The week in radio and podcasts: New Storytellers; Led By the Science – review

<span>Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

New Storytellers (Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
Led By the Science (Radio 4) | BBC Sounds

Charles Parker was a remarkable BBC radio producer who valued the voices of working people. He died 40 years ago, but is still remembered for the Radio Ballads, his landmark collaboration with the musicians Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. Made in the late 1950s and early 60s, the Radio Ballads mixed folk music with the real voices of the documentary subjects, whether teenagers or railway workers; before, such voices were always played by actors or made into scripts. (There have been more modern versions, but if you want to hear the originals, they’re on the MacColl family website. They used to be available via the BBC, but I couldn’t find them on Sounds.)

Anyway, in 2005, an annual Charles Parker prize was established, for the best student radio feature. His daughter, Sara Parker, herself an audio producer, is very involved with the prize, and for the past few years the winners have had their work broadcast on Radio 4. Last week, the 2020 winners’ work went out as New Storytellers in the 15-minute afternoon slot before The Archers (which is, we note, still limping along in dreadful inner-thoughts-of-the-characters mode).

Each piece was very different, though there was, perhaps, a theme of loss. Gabriel Green’s Palores, the Bird of Cornwall was almost whimsical. It told the story of the chough, a symbol of Cornwall for hundreds of years and once a very common bird. Flocks dwindled to almost zero in the 1970s, but there are more now, and the bird’s association with one local woman’s personal tragedy lifted this into more than just a soundscape. Projectionists, by Richard Queree, was also lovely. Queree simply talked to a few cinema projectionists, mostly John Newcombe, who, at 82, is Britain’s oldest. Most cinemas don’t use projectionists any more. They, too, are a dwindling flock. Living With Dementia was a prosaic title for Lewis Harrower’s engagingly experimental work; his use of sound to convey the hearing difficulties of dementia sufferers, as well as his chatty approach, made a familiar subject into something personal.

I wanted every one of these programmes to continue for longer than 15 minutes

The best two programmes were pieces of investigative journalism, from Charlotte Hurrell and Alex Morgan. (Both young women went to Birmingham City University, so well done to that institution and course.) In Anything Goes in Holbeck, Hurrell went to Leeds to examine its dedicated zone for street sex workers. Hurrell and two of her friends hung out there, speaking to both sex workers and punters (“How much for a blowie?” one asked her). Lots of voices in this one, from a 14-year-old girl, constantly propositioned on her way to school, to a drunk guy offering to call Hurrell and her friends a cab for their own safety. Hurrell spotted him later negotiating with a sex worker, counting out his coins.

The overall winner, This Ain’t My Life, was about a homeless man named Kane Walker. Morgan had met Walker crying on a Birmingham street and spent time talking to him; her do-good feeling dissolved when Walker died a few weeks after they’d met. He froze to death. The programme used a shattering recording of Walker made by a homeless worker. “THIS AIN’T MY LIFE!” howled Walker; his desperation made tears spring into my eyes. His friends said he went from a happy, boyish lad to someone completely different in just two weeks living on the streets. I wanted every one of these programmes to continue for longer than 15 minutes, but especially this one.

Chris Whitty, Boris Johnson and Patrick Vallance during a press conference in July.
‘Science isn’t chiselled in stone’: Chris Whitty, Boris Johnson and Patrick Vallance during a press conference in July. Photograph: Simon Dawson/PA

Also on Radio 4, and also shattering in its own calm way, Led By the Science considered our government’s response to Covid-19 and whether or not it was “led by the science”. Philip Ball worked through how scientific committees once offered advice to politicians, and how Boris Johnson’s cabinet changed that. There were differing opinions as to the way scientists were used in communication roles and, indeed, as to what science actually is. “Science… isn’t chiselled in stone,” said one expert. Ball: “Science has no magic formula for conjuring certainties out of big unknowns.” In short, it’s not the job of scientists to make public policy decisions, no matter how hard Johnson tries to hide behind them. We can see you, big boy.

Three radio presenters making moves

Vick Hope
Vick Hope Photograph: BBC/PA

Vick Hope
Massively clever and unbelievably hard-working, Hope hosted Capital’s Breakfast show with Roman Kemp and Sonny Jay from 2017 until February this year. On TV, she’s presented cycling shows, music shows, Crufts and documentaries. She went on Strictly Come Dancing in 2018 (the Stacey Dooley-Kevin Clifton year) and lasted five weeks; she’s a columnist for Marie Claire; she’s written children’s books… Now Hope is moving to Radio 1, to co-host its long-established Life Hacks and take over the chart show. There is no way she won’t be great. This woman’s below par is other people’s excellent.

Simon Mayo
The resilient Mayo, badly treated by Radio 2, where he’d hoped to spend the rest of his broadcasting life, has been doing well in his Monday to Saturday mid-morning slot at Scala. He’s now giving up his Sunday afternoons, too, to host an album show on Greatest Hits Radio, kicking off on 6 September with a celebration of His Bruceness (Springsteen, not Forsyth). Mayo makes it all look easy and bashes out bestselling books in his downtime (Mad Blood Stirring, optioned for a film on the basis of a four-page synopsis). Oh, and Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review is still a regular in podcasting’s top 10.

Iain Lee and Katherine Boyle
The magical Lee and his producer Boyle were unceremoniously dumped from Lee’s brilliant phone-in show, The Late Night Alternative, by talkRadio a few weeks ago. He has bounced back with a phone-in show on Twitch, presenting alongside the multi-talented Boyle. You can listen to the new Late Night Alternative without visuals (which is what I do), so it’s like a radio show, or you can check out the guests, who include Bob Mortimer and Dan Renton Skinner (AKA Angelos Epithemiou/Barry from Watford). It’s on slightly earlier, from 9pm, and people listen, call and Skype from all over the world. Funny, sweet, odd, wonderful: there’s nothing like it.