The week in audio: Unlicensed; The Name Is DeSantis; Today; Room 5; Away From Home

A US crime drama takes a weird-noir turn, James Naughtie analyses Ron DeSantis, and the Ukrainian football team with pluck on their side

Unlicensed | Audible
The Name Is DeSantis (BBC Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
Today (BBC Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
Room 5 (BBC Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
Away From Home | The Athletic

Hmm. In a knock to my long-held prejudices, I have been very much enjoying another audio drama series. Along with documentaries “hosted” by shipped-in celebrities and anything involving Chris Evans, listening to audio drama was, for a long time, the price I paid for the many other delights of my job. But over the past 10 years, the twin forces of expensive, slickly produced mysteries and imaginative, spooky outsider stories have swept aside my prejudices. Excellent shows such as Lime Town and Alice Isn’t Dead from the US, and Wooden Overcoats and The Lovecraft Investigations from the UK, kicked to the kerb all memories of limp Radio 4 plays and paved the way for better audio fiction. (Yes, I know The Archers is still going. Not much we can do about that.)

Anyway, one of the most loved long-running drama podcasts of the US nerd/spooky type is Welcome to Night Vale, which started in 2012. Created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, it’s a twice-monthly tale of the goings-on in a small desert town, Night Vale, where everything’s a little… off. The weather does strange things. Taylor Swift invites people to a seance. Throughout, there are repeated jokes and long-term story arcs but each episode stands alone.

Now Fink and Cranor have a new show, Unlicensed, about a small-time LA private dick. Sounds like Raymond Chandler? Well, yes, except Unlicensed appears to be channelling a different detective, as our brilliant but eccentric sleuth gains a more sensible sidekick. Here, Holmes and Watson are women: Lou Rosen, played by Lusia Strus, is our disorganised genius, Molly (Molly Quinn) her paper-arranging assistant.

In common with Welcome to Night Vale, there’s an all-seeing narrator, who paints a beautiful picture of LA in every episode, zooming in and out of the story like a camera on a drone. Themes and phrases emerge and are repeated, but slightly differently. And the story, which starts out fairly conventionally, begins to spin into weird noir in episode two. Suddenly we’ve got replicant siblings, freed lions, mysterious deaths and California wildfires, and you find yourself gripped. Excellent.

For more American strange, but in real life, you might try The Name Is DeSantis, Jim Naughtie’s analysis of the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, who swept all before him in the midterms last week. In this interesting programme, Naughtie explains that DeSantis is “Trump, but smart”, and so has a good chance of becoming Republican leader in the future… as long as boss baby Trump doesn’t squish him first.

There were a couple of other enjoyable Radio 4 moments last week. First, Amol Rajan’s interview with Avinash Patel, an elder from Rishi Sunak’s local Hindu temple, about Sunak’s Hinduism. An excellent piece, and refreshing to hear on Today, which usually confines religion to the loopy Thought for the Day slot. I also enjoyed the dramatic diagnosis in last week’s episode of Room 5, Helena Merriman’s series about life-changing medical moments. The cause of posh chap Simon’s headaches and confusion was something so horrendous that I actually yelped out loud. (As a side point, although I love Merriman, I often find this show a bit unfulfilling. Only a few subjects are capable of lifting their medical mystery into something more than an oh-my-gawd tale. Posh Simon, though lovely, didn’t have many real insights at all.)

The Athletic is a well-respected online football magazine known for its in-depth articles and its new podcast, Away From Home, has a fascinating footy subject: Shakhtar Donetsk FC. For non-football followers, Shakhtar are the local team of the Ukrainian city of Donetsk. They’re a top team, known for great Brazilian players, and got a spot in the 2022 Champions League competition, but after February, when Russia stepped up its invasion, all of Shakhtar’s foreign players left, apart from one. Having already moved its base to Lviv and Kyiv, its international games were moved to Warsaw in Poland, and its academy, with all its young players, was relocated to Split in Croatia. So how will Shakhtar manage now?

Shakhtar Donetsk fans at a Champions League match in Glasgow.
Shakhtar Donetsk fans at a Champions League match in Glasgow last month. Photograph: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Reporters Adam Crafton and Joey D’Urso cover a lot of ground in this podcast, physically and in terms of story. Though the underlying thrust is “can plucky Shakhtar survive among the big boys of Europe?”, there are a lot of different fascinating tales to tell. D’Urso is sometimes too flat in presentation style, and both he and Crafton occasionally ask questions for which the only answer is “yes”, but they are dogged reporters and the tales are well told. The young lads in Croatia are heartrending, and the third episode, which documents Fifa’s lack of support for the club, is depressingly familiar for anyone who loves football, but not the revolting fat cats who feed from it. Recommended.


Miranda Sawyer

The GuardianTramp

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