In Review

Podcasts of the week: spies, grief and rock ‘n’ roll 

Featuring Spy Affair, Griefcast, Criminal, and Laura Barton’s Notes on Music

If Spy Affair were a work of fiction, you might “think it all a bit silly”, said Fiona Sturges in the FT. This excellent new series from Wondery features characters straight out of a glossy thriller: a flame-haired Russian with a curious interest in US presidential politics; her American millionaire lover; a Russian oligarch with ties to the Kremlin; and FBI agents, who suspect foul play. Yet this particular tale of “sex, lies and guns” is all true. It’s the story of Maria Butina, a Russian gun-rights activist who moved to America in 2015, and who was soon dating a Republican campaigner. But in 2018, Butina was arrested and charged with espionage for trying to build “back-channel” ties between the Russian government and Republican officials. It’s a gripping tale, deftly told, and it features interviews with both Butina – some conducted in prison – and the businessman boyfriend who reported his suspicions to the FBI. 

If you’re newish to podcasts, said Hannah Verdier in The Guardian, then you might know the names of some “must listen” series, but be unsure where to dive in. Here are three suggestions. Even by the standards of Cariad Lloyd’s superb Griefcast, episode 120 with Monty Don is a “real thing of beauty”. There are both tears and laughter as the gardener talks movingly not only about the loss of his father, but also of his beloved dog, Nigel. The true crime podcast Criminal, meanwhile, is “not all about the blood and gore”. Indeed its very best episode, Dropping Like Flies, is about a Venus flytrap crime ring in North Carolina. Lastly, try kicking off The Adam Buxton Podcast with episode 29, Louis Theroux. “If you haven’t had the pleasure of hearing Theroux’s falsetto version of Baccara’s Yes Sir, I Can Boogie, you’re in for a treat.” 

Another aural treat is Laura Barton’s “beautiful, intimate speaking voice”, said Miranda Sawyer in The Observer – deployed to sublime effect in her recent three-part Radio 4 series on the enduring appeal and purpose of pop music. Laura Barton’s Notes on Music (available on BBC Sounds) explored the “romance of pop and rock ‘n’ roll, their potent promise; the way a voice or a song – or just a cadence – can seem to understand you, send you on a journey, solve your life’s problems”. Each episode was a delight: the first about music’s obsession with the age 17; the second a lovely wallow in “happy sad” songs; and the third an “uncomplicated love letter” to Bruce Springsteen. The careful way in which interviews and music were woven together made these programmes “a kind of music in themselves; emotional audio pieces releasing forgotten or misunderstood feelings”. I loved them.

The Week Unwrapped: Human rights, Russian troops and rude town names

Are human rights going backwards? Is Russia squaring up to Ukraine again? And why are we censoring maps? Olly Mann and The Week delve behind the headlines and debate what really matters from the past seven days.

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