The Coming Storm (BBC Radio 4/World Service) | BBC Sounds
Now, Where Were We? with Barry Cryer and Bob Cryer (Acast)
Gemma Cairney Gets Classical (Scala Radio) | scalaradio.co.uk
Excuse me for a moment. I’ve just finished binge-listening to The Coming Storm, the new seven-episode BBC series about contemporary US politics – the fringier, loopier end of US politics – and now my brain is burnt and my synapses are frazzled.
Mind-frying is, of course, to be expected. It’s what happens if you spend too long thinking about internet conspiracy nonsense. Hello birds, hello sky, hello absolute tosh about the world being run by a coordinated baby-eating and paedophile network, centred on Hillary Clinton. And hello to the good old dark underbelly of America, the longstanding subject of every keen British reporter with a microphone and a ticket to the US.
The Coming Storm initially seems to be about something else, with host reporter Gabriel Gatehouse telling us he had the idea for the programme when he did an online sketching class. A red herring. Actually, his real question is pretty standard: what was behind the storming of the Capitol building on 6 January last year? Gatehouse watched it on TV, as we all did, but when he saw Jake Angeli, AKA the “QAnon shaman”, the guy in the Viking horn hat and the furs, he thought: “Uh oh.” Because a couple of months earlier, Gatehouse had met Angeli, but hadn’t interviewed him. He’d thought the Trump Jamiroquai was too much of an outlier nut.
When Gatehouse began discussing this, my heart sank. I’ve had my fill of programmes about “Q drops”, pizzagate, the poisonous message boards of 4chan, 8chan and the horrible results of all of the resulting conspiracy theories. Anyone with half an eye on the news – or an active Facebook account – has been aware of the underlying QAnon story for quite some time. Even if you’ve never heard of QAnon, there have been umpteen “Blimey, what’s going on in America?” explanatory podcasts. The idea of another one, made because a hack felt like he’d missed his scoop, was not appealing.
Luckily, The Coming Storm is more than a going-over of old ground. Gatehouse is trying to paint a broader picture, attempting to explain why the (untrue) stories of a paedophile elite/great awakening/stolen election are believed by so many people. He looks at the background, from ye olde cover-up of Bill Clinton’s sexual shenanigans in the 90s, to recent Facebook algorithm changes, to opportunistic Republican co-opting of fringe beliefs – and tries to understand why this all means that normal people can be convinced of abnormal things.
He does this very well, though the programme necessarily goes over some familiar territory. I kept being reminded of two podcasts in particular: Nicky Woolf’s Finding Q: My Journey Into QAnon and Jon Ronson’s Things Fell Apart. (Both shows were in my top 10 audio of 2021.) Gatehouse interviews the founder of the 8chan message board, Fredrick Brennan, who features heavily in Finding Q. He goes to a QAnon conference, as Woolf’s series does. Later, he talks to an expert about the “satanic panic” of the 1980s, which was examined in Ronson’s show. He also touches on how ordinary Americans get on to school boards and neighbourhood councils and use their positions to further their own interests (obsessions). Ronson covered this, too.
Woolf and Ronson concentrate on small incidents as a way of illustrating something larger. Gatehouse’s canvas is broader, not as laser-focused. This means that the programmes can feel scattered – why is he talking to this particular person? – though he manages to pull it all together in the end. Also because of his wide remit, Gatehouse’s conclusion – that 6 January isn’t the end of something, but the beginning – feels woolly. But we can forgive him that. This is an epic effort that brings together several disparate strands into an explanatory, thoroughly scary whole. Excellent production and music work throughout, too.
After all that, some light relief. And look! Barry Cryer, whom I love, has a new podcast, Now, Where Were We? In it, the 86-year-old comedy veteran has a chat with a chum in the pub over a pint or two. His son Bob is there too, setting up the microphone and slightly steering the conversation. Barry himself is just here for the stories, and this is an elderly version of a bro-pod. Anecdote after anecdote ensues; tales of Morecambe and Wise, of The Goon Show, of Tony Hancock, of funny funerals and pun-filled panel shows. It’s relentless, exhausting. Stephen Fry and Danny Baker are Cryer’s first interviewees, and each is given two shows almost an hour long. A tougher editing button is required, or at least a few mattress adverts.
Gemma Cairney, upbeat veteran of 1Xtra, 6 Music and Radio 4, has a new Sunday night show on Scala Radio. The idea is that she’ll mix classical tracks with her more usual musical choices, learning along the way. At least I think that’s the idea: it wasn’t explained very well. This show needs stronger production. Cairney is most comfortable when talking to others, and could have done with a couple of interviews or a short feature, chatting to a listener about their favourite composer, for instance. This would have given a more solid structure, rather than Cairney occasionally explaining that she doesn’t have much classical knowledge. Still, she’s a warm and lovely broadcaster. With a few adjustments, this could be an excellent, mind-and-synapse-soothing show.