is listen to it, however harrowing that might be.” Listen to Terri White: Finding Britain's Ghost Children
At the start of his “remarkable” new series “900 Degrees”, Mobeen Azhar cautions that “this story goes to some hellish places”. Podcast enthusiasts will be used to colourful warnings of this kind, said Fiona Sturges in the FT, but here, it’s fully warranted. The series is about the fire that broke out on 11 May 1985 at Bradford City’s Valley Parade football ground, killing 56 people and injuring hundreds more. Azhar, who is known for his widely praised series “Hometown: A Killing”, about the heroin trade in Huddersfield, speaks to those present on that terrible day in Bradford, including fans, reporters and police. It is the “remarkable story of a shattering and seemingly avoidable tragedy”, and it can be harrowing. Later episodes focus on the (seemingly) credible theory, held by some survivors, that the fire was started deliberately. “I had to pause a few times and take a breath.”
Cover Up: Ministry of Secrets
The disappearance of the celebrated Royal Navy frogman Lionel “Buster” Crabb during Nikita Khrushchev’s state visit to the UK in 1956 remains one of the last great mysteries of the Cold War, said Patricia Nicol in The Sunday Times. Famed for his “derring-do”, Crabb was sent on a night-time mission to Portsmouth Harbour, and entered the water close to the Soviet cruiser that had brought Khrushchev to Britain. The press speculated that he had been kidnapped by the Russians; but the prime minister, Anthony Eden, refused to disclose anything about Crabb’s presumed death; and the official papers won’t be released until 2057. In a terrific new series exploring this “ripping yarn”, “Cover Up: Ministry of Secrets”, the historian Giles Milton draws us into a postwar world in which “salty old sea dogs” rubbed shoulders with “dysfunctional spooks and stiff Whitehall mandarins”. It’s a “first-rate” podcast, beautifully produced.
Who Killed Aldrich Kemp?
Britain has “long excelled at the upper-class spy mystery”, with “well-spoken heroes and dubious baddies delivering twists and quips with vim and hilarity”, said Miranda Sawyer in The Observer. BBC Radio 4’s “Who Killed Aldrich Kemp?”, a five-part sequel to last year’s terrific “Who Is Aldrich Kemp?”, is an audio example of the genre – and “just the tonic for rainy weekends or the horribleness of news”. Novice spy and champion fencer Clara Page (Phoebe Fox) has disguised herself as an air hostess to go in pursuit of a Venezuelan assassin. Written by Julian Simpson, it’s as “daft” and enjoyable as the first instalment. The acting is great (the crack cast includes Nicola Walker and Kyle Soller); and the audio design is really superb, with sound effects interplayed to create moments that made me “laugh out loud. It’s joyous.”
The audio artist Kaitlin Prest was responsible for “one of the most powerful and intimate podcasts I’ve heard”, said Fiona Sturges in the FT. No was an autobiographical mini-series about sexual boundaries and consent. Prest’s latest project under the same “The Heart” banner is “Sisters”, and it is another triumph – a “complex, inventive and richly textured” portrait of “the trials and tribulations” of sibling love. The five-part series traces Prest’s relationship with her younger sister, Natalie, from their childhood rivalries to Prest’s more recent experience of supporting Natalie through mental health difficulties. “Prest has built a career out of turning deeply personal stories into clever and affecting audio narratives” and “Sisters is up there with her best”.
Shock and War: Iraq 20 Years On
“Shock and War: Iraq 20 Years On”is an example of BBC programme-making at its finest, said Charlotte Runcie in The Daily Telegraph. Hosted by Gordon Corera, the corporation’s security correspondent, it provides an “outstanding” overview of the Iraq War and its legacies, based on “astonishing access to the major players”. I’m generally sceptical of podcasts where the host claims to be “obsessed” with the topic at hand, but with Corera, “you really believe it”. His “deeply informed” series splices “sharp” new interviews – with the likes of Tony Blair and the former heads of MI5 and MI6 – with archive recordings of his own on-the-ground reports from the time. The series ends up feeling “not like the first draft of history, but something approaching the whole story”. In one astonishing moment, we listen in to a reunion of UN weapons inspectors as they reminisce with amusement “about the time they descended on a site that they had been assured by intelligence services was a mobile weapons lab, but that turned out to be an abandoned ice-cream van full of cobwebs”.
