The week in audio: 606; Mitchell on Meetings; Instant Genius; Conflict of Interest

The moaniest of football phone-in shows doesn’t disappoint; David Mitchell rails to perfection; and Carey Mulligan hears first-hand about the war in Syria

606 (BBC 5 live) | BBC Sounds

Mitchell on Meetings (BBC Radio 4) | BBC Sounds

Instant Genius | Immediate Media

Conflict of Interest | IWM Institute

Tell me, dear reader, do you phone in to 5 live’s 606? Yes? Please accept my condolences on how your life has turned out. Because, though you may well be part of a loving family, be gainfully employed, enjoy good health, have a few possessions (decent car/great trainers/nice headphones) that give you a little thrill of excitement, there is no question that you, poor 606 caller, are disappointed. Soooo disappointed. You’re at the disco of discontent, refusing to dance because that DJ will never play your tune.

And why are you disappointed, 606 caller? Do we have to ask? It is, of course, the national football team of England that’s disappointed you. England has divested you of your dreams, shattered your illusions. Why is Harry Kane, winner of both the Golden Boot and Playmaker awards last season, such a terrible footballer? Why can’t Raheem Sterling, who’s scored twice so far in the Euros, score goals? Why didn’t Gareth Southgate, as caller Alan asked on Tuesday, after England beat the Czech Republic and won their group, just get the team to play for a draw? Now they’re going to have to play Germany, and then England will go – sorry, “crash” – out before the semi-finals and everything will be bad. “They’ve won,” said Alan. “Why did they have to win?”

Why won’t anybody listen to the 606 caller? Oh hello, Chris Sutton and Robbie Savage, it’s James from Manchester, speaking on national radio to thousands of people about how exactly he would go about managing the players of the England team. Let’s start with the lineup. “Rashford could play a midfield role … ” Erm. Shall we fast-forward a few minutes? “Front three: Kane, Rashford and Sancho, I reckon,” said James. “So where are you playing Kane?” wondered Savage. “I don’t know,” said James. “You know, it’s a hard, hard decision … You’ve got me, Robbie, you really have.”

606 is not the only football phone-in show out there, by any means. There are jollier, better informed programmes that feature genial experts stretching out a 90-minute game into hours of engaging, if obsessive, audio. But during an international tournament, 606 is always the best. It’s the purest: a straightforward, unadulterated moan-athon. If England lose, they played wrong. If they win, they played wrong. If England were to triumph at the Euros, the 606 listeners would still moan. It’s their vocation.

Here’s another moaning man. David Mitchell, columnist of this parish, has a new Radio 4 series, Mitchell on Meetings. Mitchell doesn’t like them. Mitchell, whose witty, slightly embittered articulacy makes him the ideal Radio 4 personality, has avoided meetings for years. But during this programme, the first of three, he realises that the comedy panel shows that make up much of his professional life are, in fact, quite like meetings: “There are the ones where no one’s listening, and people have gone in with 10 things they want to say, and there are the ones where it’s actually a conversation …”

This was such a delicious show, so cleverly hosted that interesting information just slid down, medicine sugared by fun. As with the 606-ers, disappointment and irritation are Mitchell’s default moods, but, God, he makes them hilarious. On learning that introverts think before they speak, whereas extroverts just start chatting: “Look, while I’m thinking, I’m making a noise, why can’t introverts learn that?”

David Mitchell.
David Mitchell – disappointment and irritation are his default moods. Photograph: BBC

Mitchell on Meetings reminded me of the “ooh, that’s an interesting detail” approach of early podcasts (think of 99 percent Invisible, or Stuff You Should Know; Sideways is Radio 4’s hit-and-miss attempt). Instant Genius, a podcast from BBC Science Focus magazine, is a recent example. It’s not perfect. The genius part is covered: these are experts, with in-depth knowledge in a very specific area, such as Neanderthals (they had “aerodynamic skulls”), or how the neurotransmitters glutamate and GABA act in the brain (depends). I’d quibble with the instant, though: a half-hour of intense information is 15 minutes too long.

Another show to boost your knowledge is Conflict of Interest, the Imperial War Museums podcast. This has a famous person meet an expert at an IWM, to discuss a war that the celebrity feels they should know more about. Those conflicts that have a name, but the details remain elusive. The opening episode, about the Yugoslav wars, had the clever, interested Deborah Frances-White asking the questions, and since then I’ve been dipping in and out. Last week’s questioner was Carey Mulligan, there to learn about the Syrian war. She met Waad al-Kateab, a Syrian refugee and director of the multi-award-winning film For Sama. The gorgeously voiced Mulligan described what she knew: “Burned-out buildings, a peaceful process that turned into a revolution … it’s been going on for ever and it’s not over.”

Waad al-Kateab filming in Aleppo in her Oscar-nominated documentary For Sama.
Waad al-Kateab filming in Aleppo in her Oscar-nominated documentary For Sama. Photograph: AP

Syrian’s ruler, Bashar al-Assad, who gave up studying ophthalmology in the UK to rule his country, was initially seen as a moderniser – he introduced internet cafes, jazz festivals – but he simply “liberalised the economy but retained the oppression”. Syrians have few freedoms. Al-Kateab described how, when she was 15, her teacher brought in forms for her class to fill in, to join the Ba’ath party, the only political party in Syria. Al-Kateab refused. This caused problems.

With neat production by Matt Hill, the time flew by, and by the end we understood that Syria is not a civil war but an international one, in which Turkey, Iran, Russia, the Kurds, Hezbollah and Isis all have interests. And among all that, there are citizens – real-life ordinary humans who, 10 years after the first protests, still want Assad to go. It should be noted that, though she has been living in the UK for a couple of years now, al-Kateab did not moan once. She didn’t even sound disappointed.


Miranda Sawyer

The GuardianTramp

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