The week in audio: Piers Plowright, Soundsmith; Radio 1’s Pop 101; The Lotte Berk Technique; Dear Daughter; LBC

Storytelling in its varied forms comes in a tribute to a master radio producer, objects as a way into pop star lives, and a profile of a women’s fitness guru

Archive on 4: Piers Plowright, Soundsmith (Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
Radio 1’s Pop 101 With Scott Mills (BBC Sounds)
The Lotte Berk Technique (Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
Dear Daughter (BBC World Service) | BBC Sounds
Nick Ferrari/Eddie Mair

For a few years now, media companies have been huffing on about the power of the story; how humans connect by telling gripping yarns, whether that’s a drama about a King Lear-style family dynasty or an advert about a lonely chocolate bar.

I don’t mind this. Us audio fans know that storytelling is all: from true crime to documentaries, we rely on producers constructing a compelling narrative. One of the most innovative and influential of these was Piers Plowright, who died in August. He was given a suitable elegy in last night’s Archive on 4, made by Falling Tree’s Alan Hall. Born in the late 1930s, brought up in Hampstead, Plowright hailed from a different era (and class). The voices in his early recordings have all but disappeared now: their clipped precision; their ability to simultaneously repress emotion and reveal all.

Plowright was a genius at constructing a story, both in the way he interviewed his subjects (“How did he find them?” you wonder) and how he put together the resulting programme. Mr B, his 1990s documentary about a schoolteacher, James Bellamy, was immensely moving (“The point of radio,” said Plowright, “is to reveal their secrets”), and the great producer Cathy FitzGerald, whose programme I reviewed last week, recalled a particular sentence of Bellamy’s in it: “We had killed and wounded and maimed and blinded and tortured and baked, what, 50 million people? And now, after that, we had to be kind.” Plowright thought of his programmes as composing a piece of music, and I found myself casting about for his documentaries after this show: here’s his Stepping Stones, also produced by Alan Hall, and a short piece called Setting Sail, for your delight.

Storytelling is also the surprising basis for a new Radio 1 podcast, Pop 101. At least, surprising to me: I listened to the first episode, about Billie Eilish, fully expecting a short interview as the show’s hook. But this didn’t materialise. Instead, we got 15 minutes of Scott Mills and co-host Chris Stark recounting Eilish’s early life. Mills is the storyteller, Stark is in charge of what Victoria Wood called “chiming in”; wondering what a futon is, for example.

Billie Eilish
‘Tiny facts can wreck the narrative’: Pop 101 got Billie Eilish’s domestic situation wrong. Photograph: Ian West/PA

The premise of the series is that each episode discusses an inanimate object that has proved important in a celebrity’s career. Sam Fender’s object, in episode two, is a beer pump, because he was discovered working in his local pub, and returned there with his Brit award, which the pub promptly turned into … a beer pump. Eilish’s object was the aforementioned futon: her mum and dad slept on one in the living room so that Eilish and her brother had a bedroom each.

According to Pop 101, this indicated the extent of Eilish’s parents’ support of their children’s creative talent. (OK, I suppose; though you could argue that the futon situation was more to do with them not having much money.) Having interviewed Eilish this year, I was mildly irritated by the show’s payoff: that Eilish still lives in her parents’ home, with the legendary futon. She doesn’t: she has her own place. The problem with constructing a neat story is that tiny facts can wreck the narrative.

Lotte Berk.
Lotte Berk. Photograph: Jane Bown

I also could have done with a little more care with the storytelling in Radio 4’s The Lotte Berk Technique. Lotte Berk (1913-2003) was an ex-dancer who created a fitness regime for women that was rumoured to improve their sex lives. Great hook for a programme, and singer Nadine Shah was an excellent presenter choice, but the producers missed a few story beats. We needed more about what Berk’s exercises did, and what she was actually like (details, anecdotes). This, especially when her daughter, Esther, revealed that Berk stopped having sex with her husband, and instead hooked up with other women through her fitness coaching. A little more digging would have made things clearer, though this was an enjoyable programme, and Shah an engaging presenter.

Over on the World Service, there’s an immensely wholesome new series, Dear Daughter, in which Namulanta Kombo, the mother of a five-year-old girl, gets parents to write and read out a letter to their daughters. It’s lovely, though I’m hoping for more grit as it continues. There’s a reason that fairytales are usually the darkest of stories.

Finally, I’m enjoying the combative approaches of news journalists to the unceasing shiftiness of the current government. On Wednesday, LBC’s Nick Ferrari

informed Dominic Raab that the prime minister was like a football manager waiting to be sacked. And Ferrari’s compadre, Eddie Mair, briefly interrupted Boris Johnson’s 5pm address just to correct some information. “It’s not 780,000 new Covid cases,” he said. “It’s 78,000.” Telling tales.


Miranda Sawyer

The GuardianTramp

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