The Coldest Case in Laramie
“Serial”, the much-lauded US podcast strand that pioneered long-form non-fiction storytelling, is back with an excellent new true-crime series, said Miranda Sawyer in The Observer. On the surface, “The Coldest Case in Laramie” is standard fare. The host is a journalist, Kim Barker, who is investigating a strange case from her hometown in Wyoming – the unsolved murder of a 22-year-old local woman named Shelli Wiley. But here’s the twist: everyone in the town “says they know who did it”. And the person they accuse, a former Laramie police officer, was even charged at one point. “So why is he still free?” As Barker delves into the story, this “cops-protecting-their-own yarn develops into something sadder and more infuriating”. It’s a “gripping but subtle” programme about memory, bias and hope.
Amol Rajan Interviews
It can sometimes feel as though Amol Rajan has “embarked on a bold attempt to present every programme on every channel of the BBC, satellite or terrestrial, radio or telly”, said James Marriott in The Times. The only thing he seemed to be missing was a regular interview podcast – but now he has got one of those, too. And, with apologies to his detractors, “Amol Rajan Interviews” is excellent. As an interviewer, Rajan’s great gift is his ability to make questions that might appear “off-puttingly brutal and confrontational coming from another journalist” sound instead like “cheeky digressions”. What do you think of Steve Jobs’s claim that you weren’t creative and just “ripped off other people’s ideas”, he asks Bill Gates – and “somehow makes it sound like a compliment”. And his interview with a surprisingly giggly Greta Thunberg is a “subtle masterclass in reconciling the competing demands of podcasting (friendly, listenable chat) with the demands of old-school BBC big beastery (asking tough questions)”.
The Rabbit Hole Detectives
“The Rabbit Hole Detectives” is a “delightful” new podcast, about arcane knowledge and entertaining trivia, from a somewhat unlikely trio, said Charlotte Runcie in The Daily Telegraph. The broadcaster (and former pop star) the Reverend Richard Coles turns out to be an old friend of Earl Spencer, the historian who is here styled Charles Spencer. The pair have teamed up with Norwegian archaeologist Dr Cat Jarman, whom Spencer met when she was excavating a Roman villa on his Althorp estate. Together, they have produced an “unashamedly posh and highbrow” – and “completely beguiling” – podcast, in which each of the three researches a topic and then brings back their findings. The first episode features the history of time zones, seaside bathing and paperclips. A bit “like a dinner party where everyone has something to say and is full of vim”, it is a “slightly surreal, otherworldly universe of friendship, anecdote and experience” – and is “immensely cheering”.
The Therapy Crouch
Retired footballers used to get into punditry or buy a pub, said Patricia Nicol in The Sunday Times. Now they start a podcast. Former England striker Peter Crouch blazed a trail with his “That Peter Crouch Podcast”– and he is now hosting a new one, “The Therapy Crouch”, with his “funny, likeable” Liverpudlian wife, Abbey Clancy. With a nod to the “winning formula” of Chris and Rosie Ramsey’s “Sh**ged. Married. Annoyed”, Crouch and Clancy have a “weekly w(h)ine”. The podcast charts suggest there is “room for both” – in fact, “someone should send these podcasting couples on holiday together”.
Jermain Defoe: Outside the Box
“Jermain Defoe: Outside the Box” is a fly-on-wall series following another former England striker as he seeks to establish a career as a manager. Defoe’s interviewees all agree that it’s harder for black footballers to climb the managerial ladder, which makes him question his dream. It is a “probing, insightful” series, in which Defoe speaks with open-hearted frankness, said Patricia Nicol in The Sunday Times.
I Am Not Nicholas
It is hard for a criminal to simply vanish these days, said Patricia Nicol in The Sunday Times. “Smartphones, exercise trackers, log-ins and credit cards betray our every move.” But some people try – and, at least for a while, succeed. “I Am Not Nicholas” is a “knock-out” new podcast that untangles the “bizarre, chilling” story of an Irish-born academic, Arthur Knight, who ended up in a coma on a Covid ward in Glasgow in December 2021. As he recovered, police arrived with an international arrest warrant. They claimed the patient was not Knight, but Nicholas Rossi, a 35-year-old convicted US sex offender who had faked his own death, and was wanted in Utah for two rapes. The “knotty” tale of what happened next is “told with verve, occasional vitriolic glee and tremendous candour” by the investigative journalist Jane MacSorley, who got to know Knight/Rossi. “I binged all nine episodes in a day.”
