Fiona Sturges, a writer and columnist (and judge for the British Podcast Awards), posed an interesting question on Twitter earlier this week“How do you feel about narrative documentary series that are researched and assembled by producers and journalists, which are then narrated by a celebrity who has no connection to the subject? I am listening to one now and I feel IRKED.”

Having celebrities present or narrate documentaries like this is certainly nothing new. It’s been a successful television format for years, simply because it gets the punters in. Plus if the celebrity is genuinely curious about the subject, at the same time as the viewer at home, it really does give it a bit of an edge.

What was interesting though was that many of the responses to Fiona about celebrity fronted podcasts were overwhelmingly negative: “For everyone who wouldn’t listen unless ‘A Famous’ was presenting, you lose a listener who’d be genuinely interested because they can smell the insincerity,” said one response. “I want to hear from the people who know something about the thing!” came another. They’ve got a point. Podcasting is special in that nearly every topic has a podcast about it and an expert presenting it. Surely you just want to hear that expert?

My conclusion is that it isn’t so clear cut. If anything, it’s very much down to the celebrity themselves. If they go actively out of the way to dig deeper, great. But if it seems like everything they were going to say and do in the podcast was handed to them on a platter, we can tell. Trust me, we can always tell.

Here’s some podcasts with decent guests in the last week:

  • Dame Judi Dench (!) was a recent guest on David Tennant Does A Podcast With…
  • Richard Osman, the man who tells you how many people responded to a question with a niche answer, talked about his first novel in Simon Mayo’s Books of the Year.
  • Table Manners with Jessie Ware is doing a two part special with many of the celebrities they have hosted dinners for in recent months. Listen out for Antoni from Queer Eye, David Schwimmer, Roisin Murphy and Haim. 
  • Ella Mills, the creator of Deliciously Ella, is a guest on The Motherkind Podcast, about what she plans to do differently with her newest pregnancy, and the pressures and lessons she learnt from her first.

If you have listened to an interesting guest on a podcast recently, let us know by filling in this form.

Here are our podcast picks for the week ahead

Ecstasy: The Battle of the Rave – From tomorrow groups of more than six are banned in England. To distract you from the anxiety about our future, why not take this opportunity to delve into an interesting period from our recent past. This new podcast, presented by Chris Warburton (also behind the podcastsBeyond Reasonable Doubt andEnd of Days), looks at the arrival of ecstasy into the club scene in the late 80s and early 90s, how it led to the dramatic rise of rave and acid house and its subsequent consequences for both law enforcement and society. As you would expect from the BBC, they speak to a myriad of people whose lives were affected by its arrival: from the dealers who made millions, to those whose lives were ripped apart because of the drug.

As well as the six part investigative series, there’s also a five part set of captivating monologues written by Danny Brocklehurst (the screenwriter behind The Stranger, Brassic and Shameless). There’s quite a cast too – Meera Syal (the raver), Ade Edmondson (the club promoter), David Morrissey (the cop), Ian Hunt (the dealer) and Monica Dolan (the DJ). All of the episodes, including the monologues, are available to binge. By the way, BBC policy meant at the start of the first episode the podcast warns that the series “contains descriptions of drug use”. Very W1A.

Anthems Black -If you’re not aware of Anthems, it’s a neat podcast series featuring anecdotes, speeches, stories and more, each recorded by a different person but all connected to a similar theme. The first three series looked at being LGBTQIA+, what it means to be a woman and how our lives are being shaped by the pandemic. Their fourth series, with episodes dropping every two days, will be amplifying black voices in the lead up to and during Black History Month.

Munya Chawawa, the comedian and the mastermind of those viral videos during lockdown, presented an interesting episode called THREAT : “I might be Black but I am not a threat,” he says “In fact, I am the opposite of a threat. I can barely make it through Jurassic Park 3 without covering my eyes. I called my GP because I cut my finger on a cardboard box and I was convinced myself I got tetanus. Tetanus …. from cardboard!”
“Whatever connotations the colour Black holds to you, remember I am Black by invention, not by intention. I didn’t choose to be a colour you find threatening.”

Socially Distant Sports Bar take on GIANT Comedian, actor and podcaster Elis James and producer Steff Garrero from The Socially Distant Sports Bar take the reins of this week’s GIANT to tell us about the time Wales lost to Leyton Orient – featuring interviews with Ryan Giggs amongst others, and music created exclusively for the podcast by James Dean Bradfield from the Manic Street Preachers. 
[Chosen by Spotify]

Peter 2.0– When the robotic scientist Peter Scott-Morgan was given the terminal diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease in 2017, he decided to start working on a bold new project. With the terminal disease making him lose his ability to control his own muscles and body, he decided to see whether it would be possible for him to live on as a cyborg (that’s being part human, part machine) and in his words: “not just to survive, but to thrive.”

As well as the technological hurdles to overcome, the series raises philosophical questions on how far we can delay our demise, as well as what point would a transition with robotics mean that we are no longer human. Much of the footage you’ll hear in the first three episodes of the series comes from an unfinished Channel 4 documentary made by Matt Pelly, who sadly died in 2018. The presenter Chris Durlacher not only reviews the work Pelly filmed, but he completes his documentary as part of this project. This series is both a fascinating subject to look into and a touching tribute.

Great Scot! – Finally, calling all Scots, as well as Scotts who happen to be Scot (both of which are true for me). In this new series broadcaster Janice Forsyth interviews Scots who have made a big name for themselves around the world, starting with Annie Lennox and James McAvoy. Interviews with Brian Cox, Alan Cumming, Nicola Benedetti and Billy Connolly on the way. 

An enjoyable focus of this podcast are the conversations about how having a Scottish upbringing influences who they are today. Lennox talked about her distinctive Scottish accent, despite now living in America (“Why would I lose my accent? Why would I allow that to be eroded? It gets stronger when I speak to any other Scot. It gets out.”). 

Meanwhile McAvoy talks candidly about how the pandemic made it impossible for him to film more scenes for His Dark Materials, which is still due to air later this year: “Philip [Pullman] gave us permission to explore the hints that he had placed into the continuing narrative about what Asriel had been doing, where he had done it, the people he had enlisted, the challenges he faced and gave us a nice line on how to build up to a 50 minute episode … 

“I was dead excited. I was like ‘my god, Phillip Pullman, tailor made episode with his blessing’ … and then they pulled the plug.”

That’s all for this week. As ever, we love your podcast choices. All you need to do is fill in this form with your recommendation and we’ll take a listen.

I also have a TV Newsletter, which you can sign up for here. And make sure that you follow our Instagram, which lists our four chosen podcasts every and every Monday.

And if you’re feeling anxious by the news in the last week, may I say that you’re not the only one. We’ll get through this together.

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