In Review

Podcasts of the Week: creeps, spooks and uplifting tales

Featuring Hunting Ghislaine, The Piper, High Strangeness, Tracks, and Days Like These

Ghislaine Maxwell is a cracking subject for a podcast, said James Marriott in The Times. And in Hunting Ghislaine, John Sweeney (famous for “screaming at Scientologists” on Panorama) does it “more than” justice. In this “gripping and beautifully constructed” documentary, he has the confidence not to kick things off “overexcitedly” with Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide, Maxwell’s arrest and the Prince Andrew interview. Instead, he starts the story at the beginning, carefully charting publisher Robert Maxwell’s “creepy and abusive obsession” with his daughter, and laying out startling tales of “old-school power and corruption” in 1980s Fleet Street. Sweeney’s “portentous foghorn” can jar at first, but it possesses a “brute moral clarity well suited to blasting through the lives of these cruel, wealthy and twisted people”. He has produced a superb podcast, a “must-listen”.

I confess I find much British audio drama “crocky and old-fashioned”, said Miranda Sawyer in The Observer. But some innovative “spooky” podcasts have “given the medium a kick up its hoo-ha”. I would strongly recommend The Piper (BBC Sounds) and High Strangeness (Audible; still spooky but with “added laughs”). But top of the list is Tracks, a “gripping tale of weirdness, coincidence and conspiracy theories”. The central character is Helen Ash, a GP with a “less than sensitive bedside manner”. In the current, fifth series, Ash is excellently played by Olivia Poulet (in earlier series, she was played by Romola Garai and Hattie Morahan, and I would urge you to start at the beginning, on BBC Sounds; it’s well worth it). Helen is mortally ill, and getting strange email messages from her dead father. “The sound, characterisation and ambience of Tracks, as well as the brilliant storytelling”, make it “one of the best long-running audio dramas ever”.

An uplifting new weekly podcast from Australian network ABC, Days Like These is partly modelled on the acclaimed US series This American Life, said Fiona Sturges in the FT. It was recorded during lockdown earlier this year, and the idea is to tell stories of “resilience, love and triumph at a time when hope can feel in short supply”. Standout episodes include Spencer’s Superpower, a tale of marriage and a pregnancy against the odds; Baby, a “touching story of the kindness of strangers” about a beloved doll that was mislaid in a shopping mall; and (best of all) Cate’s Black Summer Secret, about a family forced by bushfires to flee their Victoria home on New Year’s Eve. Each story lasts about 20 minutes: “just enough time to put on some headphones, block out the news and marvel at the human capacity for love and survival”.

The Week Unwrapped podcast: Social epilepsy, hydrogen and a retail boom

Why are retail sales growing? Should social media companies clamp down on flashing images? And why are German railways turning to hydrogen? Olly Mann and The Week delve behind the headlines and debate what really matters from the past seven days.

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