Why Women Grow
In “Why Women Grow”, the journalist and author Alice Vincent talks to assorted gardeners – some professional, some not, but all women – about their “relationship with nature”. In doing so, she coaxes from them “profound reflections on heritage, identity, memory and the yearning for a different way of life”, said Fiona Sturges in the FT. The podcast is recorded outdoors, and there’s something invigorating about the sounds of the outside world – buzzing insects, birdsong, chickens...
The Last Soviet
Space exploration is often a “brilliant topic” for podcasts, said Miranda Sawyer in The Observer, and “The Last Soviet”is a cracker. This intriguing new series tells the story of cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, who in 1991 was alone on the Mir space station as the Soviet Union was collapsing. Krikalev, married with a baby daughter, was given a choice: either return to Earth in his re-entry capsule – thus abandoning the space station to orbit without a crew – or stay aboard until political events stabilised. Krikalev chose the latter, and ended up spending 313 days alone in space. The podcast’s presenter is Lance Bass, a member of the 1990s boyband NSync (with Justin Timberlake). But Bass is no “random celebrity host”: it turns out that on a six-month break from the chart-topping group, he trained with the Russians to be a cosmonaut. That might sound bizarre, but it’s not even “the most astonishing part” of this irresistible show, which is packed with “starship detail”, social and political context, and strange tales of “mad scientific nuttiness”.
The Sound: Mystery of Havana Syndrome
“You know how it is,” said Fiona Sturges in the FT. “You wait ages for a podcast on Havana syndrome, the mysterious phenomenon that left scores of US diplomats in Cuba with neurological problems, and then two come along at once.” “The Sound: Mystery of Havana Syndrome” is a “terrific” eight-parter from Nicky Woolf, the British journalist behind Finding Q, an excellent podcast about the QAnon conspiracy theorists. This one tells a similarly “knotty” story – of espionage and geopolitical strife, with elements of conspiracy theory. Woolf speaks to neurologists, political analysts and sound experts, and uses “chilling sound effects” to convey the experiences of those affected by the strange high-pitched noises.
The second one, “Havana Syndrome”, is the work of journalists Jon Lee Anderson and Adam Entous, who began their investigations for an article in The New Yorker in 2018. “While their series doesn’t have the lyricism and stylishness of Woolf’s, it is no less gripping and authoritative.”
Podcasts are enjoying a “golden age” of big budgets and soaring production values, said James Marriott in The Times. But when I feel in need of a fix of “proper old-school podcasting”, “I turn to Weird Studies”, which started in 2018 but which has “the spirit of an older era”. Hosted by the American academic Prof Phil Ford and the Canadian writer J.F. Martel, it is an “unclassifiable” show that ranges freely over social criticism, music, literature and pop culture. Listening to Ford and Martel is “like bumping into two of your inspirational professors who are slightly stoned at the end of a party”. They are “somewhat pretentious”, but also enthusiastic and delightfully erudite. “For a flavour of something different, older, less produced, less filtered, it’s unbeatable.”
Dan Carlin's Hardcore History
A few weeks ago, said James Marriott in The Times, I wrote a column about my devotion to “The Rest Is History”. Since then, I’ve been swamped by emails from fellow fans, many of them recommending an American podcast called “Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History”. So now I’m recommending it, too. It’s not for the faint-hearted: most episodes run to five or six hours, and the tone is decidedly “macho”. But for lovers of “military history, drama and violence” it’s a rare treat. Each of Carlin’s lengthy monologues, delivered in his inimitable “barroom growl”, is a “miniature epic of condensed research, brisk narrative and humour”. I’ve been listening to the episode called Supernova in the East, a survey of Japanese militarism in the 20th century. The total running time, spread across five episodes, is 27 hours. See, I told you it was hardcore.
The online romance fraud known as catfishing offers fertile ground for podcasters, said Fiona Sturges in the FT. Tortoise Media’s hit “Sweet Bobby” documented a decade-long con in which a woman was duped into thinking she was in a serious relationship with a handsome cardiologist. And the new CBC/BBC podcast “Love, Janessa” is a “queasily addictive” tale that “easily equals” it. Its host is Hannah Ajala, a British journalist based in Ghana who sets out to track down Janessa Brazil, a “toned, tanned woman... whose photo has become the bait for scores of catfishing scams”. Ajala meets the scammed and the scammers, including Ghanaian swindlers known as “sakawa boys”. Through smart storytelling and “seriously dogged reporting”, the podcast builds to a “remarkable conclusion” that I won’t spoil. “What I can say is that the series rarely goes where you think it will and never loses sight of its humanity. In the realms of true crime, these are rare qualities indeed.”
