The week in audio: Archetypes With Meghan; Alonement With Francesca Specter; Alexei Sayle’s Strangers on a Train

Archetypes With Meghan | Archewell Audio for Spotify
Alonement With Francesca Specter |
Alexei Sayle’s Strangers on a Train | Radio 4/BBC Sounds

A new podcast is among us! All hail Archetypes, the long-awaited Spotify show from Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, which attempts to tackle the restrictive myths and tropes about women that keep us downtrodden and stymied, or at the very least “unable to be our authentic selves”. It’s words, apparently, that are holding us back, and each episode tackles one: ambition, diva, bitch…

So: sixth-form feminism, as opposed to anything practical, but then Meghan isn’t an investigative journalist. She’s an actor, not currently working, in a world where most ambitious women are defined by their career. Like many actors she has other jobs, and now, as well as heading up various charities and worthy initiatives, she’s a podcast host. And she has talent: she has a lovely voice, is intelligent and is clear and light when reading a script. But hosts need more.

Serena Williams is the guest on episode one, which is ostensibly about female ambition. We take some time to get to her. After a syrupy opening spiel from Meghan, followed by a cringey moment when Prince Harry pops up to say hi (in a show about ambitious women! Please…), we are treated to how Williams and Meghan became friends, and what they have in common (they’re the same age and both grew up in LA). After that, the most interesting bits come, of course, from Williams. She describes having to play in the 2018 French Open after being up all night because her young daughter, Olympia, broke her arm. Meghan then tells a story about her son, Archie, nearly being hurt in a fire while she and Harry were on a royal tour of South Africa in 2019.

Like Williams, Meghan too went on to do the job she was required to do, though she didn’t want to. Combining work, especially work with an audience, with having very young children is an interesting topic for women, but it isn’t explored in depth. It would have been good to have a few ideas about what could change, or whether “keep calm and carry on” is more than tea-towel philosophy. I also liked Williams’s take on tennis players’ behaviour. She pointed out not only that women are penalised for being as aggressive as men on court, but that tennis players aren’t allowed to show much passion at all, compared with, say, footballers. Again, this juicy topic wasn’t picked up by Meghan.

A podcast host needs to welcome their audience, and despite her warmth, Meghan is exclusive

Another potentially revealing subject was deciding to step away from a career in which you’re celebrated, deemed the best at what you do. Williams is doing this now; the Sussexes have already made their move. Unfortunately, this too was smothered beneath a shower of “you’re so great” platitudes. It’s partly just the American sleb way, which is far too gushy for British muggle ears, but it quickly becomes as alienating as a guffawing, tuppenny-to-the-pound bro-cast. There are many, many producers on this show, but not one dared to edit the constant “I already knew this news about you, Serena, because you are my friend” comments from Meghan. Ugh.

A podcast host needs to welcome their audience, and despite her warmth, Meghan is exclusive. She has to be; it’s part of her USP. Very few interview-based podcasts can pull in guests such as Serena Williams, Mariah Carey and Margaret Cho. Alongside David Tennant Does a Podcast With…, Idris and Sabrina Elba’s Coupledom (both good) and the awful SmartLess, Archetypes exists due to its hosts’ elevated celebrity status. That’s OK, as long as the listener is always kept in mind. Every new podcast needs to know who it’s for, and until she can soothe her jumpy ego, this one is for Meghan and her mates.

For a fresher take on the lives of modern young women, try Alonement, from Francesca Specter, author of Alonement: How to Be Alone and Absolutely Own It. It isn’t an exclusively female-centred show, although Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own features strongly in the opening episode of series 7, in which the thoughtful, informed Specter speaks to self-taught money expert Iona Bain. Like Meghan and Williams, both are conscious of society’s expectations; unlike them, they are candid about privilege and offer real-life tips. Even as a grumpy oldster I learned a lot. Recommended.

My recent listening highlight, though, has been Alexei Sayle’s Radio 4 show Strangers on a Train, where the actor and comedian travels on a long train journey and chats to passengers while doing so. I binged the whole series while driving abroad – an odd and vaguely homesick-making experience. Each episode begins with an announcement to those on board that Sayle would like a chat. Thus his fame serves as an intro, but it’s his personality that lights up the conversations. Funny and engaged, his observations bring his interviewees completely out of their shell. How brilliant that such a spiky anarchist can turn into a national treasure, and what a timely reminder that ordinary people are more quirky and inspiring than the household names. A delight.