The week in podcasts: Any Stupid Questions?; How Syria Changed the World; The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry
A friend told me recently that he is moving back to the UK from the US. He can’t stand living there with Donald Trump in power: not just because of the fact of his presidency, but because of its knock-on effects. “Crying fits, depression, terrible parties,” is how my friend put it. People in power change our lives and it’s not just through the laws they pass. They bring a party-wrecking atmosphere. In the UK, we could call ours the Brexit-Trump-Syria horrors. Or just… the Fear.
The Fear has permeated into everyday conversation, whether in real life or online. Pub chat is flailing. You can’t just shrug and talk about the weather, because even the weather is having apocalyptic collywobbles. So how to combat the Fear? Well, jokes, obviously, but also knowledge. If you understand what you’re fearing, it doesn’t seem so bad. With this in mind, I’ve turned to three increase-your-understanding shows this week.
The first, Any Stupid Questions?, is a podcast hosted by Danielle Ward, a standup with plenty of radio experience (she co-presented on Absolute Radio with Dave Gorman for three years). Every week, she and two other comedians ask stupid questions of an expert about topics we all feel we should already know about, but often don’t. There are 12 shows so far, and each one is funny and enlightening. Last week’s was Tourism, which after the previous week’s epic (Northern Ireland – the classic “we should know about this but we don’t”), I expected to be a bit dull. But I was pleasantly surprised.
There were lots of interesting factoids. Did you know that Germans are regular visitors to Scotland, as there’s a 19th-century German myth involving Scottish warriors? That Tony Blair’s government took tourism seriously, but this government doesn’t? That there aren’t any specific laws around tourism, so you have to use the laws of contract, or health and safety, or planning if you want to sue over a tourism problem? These are high-quality pub-chat facts. Ward is a great host and I found myself dipping into quite a few of these podcasts for more knowledge. The housing one is very interesting.
Rather more serious and infinitely more depressing is Radio 4’s How Syria Changed the World. In these five short, sharp shocks of programmes, Ed Stourton talked to experts to find out how the civil war in Syria has changed everything. The first programme explained how after the Bosnian war most major countries signed an international agreement accepting responsibility, during conflicts, to protect vulnerable citizens. Thus there should be a virtual red line around citizens across which no weapons can cross. But Syria has made this redundant, as the chemical weapons attacks have shown. One expert, his anger barely concealed, explained that a law like this won’t work unless the international institutions that enforce it are neutral. And the UN security council is a long way from that.
And then there’s The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry. This is a relentlessly cheerful series where listeners send in questions about the world and Dr Adam Rutherford and Dr Hannah Fry investigate. Now in its 10th series, this week it covered deja vu, lucky numbers, why birds sing such fancy songs and why our voices change as we age. It also covered the fifth dimension by actually visiting Cern, so you will have guessed that this is a well-funded BBC programme, as opposed to a podcast.
Anyway, The Curious Cases… is an immensely enjoyable, fun-for-all-the-family podcast. Kids like it too, so you can happily play shows back-to-back on long journeys and feel smug that you’re increasing your family’s knowledge and thereby decreasing the Fear. There. I can’t promise that the parties will improve, but doesn’t that feel better?
Three great stand-ins for regular presenters
Cox’s new 10pm Radio 2 show is an easy delight, but I’ve always felt she’s more suited to the morning. Warm, friendly, with a quick wit that enlivens listeners’ emails and interviews alike, she’s also a masterful breakfast show host, able to let celebrities shine while also moving them on in order to fit into the tightly scheduled pre-9am slot. She’s filling in for Chris Evans this week on 2, and I’ve enjoyed every minute.
Puckrik is a natural maverick, and she floats around schedules in maverick fashion. Sometimes she’s taking over a weekend 6 Music slot, sometimes she’s hosting documentaries on Radio 4, sometimes she’s discussing yacht rock on Radio 2 or – this week – presenting the second of her two-parter on Sparks. Intelligent, knowledgable and arch, Puckrik has one eyebrow permanently raised: her wryness is up there with Fi Glover’s. She deserves more than the occasional gig she’s getting.
Feltz, currently sitting in for Jeremy Vine on Radio 2, is a force of nature, a true love‑her-or-hate-her presenter. Either you adore her astonishing ability to talk relevantly and intelligently for minutes on end without a pause, or it makes you want to put a pillow over your head. Personally, I’m firmly in the “love her” camp. There’s something gallant about the way Feltz gallops into hot news topics, how she stands her ground while teasing out opposing opinions when people phone in. Optimism personified.
- This article was amended on Monday 4 June to correct the spelling of Katie Puckrik’s name.