The week in podcasts: Mortem; Over the Road; The Space Programme

Exploring unusual subjects, from autopsies to the minutiae of long-haul trucking

Mortem | BBC Sounds
Over the Road | radiotopia.fm
The Space Programme | funkidslive.com

An intriguing new series on BBC Sounds, made by the always reliable Whistledown Productions, has a mortician, Carla Valentine, talk us through her job. But this show isn’t just about cutting and shutting. Valentine also introduces us to other non-police experts performing seemingly small procedures when confronted with a suspicious death. For instance: a man is found burned to death in a wood. Was it suicide or murder? What can the body reveal? What about the surrounding woodland, the earth? Any discarded clothing? How can teeny pieces of evidence be gathered and analysed to form a coherent case and discover what actually went on?

Valentine is a charismatic presenter, and she’s our guide through some grisly scenarios. In Mortem, the cases considered are fictional – composites of actual deaths – but the experts are real and the first three episodes are devoted to “The Burning Man” (the burnt man would have been a more accurate title). The experts conduct clothing flammability tests, investigate the ground for pollen, use a trained dog to track down any scraps of petrol-covered material. Valentine herself, whose job title is actually senior anatomical pathology technologist, talks us through her autopsy instruments. She also describes the particular way she cuts a corpse’s flesh to open the sternum and reveal the organs within. Be warned: sound effects give this extra realism.

It might seem an odd set-up for a series, this mixture of fiction and fact, but it’s done very well. The stories (two so far) reveal themselves slowly, over a few episodes, piece by piece. A little too slowly for my taste, initially, but once I’d settled into Mortem’s careful pace, I enjoyed the intimacy and detail. In the second case, which started last week, an old lady has been battered to death. Valentine explains that she needs to remove the brain from the head, for examination, and that the brain can’t be replaced into its cavity once removed and dissected, “because it might leak out through the ears”(!). Instead, the brain is put into the main part of the body and a large piece of wadding is inserted into the head, so that once the postmortem is done and the skin is put back where it should be, the corpse looks like the person it once was.

Does this sound gruesome? It isn’t, or at least it’s a lot less gruesome than many true crime series. And, of course, we’re dealing with a mystery, and mysteries are what podcasts are made for. If I were a crime writer, I would subscribe to Mortem immediately: so many interesting details are revealed.

Paul Marhoefer, aka Long Haul Paul.
Paul Marhoefer, aka Long Haul Paul. Photograph: Radiotopia

Another odd-bod series started last week: Radiotopia’s Over the Road. This has gravel-voiced trucker “Long Haul” Paul Marhoefer discussing all aspects of being a truck driver in the States, and especially how his job is being changed by new tech and regulations. Whether you enjoy this eight-part podcast will depend on whether you enjoy Marhoefer’s company. He certainly has an amazing “late-night radio” voice, and we’re also treated to his music. But how interested are you in the detail of the monitoring of trucking? I’m not quite decided about that as yet.

And Fun Kids, that most ambitious of children’s broadcasters, has an offbeat new drama. The Space Programme concerns Lune, a small Scottish island with only 300 or so inhabitants, chosen by a space-loving billionaire as the best spot for a space shuttle launch. A competition to be the world’s first child astronaut is launched and friendships between young teenagers are formed and broken as the island community reacts in different ways to their quiet environment becoming the centre of space-fuelled attention.

There are barely credible plot points and highly unlikely scenes (the basic premise is pretty unbelievable, let’s face it), but that doesn’t really matter. The characters are engaging, the show is well-paced and I found myself happily bingeing the lot in one go (each episode is only eight minutes long). I’m enjoying podcasters’ explorations of places that audio doesn’t usually bother to visit.

Three brilliantly read audiobooks

Beastie Boys Book
This 2018 book is not just a history of this most brilliant band, but a series of revelatory tales, mostly from Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz and Michael “Mike D” Diamond. Even in the printed version there’s a lot that comes from other people, and the audiobook takes this even further, with chapters read by an amazing cast, from Steve Buscemi to Snoop Dogg. Jarvis Cocker narrates Ad-Rock’s first visit to London, Amy Poehler a list of videos. In particular, John C Reilly’s deadpan wit makes Mike D’s writing come alive.

I Partridge/Nomad
Memoirs are usually the best forms of audiobook. There’s something amazingly revealing about an author reading their own words, especially when those words concern themselves. Plus, if they’re funny, you can’t lose. Hilarious real-life audio memoirists include David Sedaris, Alexei Sayle and Louis Theroux. But for tears-in-the-eyes, ow-my-belly, full-on laughter, Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge is your man. (Yes, I know he’s not real. But he is, isn’t he?) If you miss Alan when you’re done, try Diane Morgan’s Cunk on Everything or Matt Berry’s Toast on Toast.

Heartburn
I have an aversion to actorly readings of books (other than Simon Callow reading Peter Ackroyd’s London, because he’s out-of-this-world fruity). It’s so hard for an actor to get the voice right, the tone and soul of the book as it’s written. But Meryl Streep is hard to fault in her reading of Heartburn, the wonderful 1983 novel but really a memoir by Nora Ephron. An honourable mention for Hayley Atwell’s interpretation of Jessie Burton’s smash hit The Confession, which came out last year, and BrÍd Brennan’s brilliant reading of Anna Burns’s Man Booker prize-winner Milkman.

Contributor

Miranda Sawyer

The GuardianTramp

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