Best podcasts of 2024: from Self Help to Classy

Featuring shows on the 'silent twins', fraud and the legacy of a shocking crime

Law and Disorder

 "I always enjoy hearing lawyers argue because the world is becoming ever more chaotically disputatious anyway – and at least they're trained to do it properly," said Jenny McCartney in The Spectator. Law and Disorder is a lively new podcast from three of Britain's legal luminaries, Helena Kennedy, Charlie Falconer and Nicholas Mostyn (don't confuse their podcast with a US series with the same name). The trio review the news (such as the war in Gaza, the Rwanda Bill and the latest from the Post Office scandal) through a legal lens, engaging in "feisty debate" rather than seeking "ponderous consensus". Listeners will certainly leave "better informed than when they started. They may also be more worried about Britain's direction of travel."

Close Readings: On Satire

I have been "completely beguiled" by Close Readings: On Satire, from the London Review of Books, said James Marriott in The Times. The podcast, which kicks off with an exploration of Erasmus's In Praise of Folly, is hosted by Colin Burrow and Clare Bucknell. Both are fellows of All Souls who"generally speak English rather than academic gobbledegook", and they have "a lovely chemistry. The younger Bucknell is teasingly withering. Burrow is self-deprecating and silly. Both are unpompous and winningly alive to the absurdity of academic life" – and together they've made a "fascinating" series.

June: Voice of a Silent Twin

The strange and harrowing case of the "silent twins" has long fascinated the public, said Patricia Nicol in The Sunday Times. Born to Barbadian parents who moved to west Wales in the 1970s, identical twins June and Jennifer Gibbons had speech impediments which led them, ultimately, to refuse to talk to anyone except each other. They retreated into a private world, writing novels together and dreaming of becoming authors. In their teens, however, they went on a crime spree; they were convicted of petty theft and arson (for setting an empty building on fire), and, aged 19, they were committed to Broadmoor. There they remained for 11 years. Their story – and that of the "staggering miscarriage of justice" they suffered – has been told many times before. What sets apart the new BBC Sounds podcast "June: Voice of a Silent Twin" is that it features the surviving twin, June, "falteringly" telling her own "desperately sad story" for the first time. "The result is a compassionate, deftly made and gripping" nine-part series. Even if you think you already know all about the Gibbons twins, "give this a listen".

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Untold: The Retreat

"Many of us have the vague idea that meditation is, if not the lifechanging path that its biggest fans claim, then at least nothing worse than benign woo-woo," said James Marriott in The Times. But "Untold: The Retreat", a superb new Financial Times podcast, presents evidence that it can actually be very dangerous, if taken to obsessive excess. The series, made by the "wonderfully named Madison Marriage, whose haunting RP tones are well fitted to these unhappy tales of upper-middle-class seekers gone awry", includes harrowing accounts of hallucinations, psychosis – and worse. "I was gripped."

Self Help

"Podcasts aimed at self-improvement, whether through meditation techniques, diets or new exercise regimes, are ten-a-penny and, for this grouchy listener, frequently irritating," said Fiona Sturges in the Financial Times. So it was good to discover that Self Help, a new five-parter from the audio artist, writer and presenter Scottee, is (despite its title) emphatically "not one of those". Self Help is a "delightful" series in which Scottee discusses his long experience of mental illness. The podcast is billed as "a collection of thoughts, feelings, intuitions and ideas from a life spent clinically mad", and experienced through the lens of Scottee's "class, queerness and neurodiversity". The listener joins him on long walks around rural Scotland, sometimes in thunder and rain, as he delivers compelling monologues with "thoughtfulness, candour and lots of laughter". It's a "warmly intimate" and "absorbing" experience.

Child

India Rakusen is the journalist behind two well-received podcast series: 28ish Days Later (about the menstrual cycle) and Witch (about witches). Now she’s back, said Anna Leszkiewicz in The New Statesman, with a third "interesting, meandering" series – titled Child. She talks to cell biologist Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz about the earliest days of life, when a jumble of cells known as the embryoblast divides into the "epiblast" ("good word!") and the "hypoblast". And she talks to the child psychotherapist Graham Music, who likens a foetus to a cosmonaut that takes over the spaceship of the mother's body. "It isn't like the mother is building the foetus – they're building each other." Rakusen is "guided by sheer curiosity, and has a magpie-like instinct for interesting details". The series (on Radio 4 and as a podcast on BBC Sounds) is a "delightful mosaic of trivia. Lean in close to each fact, thought and observation. Then step back, and see the picture that emerges."

Things Fell Apart

The first season of Jon Ronson's podcast Things Fell Apart – exploring the history of various culture wars – was "superb", said James Marriott in The Times. Yet I was sceptical about the prospect of a second. Is there really anything more to add? The answer, of course, is yes. In these episodes, Ronson focuses less on the background and more on "real people's stories" – those of the victims and perpetrators of the culture wars as well as "bystanders" caught in the crossfire. We hear from an ordinary family who went on a camping holiday only to be mistaken for dangerous left-wing activists; from a student disciplined for causing "emotional harm" after asking another student to leave a party. Ronson is "sympathetic, wise and funny" – but combative and forensic when he needs to be. It's an "exhilarating" listen.

Classy

Jonathan Menjivar's eight-part podcast "Classy" is a "witty exploratory tour of the unease and shame provoked by differences in social status", said Jenny McCartney in The Spectator. Menjivar grew up in a working-class Latino family in Southern California, the son of factory workers. But now "the cultural water in which he swims has changed": he lives on the East Coast, has a job in media, and fears that his taste for expensive cashmere socks makes him look like a "rich asshole". 

His "riveting and occasionally moving" podcast examines how "class discomfort" leads so many of us – rich and poor – to "expend energy on evading negative judgements". In one episode, Jarvis Cocker, who famously skewered "posh people slumming it" in Pulp's song Common People, turns up to "talk with endearing honesty about the culture shock of transforming from unemployed Sheffield songwriter to London pop star".

The Pirate of Prague

Podcasting has become "almost dementedly preoccupied" with scammers, catfishers and the like, said James Marriott in The Times. But even if you feel as if you've had enough of the genre, I'd suggest making an exception for "The Pirate of Prague", about the Czech-born financial fraudster Viktor Kožený. 

As a teenager, Kožený faked a talent for physics and "charmed a visiting professor into inviting him to live in America". He then seduced the professor's wife, lied his way into Harvard, and schmoozed a job at a London investment bank – the springboard for a career, back in the Czech Republic, in espionage, politics and international financial scams. It's a gripping tale, told with wit and brio. "Nobody is more jaded by tales of outlandish scams than I am, but 'The Pirate of Prague' revived my failing stamina."

The Second Victim: Daisy's Story

"I am only alive because a man made the decision to rape a child in his home, and therefore I have lost everything," explains Daisy, the pseudonymous narrator of "The Second Victim: Daisy's Story". We are never told Daisy's real identity – for good reason, said Fiona Sturges in the Financial Times. But her "powerful" podcast is both a "triumph of storytelling and of one woman's efforts to come to terms with her own story". 

In the eight-part series, Daisy describes her early life as a black child growing up with adoptive white parents in an English village; we then follow her on her quest to find her birth mother, Grace, who was raped, aged 13, by a man whose children she was babysitting. Their first meeting unleashes a torrent of emotions – "anxiety, confusion, validation, isolation" – and signals a switch in the series' focus from Daisy's life story to her quest for justice, as the "second victim" of that crime. It is rare to find a podcast "so visceral, intimate and full of emotional complexity". Available on Audible.

Looking for more podcast recommendations? Take your pick from our round-up of the best true crime and political shows.

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