Listening to PMQs is like being cooped up with a couple who detest each other
Prime Minister's Questions (5 Live) | iPlayer
Prisoners' Women (R4) | iPlayer
The Alias Men (R4) | iPlayer
The 404 (podcast) | Listen
Nature (podcast) | Listen
Answer Me This! (podcast) | Listen
Last Wednesday, the day of the public workers' strike, it seemed appropriate to tune into PMQs on 5 Live. Just before, a man on Victoria Derbyshire's show wondered why the politicians and the union chiefs couldn't work out a solution. "It seems quite simple to sort out," he said. "But they're like children."
To be honest, I didn't think of children as I heard Cameron and Miliband on PMQs. I thought of Christmas. Christmas with a couple who detest each other but won't divorce. Add their drunk families, put them all in an overheated kitchen and get the cat to beat up the frozen turkey. The vitriol! The bullying! The ganging up! Children would be ushered from the room.
Cameron made a weak joke ? "They're talking in unison, when actually they're talking on behalf of Unison" ? and the Tories howled as though he was Peter Kay. Miliband got superior ? "I wish the education secretary would behave" ? and everyone howled even more. Neither answered each other's questions. PMQs seems increasingly pointless: a barrel-load of hecklers and a couple of comedians who plough through their material, no matter what. John Bercow tried his best ? "the public don't want to hear this" ? but to no avail. Grim, grim, grim. Oh, and a small thing: at one point, Cameron mentioned the deputy prime minister. It took some time for me to remember who that is. The Lib Dems have left the building.
Missing people loomed large in Prisoners' Women. The prisoners weren't there ? they were, um, otherwise engaged ? but they still affected everything in the lives of those they left behind. Three major themes emerged. The first was bewilderment. These families were in the dark when it came to what their loved one had done, and, when he was caught and imprisoned, had no clue about the system. "He was sent down for seven months," said one. "I didn't know where they'd taken him, I didn't know who to talk to."
The second was shame: one woman told of how she walked 20 minutes to the next village's post box whenever she sent a letter to the Prison Service. And the third was change. When a prisoner is released, he expects to go back to life as it was before. But that place no longer exists. "Obviously," said one woman, whose teenage son had been imprisoned for stabbing someone, "I don't want him in prison. But now I don't want him home. The little ones are getting on lovely. It's quiet and it's nice. I don't want it upturned again."
A beautiful, moving programme, made all the stronger for not having a presenter. You concentrated on each speaker, drank in their words, lived their experience with them.
In contrast, The Alias Men was completely enhanced by its presenter, Andrew Collins. The programme concerned movie directors removing their names from films and replacing them with the catch-all substitute Alan Smithee. The premise was slight, but Collins's script was great, and I loved it when he himself came over all Smithee. "I'm happy to read out the links," he blustered to his producer, "but I'd like my name taken off."
Shall we go a-podcasting, listeners? Follow me to three of the most popular. The 404, a daily podcast from the US, came highly recommended, and its subtitle ? "hi-tech, low brow" ? sounded intriguing. But, ach, the presenters were too chummy ? "I don't ever think it's just been me, you and Jeff!" ? too full of themselves and took too long to get to the topic. If you're geekily minded, they may be for you, but their goofball Xbox banter drove me loopy.
Next up: Nature. A weekly 'cast about, well, you guessed it, this was the very opposite of The 404. Great topics ? what is the Earth's core made of? ? were introduced so drily and underconfidently that your mind wandered. A shame.
And finally, Answer Me This!. I can't quite believe I haven't mentioned this podcast before as it's been going for five years, consistently tops the iTunes chart and won a Sony Gold this year. It's a great listen: Olly and Helen, friends in real life, are witty, warm and winning. The tone can be slightly twee, a smidgen Radio 4, but time flies as you listen, and you smile as you do. Ace.