We’ve been living through a golden age of podcasts in recent years. Now, with many of us on lockdown or semi-lockdown, it’s a fine opportunity to listen to the rich array of podcasts available. Here are four fascinating podcasts, from gold standards on form to exciting prospects just out this year.
Desert Island Discs is the gold standard of interview podcasts. What would you take to a desert island? Eight tracks, a book and a luxury: Interviewees talk about tracks that define their existences. Lauren Laverne is an expert in-depth interviewer, adept at both listening and challenging. The 41-year-old Brit wears her authoritative knowledge lightly, and has an engaging vocal style. Louis Theroux was at his bracing best on the BBC flagship, comparing elite boarding school and prisons like Saint Quentin, admitting his mistakes (suckered by predator Jimmy Saville), and enthusing about gangsta rap (like Eric B and Rakim’s touchstone ‘Paid in Full’). He also reflects on the influence of his famous father. “It’s an odd thing reading a graphic sex scene in a novel that your dad has written, when you’re seven or eight years old. There’s quite a bit of drug-taking in some of the travel books and in some of the semi-autobiographical books there’s quite a lot of extra-marital sex…you do have to process it a bit.” Recent highlights include actor Daniel Radcliffe, financial guru Michael Lewis, novelist Anne Enright, documentary director Asif Kapadia, writer-comedian Steve Merchant, and The Wire’s Wendell Pierce. Like his Detective Bunk, Pierce is ever eloquent and magnetic. He has lively and compelling riffs, intercut with tracks from Wynton Marsalis, Mahalia Jackson, Funkadelic and John Coltrane.
One of 2020’s rushing British debuts is Plot Twist, where British stars of big and smaller screens talk favourite plots twists, in art and life. The one and only Karl Pilkington, peculiar sidekick of Office creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, riffs on his new show Sick of It. Pilkington (An Idiot Abroad) is an acquired taste, but can be very funny. Pilkington is amiably dry on his life and career’s sliding doors, the unexpected twists and turns. “I don’t know what the protocol is” is a mantra. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon talk of their entertaining travelogue The Trip where they go to Italy, Spain and Greece. Wherever, whenever, they relish ribbing each other. Actor Joe Gilgun (This is England) speaks about mental health in robust language.
Longform Podcast is a rigorous and hefty podcast, featuring conversations with some of the sharpest names in American journalism and writing. Recently, Ken Burns, Errol Morris, Mara Hvistendahl, and science writer Ed Yong on COVID-19. In the archives, scores more. A favourite of the latest lot is a typically excellent deep-dive with Ronan Farrow, scourge of convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein and other predators. Host of The Catch and Kill podcast, Farrow is a suave and thought-provoking interlocutor. Farrow has an ear for vivid descriptions, from the peaceful New Yorker office to the inside TV circus over Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. Dropping the Weinstein bombshell was not a triumphant feeling, he says, elegiacally: “It was a strange, numb time for me that ended, at the end of that day, with me bursting into tears.”
Listen and relax. In stressful times, a good night’s rest is really appreciated. One mg of melatonin can hit the spot but Get Sleepy offers nice late-night relaxation exercises, and stories. “The Glacier Express” episode takes us through the extraordinary Swiss slow-train ride. Having done it in-the-flesh last year, I can attest that the Rhine’s tributaries braiding around the Rhine Gorge are indeed exceptionally beautiful and relaxing. “A California Train Ride” takes us along the scenic Californian coast. “Blossoms of Tokyo” explores Japan’s capital during sakura, cherry-flowering session. “Pura Vida in Costa Rica” goes through Costa Rica’s jungles and other adventurous landscapes.