The week in audio: People Who Knew Me; Happy Hour; Whose Truth Is It Anyway?; This Cultural Life: Nick Cave – review

People Who Knew Me (BBC 5 Live) | BBC Sounds
Happy Hour (BBC Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
Whose Truth Is It Anyway? (BBC Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
This Cultural Life: Nick Cave (BBC Radio 4) | BBC Sounds

Here’s a classy drama series: excellently soundscaped, grippingly plotted, smoothly acted and exec-produced by Sharon Horgan. People Who Knew Me on BBC Radio 5 Live, written and directed by Daniella Isaacs (from Kim Hooper’s book), tells the tale of Connie Prynne – played by Rosamund Pike – and the crisis caused by her breast cancer diagnosis. Connie is the single mother of 13-year-old Claire, and, well, Connie’s been living a lie. Spoiler (but not much of one – you work this out within minutes): Connie is in fact Emily Morris, who used 9/11 to fake her own death and ran away from New York to California. There, she reinvented herself, created a tight family life for her and Claire and nobody else. But now Connie/Emily has cancer, she’s going to have to come at least partly clean and find people who are related to her, or who knew her in the past. If she doesn’t, and she dies, Claire will be left with nobody.

Does this seem like a low-stakes plot? Written down, perhaps it does, but the script is taut and tense, the story well paced, and Pike sells Connie so brilliantly that I found myself absolutely absorbed. It helps that Connie is a bit spiky; that we don’t really know why she disappeared; that Hugh Laurie appears in episode two; and, especially, that the show has been meticulously produced. No flat, in-studio sound, no stock atmosphere, not a single unbelievable piece of dialogue. Everything sounds like life. And Pike is great: bristling, sharp, seductive, with, to my ears, a perfect American accent. She has done more audio work over the past few years. She exec-produced and starred in the interesting historical drama Edith!, is a stalwart of book narration (including the Wheel of Time series) and recently hosted the true crime-ish podcast Mother, Neighbor, Russian Spy. Good news for us audiophiles. I’ve heard the first two episodes of People Who Knew Me and I’m in for the long haul.

The team behind People Who Knew Me is enormous: nine executive producers in all, seven people on dialogue. In contrast, Happy Hour is a small affair: one writer, two actors, one producer, one sound person. In Sutton Wetherspoon’s, twentysomethings Em and Chloe are bantering like the old mates they are. They niggle and tease, irritate and reminisce. But there’s something else going on. In fact there’s a dead body to be dealt with… In a two-hander written by relative newbie Liv Fowler, Shvorne Marks and Ami Metcalf, who play Em and Chloe, are fun and believable, their interaction snappy; even the in-between-scenes music is good. I had a few questions regarding tone – surely they wouldn’t be so blase about the body, even if they were drunk – but it was lovely to hear genuine south London accents, as well as listen to a drama that tackles the problems between men and women in an original way.

Plus, you can’t predict how people react to trauma, can you? Or how you turn it into art. Radio 4 had two programmes last week that touched on this, obliquely and directly. In Whose Truth Is It Anyway?, writer and presenter Damian Barr set out to examine memoir. “A story from a life,” said writer Jenn Ashworth. Told by one person, a memoir can’t be completely accurate, or even truthful. There’s a “truthiness”, said Barr, but the writer edits, shapes, reveals. The revelations can be a shock, even to the writer. Barr described how, after writing about one particularly disturbing event in his own memoir, he went into his garden and was sick. Over the next two weeks he’ll tackle novels and autofiction.

In last week’s This Cultural Life, John Wilson interviewed the excellent Nick Cave, an artist also familiar with trauma: he has lost two sons in recent years. Cave was a wonderful interviewee: generous, perceptive, funny. “I wasn’t a very good singer,” he said, about starting in a band. “But I had a kind of unsubstantiated belief in myself.” Wilson is always a good interviewer. His brusque, focused style can sometimes feel pressing, but with a man such as Cave, whose honesty means he’s never ruffled, the results are great. The singer-songwriter chose a few cultural influences: Johnny Cash, Dame Edna Everage, Leonard Cohen, his wife, Susie. He spoke about his addictions, his life. In between, we heard his music, from swampy narratives to agonised mourning. I found myself in bits during Waiting for You from Ghosteen. Cave gave up doing interviews for a while after his son Arthur died. I’m very glad he has decided to return.

Should I note that three of my chosen programmes last week were from Radio 4? Over the past few days there has been much media rumbling about the station’s loss of listeners (Today lost 800,000 in a year). It’s interesting. I used to want a bomb to go off under Radio 4, it felt so stale. And I still skip most of the regular shows, apart from Desert Island Discs. But the station has completely revamped itself around its scheduling pillars, offering a wide variety of new programmes, most of which have worked. It was awarded station of the year at the 2023 Arias, and I can’t imagine that was for its news. Listeners will leave, because there are far more news offerings and because today’s preference is for angled reporting. But if you’re into quirky single documentaries, short series about small questions, the one-off, the clever, the odd, then the station is still up there. Today, The Archers, World at One, Gardeners’ Question Time, Saturday Live, the awful 6.30pm comedy: none are for me. But the stuff in between means I still tune in.