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Podcasts of the Week: White Helmets, good science and great bands

The Week logo The Week 20/11/2020 The Week Staff
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The BBC’s Intrigue strand has already produced two superb podcasts, Tunnel 29 (about Berlin Wall escapes) and The Ratline (Nazi hunting), said Miranda Sawyer in The Observer. Now it has brought us Intrigue: Mayday – a “brilliantly produced” ten-parter about James Le Mesurier (pictured), the ex-British Army officer who led the White Helmets volunteer civilian defence force in Syria. A year ago, Le Mesurier was found dead in the street in Istanbul, having fallen to his death. In Mayday, Chloe Hadjimatheou talks to his widow, friends, former comrades and other White Helmets to try to piece together what happened. “Possible Russian involvement (Putin’s enemies often fall out of hotel windows), spy stories and misinformation make this a gripping listen about how much of modern war happens online.” Also recommended: The Messenger (Audible), in which investigative journalist Shiv Malik tells the complicated story of his relationship with a supposed “al-Qa’eda insider”, Hassan Butt. 

How can parents help counteract the “conspiracy theories and total nonsense” their children are exposed to online? By introducing them to Lindsay Patterson’s “brilliant” science podcast, Tumble, said Simon Ings in the New Scientist. It began in 2015, and recently kicked off its sixth series with an “insightful and intermittently hilarious look at the human microbiome”. The episode features Lawrence David, a US academic expert in, bluntly, poo – a subject that cannot fail to amuse young listeners. He knows “more than is healthy about how much it costs to mail human faeces around the world (buying it a plane ticket is cheaper, since you ask)”. But gradually the “sniggering” dies away, and what’s left is a gripping lesson in human biology. In an age of scientific illiteracy, we “desperately need a citizenry that knows what science actually is”. Tumble – entertaining, informative, inspiring – is the place to start. 

Transmissions: The Definitive Story is the tale of two “mythologised bands” – Joy Division and New Order – and of the Manchester scene that spawned them, said Patricia Nicol in The Sunday Times. You may already be familiar with the tragic story of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, who killed himself in 1980. Do not be deterred. He is “movingly” remembered here, but the podcast as a whole is an “inspiring story of reinvention and renewal”; of “northern powerhouses and legendary nightclubs, all propelled by a thrilling soundtrack”. The enduring influence of these two bands is reflected by the calibre of the contributors, who include Bono, Liam Gallagher, Damon Albarn and Anna Calvi, as well as Joy Division’s Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook. Maxine Peake narrates.

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