Uncanny (BBC Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
Just One Thing (BBC Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
Built to Thrive | Amazon Music
The Cabinet of Jazz | Jazz FM
The Flipside | BBC Sounds
It’s beginning to feel a lot like autumn (NB not Christmas yet, ta, shops), so let’s turn to the once-traditional methods of occupying those longer nights. I mean, of course, the telling of scary stories. And – woo-hoo! – here’s Danny Robins, who, with his last podcast, The Battersea Poltergeist, established himself as the audio hero of all things spooky. He has a new show out: Uncanny. It’s a hoot.
Like The Battersea Poltergeist, Uncanny concerns itself with real life. The creepy cases it discusses – ghosts, UFOs, mysterious beasts – take place within living memory, and Robins interviews those involved. Like The Battersea Poltergeist too, he has two experts on hand to discuss the stories (last week: parapsychologist Caroline Watt and ordained minister Peter Laws), an atmospheric soundtrack by Evelyn Sykes and theme tune by Lanterns on the Lake. No dramatic inserts to illustrate what’s going on though, so things move more quickly.
First up is the tale of room 611, a student room at Belfast’s Queen’s University shared, in 1981, by two first year undergraduates. One, Ken, now a highly respected scientist, tells Robins the story of a strange event that happened in the room. It’s definitely scary – he uses the words “pure, distilled evil” – and it’s hard to explain. Soon after, Ken has an even stranger night. Plus his roommate has his own weird tale, as do the students who lived in the room before him, and those who took the room the year after.
The story is eerie, but quite straightforward in the telling. Robins makes it into something more. He’s full of drama (“This is the biggest investigation into the paranormal… ever”), and great at creating suspense, taking breaks from the action to recap or discuss the case with his experts. It all adds to the fun. Listeners are invited to contact the show with their own explanations, or insights into the case, and the show will return to Ken later in the series.
There are other forces swirling around this time of year: the desire to get a bit happier – a bit fitter, a bit calmer – seems to be prevalent right now, as our current environment is already in a handcart, careering towards room 611. Several podcasts aim to help. Dr Michael Mosley’s Just One Thing is one, where in each episode the cheerful telly doc suggests a small, scientifically based lifestyle change to improve wellbeing. There are plenty to try, from eating dark chocolate to imagining you’re better at a sport (this works, apparently!) or playing video games to stimulate your brain. Though gaming, eating chocolate and imagining yourself fitter doesn’t necessarily lead to a more vital life, as any parent of teenagers knows. Mosley is an upbeat host, and every week he gets someone to join in the experiment, to see if it works. It always does, and this is jolly to hear.
Another podcast, from another famous doc, started last week. Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s Built to Thrive is a Monday-to-Friday, five-minute daily offering, and is more hand-holding than Mosley’s. Last week, Chatterjee suggested practical methods for reducing anxiety, such as not reaching for your phone when you wake up, and writing down when you’re stressed, and he urged listeners to join in. (Though he also urged us to contact him via various social media accounts, which isn’t very … no phone.) Chatterjee already has a very successful health podcast, Feel Better, Live More, with more than 200 loooooong episodes to choose from (each lasts more than two hours). This new show, from Amazon Music, capitalises on the shorter, bitesize shows that accompany Feel Better, Live More. How Chatterjee is going to maintain his own wellness – or his doctoring – when he’s making so many podcasts is another matter.
Over on Jazz FM, Marcus Brigstocke has a new show, The Cabinet of Jazz, where he invites well-known jazz devotees to imagine a government of musicians. An accomplished host, he manoeuvred easily past a lacklustre live audience into a nice interview with his first guest, Jay Rayner of this parish. This is a well put-together, well-paced programme, and the music gives it a welcoming feel.
Just time for another warm host, Paris Lees, and her new show The Flipside, which tells “two stories from different sides of the same coin”. So far, she’s covered whether speaking a second language changes your personality (hmmm) and swinging culture versus celibacy for women (excellent). Lees is great, but the first episode needed sharper editing; it felt bizarrely flat when compared with the second. Still, this, too, is a friendly listen, and another show to cosy up with in your velour lounging trackie.