The week in audio: The Archers; Buried; The Sound: Mystery of Havana Syndrome and more

While Ambridge is left reeling, new podcasts delve deep into a waste scandal in Derry and a sinister Cuban mystery, and Zoe Ball gets reading

The Archers (BBC Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
Buried (BBC Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
The Sound: Mystery of Havana Syndrome (Project Brazen and PRX)
Havana Syndrome (Vice World News)
Zoe Ball (BBC Radio 2) | BBC Sounds

Now, I don’t want to ruin anyone’s day, so please move away from this column for the necessary self-care if my next sentence proves to be triggering. Someone in The Archers has died.

It’s… Jennifer Aldridge. Jennydarling, an actual Archer, is a mainstay of the Aga and angora end of Ambridge, married to Brian, a bluff chap who, you assume, sleeps in his red corduroys. Seventysomething Jennifer is a pillar of the series, but her rounded vowels hide a more radical past. In 1966, three years after she first arrived, she had a child out of wedlock. The storyline caused a national sensation.

On Tuesday, reeling from the loss, going through family photos, her daughter Kate got upset. “Maybe we were more alike than I thought… One time, she even admitted to having a Che Guevara poster on her wall!”

It was an unexpected end, a proper shock. Angela Piper, who has played Jennifer for almost 60 years, might have expected a flashier send-off (a topple from a roof, a barn ablaze, a flash flood-drowning). But no: one minute she was there, then she wasn’t. “Yesterday we visited Shakespeare’s birthplace and Jenny was delighted,” said Lilian, her sister, a little angrily. Lilian and Jenny had been on a nice weekend away when it happened.

A sudden death is like a pot smashing, and the family pieces are already scattered wide. Brian is all over the shop, pushing past proffered help, unbothered about telling Ruairi that his stepmother is dead: “He’s the lucky one! As far as he’s concerned, Jenny’s still alive.” Brian and Jennifer’s family is complicated, with affairs and half-siblings and ancient disagreements. Jennifer’s daughter Alice, with her ex-partner, Chris, drives down to London to tell Ruairi face to face, as he isn’t answering messages. Archers devotees will recall that Alice once, in a drunken rage, informed Ruairi he was never wanted by the family. A few ignored texts seems a reasonable response.

But, actually, his radio silence is not about Alice. Boarding schoolboy turned homebod gigolo Ruairi is in a controlling relationship, where he’s the one being controlled. When Alice and Chris turn up, he tries to chuck them out. Alice and Chris sense something’s off with his much older girlfriend, but Ruairi makes them promise not to tell anyone about who he lives with. “Swear on your life!” he cries, which wouldn’t make anyone suspicious at all.

I’m an Archers part-timer, only turning up for the big events (deaths, pantos, etc), and I’ve found that it’s never the event itself that’s interesting. It’s the fallout. The most recent shakedown, pre-Jennifer’s death, was triggered by a rave pregnancy (too long to explain). An unforeseen death, though less morally compromising, is even more devastating, so the next few weeks should be interesting.

For those who like interesting, you might turn your ears to Buried, a new Radio 4 series in which environmental journalists Dan Ashby and Lucy Taylor get to grips with a recycling plant in Derry. Seemingly legit, with a contract with the council, the waste management operation rolled on for years. But instead of being sorted and recycled, the rubbish was simply dumped into a quarry. The result is toxic, underground, the size of almost 50 football pitches, and still bubbling.

Dan Ashby and Lucy Taylor, presenters of Buried.
Dan Ashby and Lucy Taylor, presenters of Buried. Photograph: PR

Animals have died, horribly. The groundwater has been compromised. The river may become contaminated. “It’s a ticking timebomb,” say informed locals. An interviewee talks of Fofo, fear of finding out: councils and government don’t want to know, because then they’ll have to do something. Ashby and Taylor go to Naples, Italy, where the mafia have been running a very similar scam and children have died from the resulting cancers. And back here, it’s more widespread than just Derry. There’s evidence that organised criminals are running many such operations across the UK, controlling about 25% of our waste (Tony Soprano worked in waste management, remember?). This is a grim story, pacily told, and it’s surely not over yet. You have a feeling it might trigger the sort of response that the Post Office scandal did: a gradual public fury that results in proper action. Let’s hope so.

More intensive investigation with ambiguous results. Nicky Woolf, an admirable journalist whom we last heard tracking down the “Q” of QAnon, has turned his enquiring mind to the Havana syndrome – the weird health anomalies, including brain damage, suffered by some American diplomats while working in Cuba around 2016. His new podcast, The Sound: Mystery of Havana Syndrome, tries to work out what’s afoot. Though only one episode is out, I’ve heard more, and Woolf moves through different theories about the syndrome’s cause. In the fifth, he even tries to replicate the sound that might be the culprit.

Nicky Woolf, host of The Sound: Mystery of Havana Syndrome.
Nicky Woolf, host of The Sound: Mystery of Havana Syndrome. Photograph: Nicholas Brennan

Woolf’s approach – deceptively light and entertaining, while considering all possibilities – is in contrast to another new podcast about Havana syndrome, called, well, Havana Syndrome. Made by Vice World News, it’s more traditional, well funded and serious-minded. Reporters Jon Lee Anderson and Adam Entous travel not only to Havana, but to Vienna and London. Their approach is more political-gumshoe-cum-high-end-foreign-correspondent. So, less frivolity. They talk to actual spies, as opposed to everyday workers. They check out hotels for sightlines for ray guns. There is definite overlap between the series – one interviewee appears in both, and episodes even share the same title (Immaculate Concussion) – but I recommend them both, Woolf’s for its playfulness, the Vice show for its doggedness. And yes, I could sit a Mastermind in Havana syndrome now.

Zoe Ball.
‘Madly upbeat’ balm: Zoe Ball. BBC Photograph: BBC

After such heavy-duty fare, I found myself turning to Zoe Ball on Radio 2, a breakfast show that makes everything – even the news – seem frothy and fun. On Tuesday, she relaunched The Radio 2 Book Club. This originally started on Simon Mayo’s show in 2010, then moved to Jo Whiley’s, then Steve Wright’s. Now it’s on Ball’s, with an accompanying weekly podcast, and author Jojo Moyes was the first guest. As ever, it’s all madly upbeat, with Ball relentlessly “my darlin’”-ing people in full-on Mike Smash manner. Being a grumpy news junkie, I can’t usually cope with the jollity, but on a cold January morning, after organised crime, brain damage and sudden death, I found that Ball, and books, soothed my soul.


Miranda Sawyer

The GuardianTramp

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