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The week in audio: The Exploding Library; Famous Firsts; Ry-Union; Bed of Lies

·4 min read

The Exploding Library: The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien (BBC Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
Famous Firsts With Jenni Falconer | Smooth Radio
Ry-Union | Sky Bingo
Bed of Lies: Blood | The Telegraph

There was a lovely, funny, odd programme about Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman on Radio 4 on Thursday morning, the first episode of a three-part series, The Exploding Library, which focuses on novels that are lovely, funny and odd. (Maybe not lovely, exactly.) O’Brien’s wild nightmare of murder, bicycles, policemen and atomic physics will be followed by programmes on Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight and Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night.

The comedian Mark Watson was our host for the O’Brien programme, and he helped weave an entrancing, poetic examination of the book. Descriptions of its wild content, as well as swift, detailed personal and historical context, were all delivered without the portent and heavy-handedness of an “educational” programme (no In Our Time-style showing off). Exceptional production touches from Overcoat Media’s Steven Rajam and Benjamin “Beef and Dairy Network” Partridge included the ticking sound of a spun bicycle wheel, an ominous chord on a church organ, some truly bananas band noises and, at the point when the book’s notorious “bicycle sex scene” was discussed, Don McLean’s Vincent, which made me laugh a lot. You don’t need to have read the book to enjoy this programme. It’s a treat; the sort of show that reminds us why we need the BBC.

A couple of other BBC audio gems, The Reunion (Radio 4) and The First Time With… (6 Music), have recently been repurposed (copied) by commercial radio and turned into podcasts. I don’t mind the format rip-off; much excellent art has resulted from someone trying to make an existing thing better or different. But the two new shows are, sadly, not the best. First up is Jenni Falconer’s new Smooth Radio podcast, Famous Firsts. This is billed as a chat with celebrities about their first times: first single bought, first gig, first time they realised they were famous and so forth. Fine. But what the podcast format hides is that these interviews are, effectively, just press junket mini-chats.

The launch episode featured a perfectly nice talk with Ed Sheeran. But the whole show lasted just 17 minutes, and much of that was music. Essentially, poor Falconer was making a programme out of a 10-minute encounter with the singer. Last week’s show featured Michael Bolton, who, similarly, is on the press trail (he also popped up on Radio 2). This suffered from the opposite problem to the Sheeran show: Bolton waffled on in his dull monotone for far too long. In both, Falconer did very well, but this is less of a “first-time” interview show, more of an afterthought for various stars’ press campaigns. She deserves better.

The Reunion has been reimagined as Ry-Union, in which Rylan Clark-Neal, who I very much like, brings celebrities back together with significant people from their career. The opening episode featured the not-very-famous Cher Lloyd, who, 10 years ago, when she was just 16, appeared on The X Factor and was quickly labelled a bad ’un. The programme, at nearly an hour, was half an hour too long; we spent a good 10 minutes on “hello”s and “how are you”s. And what of the reunion, sorry, Ry-Union? Well, Lloyd did say she would like to get “all members of One Direction in a room together … they were such genuinely nice people”, but, unsurprisingly, they did not appear. Instead, we heard from The X Factor choreographer Brian Friedman and fellow contestant Mary Byrne. Hmm.

Cher Lloyd, guest of Ry-Union.
Cher Lloyd, first guest on Ry-Union. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Someone needs to get a tougher producer on this show and quick. Podcasts are relying more and more on celebrity encounters (I can’t bring myself to call them interviews), and stations need to be aware that these only can work with ruthless production. Access is not enough. Work needs to be done. This is our time you’re wasting.

I’m late to the new second series of UK investigative podcast Bed of Lies, but, hooray, this meant I could binge all seven episodes. Anyone who listened to the first series, about women tricked into long-term relationships by undercover police officers, will expect an excellently researched but upsetting listen, and this is what we get. Bed of Lies concerns British people given blood infected with HIV and hepatitis C in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It sounds an unpromising topic, but the Bed of Lies team – reporter Cara McGoogan and producer Sarah Peters - ensure that the true, heartbreaking tales of those who suffered are given time and dignity. These real-life stories run alongside the podcast’s relentless uncovering of the facts. There are moments in this show that I won’t forget; its dogged humanity reminds me of Nick Wallis’s audio uncovering of the Post Office computer scandal. Highly recommended.

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