In Review

Podcasts of the week: Slavery, Britney and the blues

Featuring Pieces of Britney, Human Resources and The Vanishing of Harry Pace

Spotify’s terrific Human Resources podcast explores the formative role of slavery in shaping various aspects of British life – from our buildings and cultural institutions to what we eat and drink, said Miranda Sawyer in The Observer. In recent weeks the series has looked at subjects including Robert Peel, the origins of the Greene King brewery, and how Liverpool is “grappling with its slave-trading past”.

The presenter is the journalist and author Moya Lothian-McLean, who grew up in Herefordshire, the daughter of a white British mother and a black Caribbean father. She’s an “engaging” presenter, with a knack for conducting nuanced and illuminating interviews that make us reconsider our assumptions. Any teenagers frustrated by the way they’re taught history at school “should try Human Resources for another approach”.

Much has been written and said about the US pop star Britney Spears, and the “extraordinary legal conservatorship” that has controlled her life since 2008. Even so, a gripping new podcast on the subject is well worth a listen, said Patricia Nicol in The Sunday Times. The “sharp-witted” eight-part BBC documentary Pieces of Britney shot to the top of the download charts when it was released at the start of the month.

Writer and presenter Pandora Sykes begins the “riveting, troubling” tale in 2008, then winds back to chart Spears’s rise to fame from “hardscrabble Louisiana childhood to being the pop princess of post-Aids, post-Clinton America, to a humiliated, silenced woman funding her own sequestration”. Sykes “makes a compelling moral case” for the story’s importance. My only caveat: the dramatised vignettes of scenes from Spears’s life are “toe-curling”, with the actors “sounding like interlopers from a Tennessee Williams play”.

The US blues pioneer Harry Pace made a “huge contribution to US culture – then seemingly vanished”, said Fiona Sturges in the FT. An outstanding new podcast from WNYC, the makers of the acclaimed 2019 series Dolly Parton’s America, asks how and why it happened.

A hundred years ago Pace, a young African-American businessman, started Black Swan, a groundbreaking record label featuring only black artists, and with Ethel Waters’s Down Home Blues transformed American music. But within two years, white rivals had squeezed him out of business. Pace sold up, left the music industry and retrained as a lawyer.

Like the Parton series, The Vanishing of Harry Pace “documents one person’s rise while telling a broader story about society and culture”. This five-part series “is rich in detail and immaculately produced and researched. The narrative rarely ends up where you think it will and provides a masterclass in storytelling.”

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