British Scandal, a new podcast from Wondery hosted by Alice Levine and Matt Forde, is a strange affair. Before I get to the show, let’s look at its elements. Wondery is a successful US podcast producer that began by specialising in true-crime shows such as Dirty John, The Shrink Next Door and Dr Death. Over the past decade it has moved on to sports, news and self-help podcasts, with an immersive, tabloid style that can seem schlocky but quickly becomes addictive. And our hosts? Levine is an excellent presenter of all trades, who’s had a show on Radio 1, various TV gigs and – most importantly here – is one third of the never-less-than-hilarious, world-touring My Dad Wrote a Porno podcast crew. Matt Forde, co-host of Absolute’s Rock’n’roll Football show, is a comedian turned presenter (he has a politics show on Dave and provides voices for Spitting Image).
Now you’re up to speed, I can explain British Scandal to you. It’s an umbrella title, with each of its miniseries offering listeners a gripping, UK-based power/sex/money story. But it’s how the podcast tells those tales that seems odd, initially. Essentially, Levine reads out a very detailed account of what happened in the scandal, and she and Forde occasionally make jokey comments. There are no interviews with anyone involved, no experts giving analysis, no talking heads adding context. Levine and Forde have no stake in what’s going on. Despite its true-crime roots, despite the sound effects, the show boils down to a story, read out, with jokes. Less investigative journalism, more posh Porno.
The opening four-part tale, The Litvinenko Affair, about the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, is written by Karen Laws and is very well researched. (Levine tells us at the end of the episodes that the show recommends two books, by Martin Sixsmith and Luke Harding, as well as the text of the 2016 public inquiry into the case.) However, the writing style is straightforward and often cliched, and for MDWAP fans it’s odd to hear Levine giving us such banalities as “the rest of the night passes in a blur” without making a joke about the actual writing.
More weird than this, though, is the tone. Flipping between telling a real-life news story involving international espionage and death and making jokes about that story requires some tricky presenting gymnastics for Levine and Forde. This isn’t a problem for US podcasts, which are more serious. Wondery already has American Scandal, which covers stories such as the Exxon oil spill, and these too are detailed stories read out by the presenter – but there are no jokes. British Scandal, being British, can’t resist them.
Still, Wondery clearly believes in the show, to judge by the enormous advertising posters, and the debut episode went straight to the No 1 slot in the Apple podcast charts. For all the reasons above, I initially found this a strange listen, but gradually Levine and Ford won me over. Their jokes are good, what can I say? This is a dramatically bonkers story, they are immensely warm hosts and their daftness highlights all the parts you would expect (the assassins visited a nightclub where the taps were shaped like penises: not to make a joke would be remiss). My job is not to reason why, etc, but just to tell you if British Scandal is any good. It is.
A side note: Wondery now has its own app. If you join, you pay a fiver a month or £35 a year, and thus you can avoid the in-show adverts for oral health and special manscaping shavers for “down below” (argh!). And other audio producers are making similar moves. Obviously, Spotify has long had a premium subscription model, but now Bauer, owner of the Kerrang!, Scala, Jazz FM and Planet Rock radio stations, has brought out paying apps (£3.99 a month). The idea is you get these stations without adverts, plus extra specialised stations/shows such as Scala’s The Music of James Bond. But also you get to skip up to six tracks an hour on live radio! So you can be listening to Penny Smith’s show and think, hmm, I hate this song, press skip and – tada! – a different one will play instead. As a side-side-note, such apps do make you wonder about the future of BBC radio and, especially, the bountiful and free BBC Sounds.
Over on straightforward radio, Victoria Derbyshire was filling in for Jeremy Vine on Radio 2 last week. Always an excellent listen, with an instinct for news, Derbyshire tackled accidental burn injuries on Tuesday, the peg being dancer Abbie Quinnan suffering third-degree burns and having to have skin grafts. Listeners contacted the show with their own distressing stories; Derbyshire dealt with all with aplomb and sympathy. Personally, I wouldn’t have thought this was a great discussion subject, but I noticed that Naga Munchetty covered it the next day, on 5 live, in Derbyshire’s old slot.
Three clever people talking about their lives
Peter Goadsby on The Life Scientific
Radio 4/BBC Sounds
For anyone who suffers chronic migraines, Peter Goadsby is The Man. An Australian based at King’s College London (he’s professor of neurology there), he, along with three other scientific compadres, was awarded this year’s Brain prize for his research into how the migraine brain works, and for the preventive medications developed as a result. Goadbsy, like so many of Jim Al-Khalili’s interviewees, is nothing like you might expect. Educated at a school that despised academia, he then picked medicine as a university subject just to annoy his parents and specialised in neuroscience on a whim. His down-to-earth approach and dogged attitude are inspiring.
Tracey Emin on Woman’s Hour
Radio 4/BBC Sounds
Emin is always worth hearing, with a charisma, articulacy and lack of shame that is truly rare. She talks to Emma Barnett about Edvard Munch and her latest exhibition at the Royal Academy, for which she has selected Munch masterpieces to show alongside her own work. She came to Munch young (via Schiele via Bowie), and has always held him very close. “Everyone thinks that The Scream is screaming but it’s not. The Scream is covering its ears, and it’s the landscape that’s screaming.” When Emin speaks, you’re drawn in, whether she’s speaking about Munch, or about her cancer and utterly drastic treatment. “Clitoris. The last time I said something like that on Woman’s Hour I got banned.”
Alison Bechdel on Free Thinking
Radio 3/BBC Sounds
The Bechdel test, which first appeared in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, was created by Alison Bechdel: it requires a film to have at least two women in it who talk to each other about something other than a man. Matthew Sweet gets Bechdel to describe a walk in her area of Vermont, linked to her new book, The Secret to Superhuman Strength. Bechdel is modest, clever and funny, and her conversation with Sweet is delightful and honest. She admits that when her dad died, she felt a sense of freedom as well as grief. “I am trying to tell the story of my life, and the story of my quest for self-transcendence,” she says hesitantly, before laughing at herself.