A big slice of jolliness in the Friday 11.30am slot on Radio 4 last week. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane Austen? is half an hour of cheery silliness, with Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders doing their French and Saunders thing while playing two warring sisters. French is Florence, a serious, put-upon novelist; Saunders is Selina, a blithe, grande dame actor. Florence is the Jane Austen, Selina the Baby Jane: do you see? Even if you don’t, the characters are sharply enough drawn to be understood within a couple of minutes. Last week’s opening episode (of five) had Florence trying to get Selina out of the bathroom, where she’d been for six hours. She’d worked out how to work the taps, but not the plug: “A plug? Is it an electric bath, because that sounds quite dangerous?” An old joke, sure, but still funny, especially when Saunders delivers it.
David Quantick’s smooth, swift script is peppered with jokes, old and new: the sisters are both nominated for a literary prize, the Brontë Shield – the Brontës are “the Osmonds of books”; the awards’ backstage area is “just another tent. They should hold the bloody thing in Millets”; at one point, Lionel Shriver is rugby-tackled to the floor. There’s something almost old-fashioned about a radio show packed with so many gags. It reminds me of Count Arthur Strong or Ed Reardon’s Week (a compliment). Also, French and Saunders are clearly enjoying themselves. Lovely stuff.
Not quite so lovely, unfortunately, is new podcast The Superhero Complex. It’s about the real-life supers who made up the Rain City Superhero Movement, a group of Seattle oddbods who, about 10 years ago, would dress up in daft costumes and go out at night to fight crime, even though nobody had actually asked them to do so. Their leader, Phoenix Jones, rocked a black all-in-one (actually a Batman outfit with the nipples shaved off), and used pepper spray and kung fu moves to stop muggers and the like. Sounds cool, if you’re five. Jones, real name Ben Fodor, got on the nerves of a lot of people, including the Seattle police.
To be fair, this is a well-made show. Host David Weinberg does a top job, the production is exemplary, and the Seattle superheroes make an excellent story, well told. Sadly, however, I couldn’t completely warm to it. This is due to Jones being – how can I put this? – a birrova tosser. His pompousness and arrogance killed the podcast for me, despite all its wonderful attributes.
Jones is part of a recent podcasting trend: that of the central bullshitter. Once, podcasts fell over themselves to feature serial killers; now it’s cult leaders, business phonies, rip-off merchants, ego-trumpeters. Diligent young producers track them down, try to understand their motivation, trace their family history, sift through their lies, ponder why so many people believed such self-aggrandising claptrap. All that effort! Once you’re my age, you think: “Oh God, not another one.” There’s not a woman alive who has not been bored (or worse) by a pumped-up dullard like Jones; stifled a yawn when he shows his prowess with nunchucks or peer-to-peer selling or visions for the future or whatever. I mean, yes, we all think that the police should do a better job, but no, the problems won’t be solved by a guy in a wipe-clean catsuit, no matter how many judo belts he’s got. But I’m aware that this might just be me. The Superhero Complex is destined to be a hit.
A palate-cleanser after all that bumptious masculinity, Hear Her Voice is a newish podcast about women in music. Hosted by Laura Whitmore, the show can seem a little vanilla, with weirdly inappropriate background music and a middle-of-the-road script, but Whitmore’s personality is warm, she’s well informed and a good interviewer. Plus, the Guardian’s Laura Snapes is a regular, adding gravitas and credibility. The latest episode features up-and-coming artists Olivia Dean and Rio Fredrika and toddles along happily enough. There’s a Spotify playlist to hear the music that’s featured, too.
Or, if you’re hooked on tossers, why not try Cheat!, a fun podcast with episodes that vary wildly in quality. The one on Bernard Tapie – possibly one of the most fascinating pan-career cheats of the past 50 years – left a lot to be desired, ending with his 1993 Marseille Champions League triumph and immediate downfall. But the two most recent episodes, about a US woman who facilitated surrogate adoption, are fascinating (and horrible). So: I’d hop around the series if I were you. And yes, I have noticed that this is yet another podcast based on self-promoting charlatans. It’s a phase, I hope. Next year, podcast-makers might move on to something – somebody – else.