The week in audio: Bugzy Malone’s Grandest Game; Origin Story; Operation Morning Light; The Feud – review
I was rattling through podcasts last week, expanding my knowledge, discovering all sorts of new stories and ways of looking at the world. Which is great, of course, and I recommend it as a way of getting through the rainy days; I just sometimes wonder where all my new learning is meant to go. Perhaps we could have a version of Mastermind where contestants can only use podcasts as their information source and they’re given just one week to swot up. I feel confident that I would do well in this format and urge Mastermind to expand its franchise.
So, the knowledge. First: video games. Well, one in particular: the driving-and-shooting game Grand Theft Auto. GTA is one of those games that everyone knows about, even those of us who don’t play them (other than Space Invaders in pub table format). GTA is like gaming’s Adele or Stormzy. Or – this works better, actually – Scarface.
Scarface and other classic gangster films get a mention in 5 Live’s seven-part series Bugzy Malone’s Grandest Game, which is all about Grand Theft Auto. Mancunian grime star Bugzy Malone is our host, with Chris Warburton, a 5 Live presenter who also hosted the excellent Ecstasy: The Battle of Rave. Both are GTA fans and the co-hosting is fine, though the sections where Warburton chats to Malone don’t always work, due to Malone’s stonewalling.
Still, we’re not here for the presenters, we’re here for the virtual carjacking/ drug-pushing/ pedestrian-killing, and GTA’s history is interesting. In the mid-90s, a tiny Scottish company invented a game called Race’n’Chase and discovered that it was more compelling when the player-as-driver was the bad guy. The progress from this small start to GTA’s all-encompassing virtual world and all-encompassing real success is, frankly, astonishing. The game was, of course, demonised by authorities. When a disturbed young man shot his way out of a police station, it was blamed on the game; soon after, Hollywood wondered if a GTA film could be made, with Eminem as the star. For me, seven episodes was one too many, but this is a fascinating, revealing tale of modern culture.
More knowledge-cramming: there’s a second series of cleverer-than-me podcast Origin Story, in which hosts Ian Dunt and Dorian Lynskey explain misunderstood ideas in politics. The new series starts with an episode on Ayn Rand, the Russian-born American political thinker whose name gets bandied around even though most people (yep, me) have no idea what she stood for. Dunt and Lynskey get stuck into Rand’s work and life story for an hour, and it’s an enthralling and funny listen. In short, the socially awkward Rand invents a Spock-type political theory that appeals to anyone with a big ego who’s not great at a party. Ignore emotion, embrace logic!
Origin Story works best when Lynskey and Dunt are in full flow, bouncing off each other. Outside this, sometimes their links are gabbled, and Lynskey’s opening to this episode is a bit flat. Still, their insights are full of flair, and I feel confident that I can get through my first Mastermind round with ease.
If not Ayn Rand, I might pick Kosmos 954, a nuclear-powered Soviet spy satellite. It’s the subject of Operation Morning Light, a captivating retelling of the time (1978) when this radioactive satellite fell to earth in one of the most remote and unspoilt parts of the world, the Northwest Territories of Canada. Host Dëneze Nakehk’o of the Dene, an Indigenous people, has a lovely tone, there’s some excellent soundscaping and archive work, and this story gradually unfolds from dreaminess into foreboding. An investigative podcast a la Fargo.
Finally, for a subject closer to home, Times journalist Andrew Billen has a five-part series, The Feud, examining Oxford University’s Christ Church College and its recent treatment of its former dean, Martyn Percy. God, this is a damning indictment of England’s venerable institutions and their we’ve-always-done-it-this-way employment practices. Christ Church appointed Percy as its dean in 2014, but then decided that it didn’t like him, so tried to force him out. Billen talks to him to find out more.
Though I’m unconvinced by some of Percy’s story, there’s no doubt that he has been treated badly and that Christ Church censors (governors) need to urgently look at how they run their institution, especially around student welfare, staff responsibilities and how a charity should best spend its money. And perhaps employment law could be introduced into Oxford’s BA jurisprudence course? Whatever, when it comes to my chosen Mastermind subject, I’ll be avoiding this one as so many people seem to be unable to give a straight answer.