Unreal is a new Radio 4 documentary podcast about the highs and lows of reality TV. Hosted by two excellent journalists, Pandora Sykes and Sirin Kale, it takes 10 hour-long episodes (all available) to uncheck every major UK reality show since 2000, making majestic strides from Nasty Nick (removed from home by Big brotherproducers) to Faye and Teddy (the island of lovewhose dispute last summer sparked nearly 25,000 complaints).
There is a lot to enjoy. Kale and Sykes are great investigators, not afraid to ask tough questions, and they strike up great conversations with the right people (they talk to Tom Rooke, who won There’s something about Miriamwho Hard reality, a standalone podcast about the show, was unsuccessful). They are complete: candidates for the grill, commentators, producers, psychotherapists. And it’s oddly fun to remember the silly details of the programs you’ve watched, to marvel at the national, albeit temporary, impact of feuds and betrayals. Once I was at a high profile art party and it all stopped because the artist insisted on watching the very first Big brother final.
UnrealIts fault is its seriousness. At the start of each episode, we’re solemnly told that when it comes to reality TV, Sykes and Kale “believe it’s possible to enjoy it while questioning the ethical foundations on which it was built.” Yes of course. As one commentator said about the island of love“Looking for explosions; you are looking for confrontations, betrayals. And all of these things come at a very human cost. Who doesn’t know what reality TV is and what it does? Generally, as you get older, you stop watching. The drama and cruelty lose their luster.
But reality TV is also fun, and a more tongue-in-cheek tone might have helped. Unreal to reflect the descent of the format. No one wants to downplay the harm suffered by several ex-competitors – mental breakdowns, in some cases leading to suicide – but podcasts such as the aforementioned Hard reality and welcome to your fantasy (about the Chippendales, which ended in murder), even British scandal (Salisbury Poisoning; Jeffrey Archer in general), all manage to document dark details with a light touch. All in empathy and rigor, UnrealThe script sometimes makes it look more like a lecture.
Speaking of real human lives being exploited for public entertainment, here’s another podcast from the BBC. This is… Wagatha Christie gave us a detailed analysis of the court case between Rebekah Vardy and Coleen Rooney. Hosted by comedian Abi Clarke, this show sits at the other end of the likeability scale of Unreal. Here, the tone is more of a group of delighted WhatsApp friends dwelling on small details: Ooh, did you notice Wayne holding Coleen’s Fendi bag while Jamie holds Becky’s hand? A part of Unrealseriousness wouldn’t hurt. Weird to say, but I wanted a little more morality.
Which brings us to Piers Morgan – not one of life’s moral wringers. There’s been a lot of talk about his new TalkTV show Piers Morgan uncensored, but not so long as it is also a TalkRadio program. To like Tonight with Andrew Marr on LBC, Piers Morgan uncensored is a simulcast, filmed as if it were a TV show, but broadcast live on the radio.
There’s also a random highlights podcast. Monday it all started with Morgan’s ‘Brain Dump’ – essentially a full tabloid column from our host, giving us his opinions on Netflix “telling the wokies make one”, on Liverpool fans booing Prince William, on a 59-year-old arts center boss egging a statue of Margaret Thatcher. All rather talkative and very “read”. Morgan’s real talent is not his predictable rantings, but his interviews, as evidenced by several brief and sometimes thorny conversations – with a trans activist (who called Morgan the C-word), a couple from the Star Inn in Vogue, Cornwall , and William Shatner , the star trek actor who just went into space. All of them were entertaining, though I wish Morgan would stop steering everything into a “war on revival” rant. He even tried to get Shatner to say that seeing Earth from space gave him some “common sense.”
Finally, if you want an example of great audio tone, why not try Andi Oliver’s new weekly Radio 4 podcast A dish. Oliver herself is a beautiful outreach presence: warm, informed, spontaneous. His links seem unplanned rather than scripted; his interviews are a delight. Producer Lucy Dearlove edits very quickly, giving a food scientist a few informative minutes, using kitchen noises (the ping of a timer, the whirring of a food processor) as bites. And there’s a recipe online to go with the discussed dish. Each episode is a 15 minute bundle of joy. A relief, after all that seriousness and snickering.