The Director's Cut
There’s no shortage of great film podcasts, said Ann Lee in The Guardian. “The Director’s Cut” features interviews with world-famous directors about their latest releases, often conducted by other high-profile directors. Recent episodes have featured Guillermo del Toro chatting to James Cameron (about his “Avatar” sequel), and Greta Gerwig talking to Todd Field (about “Tár”). This podcast gives a “vital glimpse” into what it takes to make a film, featuring some “wonderful behind-the-scenes stories”.
I'm Not a Monster
The “superb first series of ‘I’m Not a Monster’ was one of the best podcasts the BBC has made”, said James Marriott in The Times. Presented by Josh Baker, it was about Samantha Sally, an “all-American mom who took the not very all-American step of joining Islamic State and moving her entire family to the caliphate”. The subject of the second series is Shamima Begum, one of a trio of schoolgirls who left their homes in east London in 2015 to join the jihadist terror group. Stripped of her British citizenship in 2019, Begum is now 23, stateless, and living in limbo in a camp in northern Syria. Her story is much better known than Sally’s. Yet this series is shaping up to be every bit as dramatic and gripping as the first. We’re told that Baker will meet “terrorists, spies and Isis members”. But so far it is his revealing interviews with Begum herself that really “transfix”. On the evidence so far, this “looks like it could be a classic in the making. I’m excited.”
“Frozen Head”, a new six-parter from Wondery, explores the strange world of cryonics, said Fiona Sturges in the FT. Its focus is on the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, an American non-profit group founded in 1972, which freezes the heads of deceased clients in readiness for a future in which (they hope) it will be possible to defrost them and attach them to a young body. The hosts are Alaina Urquhart and Ash Kelley, the “wisecracking duo” behind “Morbid”. And like that podcast, “Frozen Head” “knows how to tell a story, and delights in the gorier aspects of its subject matter”. Listeners may feel “squeamish” at times, but the presenters’ “jolly, jokey tone” works well – “underlining as it does the madcap optimism, egotism and absurdity of individuals wanting to have their brains frozen in a quest for eternal life”. For a podcast about death, “Frozen Head” is surprisingly fun.
If the latest twists in the Harry and Meghan saga have given you a taste for royal ructions, the US podcast “Noble Blood” could be for you, said Emma Dibdin in The New York Times. The past few years of royal news “have been a roller-coaster by modern standards”, but they “pale in comparison to the tales of betrayal and beheadings from centuries past”. Some of the sagas covered here, such as the massacre of the Romanov family in 1918 and the fates of Henry VIII’s wives, will be quite familiar to many listeners. The presenter, author Dana Schwartz, is terrifically entertaining, and she never delivers a “rote version of their stories”. Even so, the more compelling episodes tend to be “those that focus on obscure figures”, such as “the fearsome Russian empress Anna Ioannovna, who constructed a palace out of ice, which she then used as a torture chamber”.
Here is a real treat for “all you fans of true-crime-cold-case-clue-by-clue-to-the-truth podcasts”, said Miranda Sawyer in The Observer. “Bone Valley” is about the 1987 murder of an 18-year-old from Florida called Michelle Schofield. Despite a lack of either physical or eyewitness evidence, her husband Leo – then 21 – was convicted of the crime, and 35 years later, he remains behind bars. This is “not one of those true-crime shows that starts brilliantly and then falls away because the investigator can’t track down the real perpetrator”, or finds them but isn’t able to interview them. In the course of this “gripping” nine-parter, the Pulitzer-winning journalist Gilbert King and his colleague Kelsey Decker not only identify the real killer and extract a confession – they also extract a second confession related to a separate unsolved murder. “Dogged and meticulous, with a spine of moral certainty, it makes other true-crime podcasts look lazy” by comparison.
A fascinating new podcast, “The Evaporated”, has elements of true crime, said Fiona Sturges in the FT. Concerning the thousands of people who deliberately disappear in Japan each year, it starts with the case of Morimoto, an accountant who’d been embezzling funds. But the podcast isn’t really focused on solving such cases: it explores why people feel the need to vanish, and how they do it. In Japan, this can involve engaging the services of a “yonige-ya”, or “night-moving company”. In the second episode we hear from Miho Saita, whose business “helps people find new homes and jobs, organises the removal of their belongings and assists them in creating a new identity”.
