The week in radio and podcasts: Fall of the Shah; How to Burn a Million Quid

The BBC revisits the Iranian revolution in gloriously hammy style, while the KLF’s antics strike a surreal note still

Fall of the Shah | BBC World Service

How to Burn a Million Quid | BBC Radio 4

Historical drama. Two words that conjure up rustling skirts, rattling teacups, and an “Oh, Mr Pumperton, how could you?” conversation taking place outdoors, possibly in a rose garden. (We’re talking audio, so you can’t tell.) But not all history takes place before 1900. There’s an awful lot of history out there – more made every minute! – and our most recent provides plenty of real life drama to plunder. I bet you anything that David Hare, right this moment, is frantically writing and rewriting a play called The Last Days of Brexit

Which brings me to two new drama podcasts from the BBC. The first, Fall of the Shah, written by Steve Waters, begins in 1977, with the then US president Jimmy Carter aboard his presidential plane, off to visit Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran. Nathan Osgood plays the part of Carter, Bijan Daneshmand the Shah. The press blurb says the series stars Diana Rigg, but she’s merely the narrator. There aren’t too many juicy parts for women in the political arena of the 1970s; Carter’s wife, Rosalynn, appears to be there simply to distract her husband from tricky conversations: “Jimmy, look, is that Mount Ararat?” Anyhoo.

We hear things mostly from Carter’s point of view, though this is set to change as the nine-part serial progresses. Even in the first episode there are inserts indicating that Iran isn’t as welcoming as Carter finds it. A man is taken into custody for shouting “Death to the Shah”. Carter’s aides give us quick, damning potted histories while still on the plane. And, “How hard it is to make out a country through a mass of flowers and smiles… Only a cynic could take such unforced love of the Shah as something compelled,” says Rigg, who has been given a God-like overview.

Among the flowers and smiles, and charmed by the Shah, naive Carter goes off-piste with his after-dinner speech. Essentially, he plays things too cosy. (Interesting parallels could be drawn with the contemporary president.)

Those who remember what happened next know that Carter’s warm words come back to haunt him. For the Shah is deposed, the Ayatollah Khomeini rises to power and Carter’s friendship with the Shah triggers the Iran hostage crisis. Spoiler!

Anyway, Fall of the Shah is exactly the type of drama at which the BBC excels. There is doomy, this-is-serious music. There are terrible accents. There is extemporising dialogue that nobody would ever say, eg “You’ve gotta worry about a guy who thumbs through arms catalogues to relax.” As drama, it’s pretty bad. But as an easy way to recall and reassess history, it’s good, and could be useful to school history students. I found it bizarrely relaxing, but then I listened to it while suffering the trauma of paying my tax return.

So what of historical drama number two, How to Burn a Million Quid? This concerns history that I really do remember, namely genius pop meisters Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty’s decision to burn £1m in 1994. Or, at least, as near as £1m as dammit (I know of a journalist who was part of the ceremonial nailing of the money to a wooden board, and who kept quite a lot of his allocation in his pocket).

Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond, the ‘wonderfully chaotic’ KLF.
Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond, the ‘wonderfully chaotic’ KLF. Photograph: Simon Ritter/Redferns

This is a funny drama series, perhaps a little overlong and detailed – do we really need to know about Drummond’s failed pop band Brilliant? – but with an upbeat bravura that keeps you listening. It’s quite nuts: dead people speak, music thrums throughout. And as you might have guessed, it’s not merely about the million quid, but a history of the KLF/the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu/K Foundation, including all the wonderful chaos caused by this wonderfully chaotic band.

As you listen, you remember, and you wonder: “How did this all happen?” It seems even more outrageous today than back then, when the money burning was rejected by almost everyone as a terrible waste, and definitely not art – but the K Foundation did it anyway. “The worst decision of our lives,” they think later. Not everyone agrees.

Three podcasts to help you write your screenplay

Scriptnotes takes various forms, though it’s always presented – very chattily – by John August and Craig Mazin. Sometimes they do live shows; sometimes they do a “three-page challenge”, analysing three script pages sent in by a listener; sometimes they talk to professionals; sometimes they talk about problems like plot holes, realism, second drafts. They’ve just started “the pitch session”, where listeners send in a minute-long pitch for a film or TV show to be discussed. Nearly 400 episodes to choose from, with transcripts, though only the most recent 20 are free.

Royal Court Playwright’s Podcast
Playwriting is, of course, different from screenwriting, but the interviews that Simon Stephens does with other playwrights are frank and jolly. Plus the writers are welcomely diverse – Bola Adbaje, Abi Morgan, Roy Williams, Anupama Chandrasekhar- no long list of white men here. Each episode is about an hour long and covers the writer’s history as well as their writing technique. There’s encouragement in hearing their stories, both personal and within their plays, and you get a strong sense of the support provided by the theatre.

The Guru Podcast
Not just for scriptwriters, this one. Made by Bafta, The Guru examines all sorts of questions around the film, TV and games world. Do I need to know how to code to be a games designer? How do I finance my short film? What are TV writers’ rooms like? The Guru knows all, and draws on Bafta’s amazing access to talent in order to help others trying to make their way. Alongside The Guru itself, there are plenty of other recordings made from Bafta live events. A podcast for everything filmy, from improv to makeup.


Miranda Sawyer

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The week in radio and podcasts: Rebel Radio
Soho Radio has devoted two weeks to covering and soundtracking Extinction Rebellion’s London protests

Miranda Sawyer

13, Oct, 2019 @4:30 AM

Article image
The week in podcasts and radio: the best coronavirus podcasts
Podcasts are springing up as never before, from reports by frontline staff to snappy digests of world headlines

Miranda Sawyer

11, Apr, 2020 @4:00 PM

Article image
The week in radio and podcasts: Conviction
The latest compelling podcast from Gimlet Media – bought last week by Spotify for a whopping $230m – follows an uncompromising private investigator on a crusade in the Bronx

Miranda Sawyer

17, Feb, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
The week in radio and podcasts: The Whisperer in Darkness; Slow Burn: Biggie and Tupac – review
An HP Lovecraft story makes for a fabulous fact-meets-fiction show

Miranda Sawyer

08, Dec, 2019 @5:30 AM

Article image
The week in radio and podcasts: Today; 1619
John Humphrys finally bows out from the Radio 4 flagship, while a New York Times podcast illuminates US history

Miranda Sawyer

22, Sep, 2019 @4:30 AM

Article image
The week in radio and podcasts: NB, Parentland
Two BBC podcasts offer genuine insight into gender identity and the trials of being a parent – and welcome guidance to boot

Miranda Sawyer

03, Mar, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
The week in radio and podcasts: Murmurs
An enjoyable new BBC drama series of ‘mind-altering tales’ is patchy but full of good ideas and strong acting

Miranda Sawyer

02, Feb, 2020 @5:30 AM

Article image
The week in radio and podcasts: Radio Garden; The Archers; Steven Benedict
Escape the horrors of contemporary slavery in Ambridge with a great new app that takes you all around the world

Miranda Sawyer

29, Mar, 2020 @5:30 AM

Article image
The week in podcasts and radio: Drilled; Discovery – Ecological Grief
Climate crimes and other misdemeanours make for vital, if anxiety-inducing, listening

Miranda Sawyer

26, Jan, 2020 @5:30 AM

Article image
The week in radio and podcasts: Radio 4; Making Gay History
Inertia dominates at a Radio 4 still without a new controller, while a brilliant US podcast marks 50 years since the Stonewall riots

Miranda Sawyer

07, Jul, 2019 @6:00 AM