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From the makers of S-Town, a deep dive into a Birmingham ‘anti-radicalisation’ programme. Plus, how a US medium conned his audiences, and delicious daftery from Nigel Planer
The Trojan Horse Affair | Serial Productions/New York Times
Fake Psychic | BBC Sounds
I, An Actor, a Podcast | Acast
The last time most of us heard a podcast series from reporter Brian Reed, he was working his diffident, determined way around the life of Alabama horologist John B McLemore for the fantastic, award-winning S-Town. Now he’s back, alongside rookie journalist Hamza Syed, unpicking … the education of children in Birmingham schools.
That’s Birmingham, UK, by the way. Syed is from there. An ex-doctor turned investigative reporter, in 2018 he approached Reed with an idea. Syed’s very first investigation: The Trojan Horse Affair. For those who don’t remember, here’s a recap. In 2014, the then education secretary Michael Gove commissioned a report from a counter-terrorism expert into a few Birmingham schools with majority Muslim pupils. He wanted to know whether the heads and governors were “radicalising” the pupils by introducing extreme Islamic ideas.
As a result of the report, teachers and governors were sacked and previously outstanding schools were taken into special measures. Citizenship lessons were inserted into the national curriculum, and the still controversial inform-on-a-potential-terrorist Prevent programme was created. The whole affair had huge ramifications, especially for young Muslims.
Reed, great as usual, balances precise, truthful reporting with personal, funny asides
The trigger for the whole hoo-ha was an anonymous letter, sent to Birmingham council, which detailed the supposed methods that the supposed radicalisers were using for “Operation Trojan Horse”. Step one: get on to the governors’ board – that sort of thing. Though it seemed to be well informed, many people now assume that the letter was bogus. Syed had one question: who wrote it?
A simple question. Always the best way to start a journalistic journey. And surely Serial Productions, the non plus ultra of podcast brands, will deliver a revelatory, gripping listen. Well yes, sort of. Here are the positives. Novice Syed – emotional, funny, articulate – is an immensely charismatic presenter and brilliant on what the Trojan Horse affair has meant to Muslims who want to succeed in the UK without disavowing their cultural backgrounds.
Reed, great as usual, balances precise, truthful reporting with personal, funny asides. Plus, the pair do appear to discover who wrote the letter and why. Their pursuit of truth leads them to local government, to national government, back to schools and, eventually, to Australia (Serial clearly has a bigger budget than most podcasts).
But. This series is loooong, about eight hours over eight episodes. It’s also frustrating. Perhaps this isn’t a surprise. Anyone who has tried to deal with local councils, even in just a “why is this bill so high and what is it for?” capacity, knows how hard it is to pin down anyone to accept responsibility for anything. So to discover, say, who was in a particular meeting, and what was said, takes endless hours and mammoth patience. With this story, the shutters come down very swiftly from anyone official and, despite freedom-of-information requests, many stay down.
The final episode involves a dentist, Achmad Da Costa, who, for various reasons, also wants the Trojan Horse to be properly exposed. Da Costa has several words of wisdom, including “on the side of truth is time”. Perhaps he’s right, though whether the truth will bring consequences is quite another thing.
The British establishment has a habit of mischaracterising those it deems to be outsiders, whether Irish Catholics, working-class football supporters, the Windrush generation or Muslim youth. It also has a habit of suppressing its own past misdemeanours, as all those communities know. Often, it takes years for the truth to be revealed, and even longer for any consequences. I hope that something concrete will come from this dogged podcast, but I won’t be holding my breath.
Another podcast that lands with the weight of its maker’s previous success is Fake Psychic. From journalist Vicky Baker, who made Fake Heiress, about Anna Delvey, this new series is funny, both ha ha and peculiar. It’s a detailed retelling of another fraudster’s life: that of M Lamar Keene, a US psychic who wrote a book about how he and other mediums used to trick their audiences. As it’s a BBC podcast, there are drama inserts (I wonder when this awful trend will stop?), but these are saved by the fabulously outre performance of Edward Hogg as Lamar.
The problem with Fake Psychic is that it’s quite interesting but not madly. A four-parter, rather than a six-parter. Still, it’s frothy enough, and there’s weirdness here too. Did you know that even today, the US has several spiritualist camps, like spooky Butlin’s, where the public pay and psychics commune with their dead relatives? Such camps are regarded as religious!
And more silliness from good old Nigel Planer, who has revisited Nicholas Craig, the exquisitely observed pompous old thesp of his book I, An Actor. His new show, I, An Actor, a Podcast, is yet more harrumphing about other actors’ careers, plus ego-driven daftery, and I am enjoying it greatly.