Three Bean Salad
As we head into what could be a difficult new year, the cult comedy podcast “Three Bean Salad” offers a “shaft of daft light amid the gloom”, said Patricia Nicol in The Sunday Times. Each week, the three comedians in question – Mike Wozniak, Benjamin Partridge (the star of the terrific “Beef and Dairy Network”) and Henry Paker (who writes for “Mock the Week”) – riff on a different theme suggested by their listeners.
My Therapist Ghosted Me
“My Therapist Ghosted Me” is from Irish duo Joanne McNally and Vogue Williams, said The Sunday Times. When McNally’s therapist dropped her and stopped answering her calls, the “unqualified” Williams committed to a weekly session, resulting in this warm, funny podcast.
The American podcast “Bananas” is the place to go for quirky, funny and frankly bizarre stories from around the world, said Ann Lee in The Guardian. The topics discussed by comedians Scotty Landes and Kurt Braunohler (plus their celebrity guests) include a Russian man who was “trapped” on a Chinese reality show after joining a boy band, and a footballer who was fired for flatulence.
This is Love
“This is Love” is hosted by Phoebe Judge and produced by the creators of true-crime hit “Criminal”. It features heartwarming stories about love, friendship and family that will “reaffirm your faith in humanity”, said Ann Lee in The Guardian. Some may move you to tears.
Wolf and Owl
The British podcast “Wolf and Owl” offers an hour of “random musings, funny anecdotes and sage advice” from hosts Tom Davis and Romesh Ranganathan, who also answer emails from listeners, said Ann Lee in The Guardian. There’s “great chemistry and real warmth” between the two comedians, who “frequently struggle to contain themselves because they’re laughing too much” – and you will, too.
My Dad Wrote a Porno
Having delighted its fans for seven years, the “uproariously funny” “My Dad Wrote a Porno” “reached its climax” in December, said Fiona Sturges in the FT. For the uninitiated, it features TV writer Jamie Morton reading out extracts from his father’s atrocious erotic fiction, self-published under the nom de plume Rocky Flintstone, and centring on the sexual exploits of a travelling saleswoman named Belinda Blumenthal. As Morton reads out his father’s excruciating prose, his long-time friends Alice Levine and James Cooper provide “gleefully horrified commentary”. Even in the series’s “final throes of ecstasy, there is still comedy gold in Flintstone’s mangled prose”: if you’ve never tried the podcast before, you’re in for a treat.
The Studies Show
“Made-up science is generally much more exciting and dramatic than real science,” said James Marriott in The Times – and “the alarmist misinterpretation of scientific studies is one of the great joys of journalism”. Alas, the science writers Tom Chivers and Stuart Ritchie are “here to ruin our fun” with a terrific new podcast, “The Studies Show”, a “Rest-Is-History-but-for-science-style” affair in which they untangle fact from fiction with “wit and passion”. The podcast’s title is a punning reference to a “classic genre” of newspaper article: “studies show that... eating squirrel meat can reduce dementia”; studies show that… “drinking three glasses of vodka a day improves cognitive function” and so on. Early episodes look at media coverage of the weight-loss drug Ozempic (much of it overly sceptical, the pair agree), and the “quasi-magical” benefits attributed to breastfeeding (wildly over-egged). Ritchie and Chivers are funny, have a “great rapport”, and “I very much enjoyed how nerdily cross about bad science they are”.
They Like to Watch
Podcasting is “not short of pop culture shows telling us what we should be watching or listening to”, said Fiona Sturges in the FT. But “They Like to Watch”, from British broadcaster Geoff Lloyd and American comedian Sara Barron, is well worth a listen. It’s essentially a TV-review show with added interviews, and is “loose, freewheeling and frequently filthy”. The duo, who are a married couple, quickly gained an audience for their previous “Firecrotch & Normcore” podcast, which indulged their shared passion for the TV show “Succession”. By the time the “HBO juggernaut” came to a halt in May, the pod was pulling in top-drawer guests including series writers Jesse Armstrong and Lucy Prebble, and had expanded into live shows. Their new podcast has “hit the ground running” thanks to the duo’s “charisma, comedy value, and their impressive contacts book”. Highlights to date include a fascinating interview with Sarah Phelps, writer of the widely praised true-crime drama “The Sixth Commandment”.
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