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The week in audio: Serial season 4: Guantánamo; Hidden Treasures: The Dumb Waiter, Traitor; Dial F for Football – review
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The week in audio: Serial season 4: Guantánamo; Hidden Treasures: The Dumb Waiter, Traitor; Dial F for Football – review

Serial season 4: Guantánamo (Serial) | New York Times
Hidden Treasures: The Dumb Waiter; Traitor (Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
Dial F for Football (Furious Styles/Keep It Light Media) | Apple Podcasts

Serial is back, with the OG combination of presenter-producer Sarah Koenig and producer-presenter Dana Chivvis (this time Chivvis is a co-host). They’re here to tell us the true story of Guantánamo. You remember, of course, Guantánamo: the US prison camp in Cuba, created to hold the hundreds of suspected Islamic militants swept up by America after the 9/11 attacks. Since it was opened in 2002, it has housed 779 people for interrogation.

It’s not an immediately appealing subject, but if anyone can tell a nonfiction story and make it gripping, it’s Koenig and Chivvis. Ten years ago, it was their first season of Serial that really turned the world on to podcasts. In it, they investigated the 1999 Baltimore cold case murder of Hae Min Lee, and whether Adnan Syed, convicted of said murder, had been wrongly imprisoned. The show was a sensation – it’s had more than 300m downloads – and since then, podcasting (and, in turn, TV streaming services) have taken the Serial model of a week-by-week telling of an investigation and run and run and run with it. Cold case crime is now a standalone broadcast genre, and that started with Serial.

Anyhow, after season 1, Serial branched into other areas. Season 2 focused on Bowe Bergdahl, a US soldier captured by the Taliban; season 3 covered cases in a local Cleveland court. Both series were beautifully told, though less emotionally immediate than the first. And now: season 4. Gitmo-a-go-go. Episode 1 is great, though it’s mostly scene-setting, explaining the strange Disneyfication of Guantánamo (literally: there are Disney-branded Guantánamo Bay T-shirts in the three local gift shops), as well as the futility of many of the inmate interrogations, and why nobody would talk to Koenig and Chivvis when they first tried to investigate the camp several years ago.

Episode 2 gets deeper into things. We hear a lot from Mr X, a US “bad cop” special ops guy brought in to get the truth out of suspected al-Qaida militant Mohamedou Ould Slahi. We’re given details about the psychological torture Mr X used on Slahi, including an in-depth account of a fake kidnapping that involved Slahi being snatched from his cell, beaten up, shackled, put on a boat and driven round for hours, then isolated in a different cell for two weeks. The result? Slahi spilled the beans on a whole load of al-Qaida operations. And then, because his confession was coerced, he retracted everything.

The problem with all of this is not the storytelling, which is superb, but the lack of surprise. Not only has Slahi’s story been told many times before (including in the multi-award-winning film The Mauritanian), but you could sort of guess it anyway. The episode ends and you remain completely unshocked, aside from the mild revelation that Mr X feels some regret about what he did. The US high-ups think their techniques were worth it because they got the information; Slahi says they failed because he wasn’t telling the truth. No surprises there. The reporting and presentation of Serial are as wonderful as ever, so I will keep listening, but I hope for something more unexpected in the episodes to come.

Here’s some rather different history for you: the BBC has unearthed – well, been sent by the Radio Circle – a whole load of long-lost prestige radio dramas, found on reels and home recordings by collectors and members of the public. These have become a season of Hidden Treasures on Radio 4, 4 Extra and Radio 3, which started last week. Harold Pinter’s Dumb Waiter, starring Bob Hoskins and Roy Kinnear (first broadcast in 1981), and Dennis Potter’s Traitor, with Denholm Elliott and Ian Ogilvy (also 1981), were the two I caught, and fantastic listening they were. Brilliantly clear direction, articulate writing and superb acting made both a delight, although I missed a live audience with the Pinter (a crowd’s laughter relieves the excruciating tension of the play). It is strange, though, to be confronted with the obsessions of those times. Everything is concerned with the class system, and how it affects men, usually English men. Women are always to the side of the story: giving birth, being matron or mummy, silently doing the behind-the-scenes work to promote their husbands.

Still, there’s something about the more highly punched acting of those times that makes the words sing. Other unearthed dramatic gems now on BBC Sounds include a 1983 radio version of JM Barrie’s play What Every Woman Knows; a 1976 production of Edgar Wallace’s On the Spot; Kingsley Amis’s The Riverside Villas Murder, also from 1976; and a 1964 version of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins’s No Thoroughfare. All worth checking out.

Dial F for FootballView image in fullscreen

Some new drama now. And, all hail, it’s a genuinely funny comedy, one that recalls Alan Partridge and Down the Line. In Dial F for Football, we listen in to a phone-in football programme on fictional commercial station Totalsport FM, where longstanding presenter Des (Fergus Craig) is getting used to new co-host Lisa (Lolly Adefope). Lisa’s been brought in to freshen up the show’s appeal: she’s a young black YouTuber and knows a bit about football, but not that much. (At one point she starts reading Wikipedia’s explanation of why football sides have 11 players.) We hear the callers, the hosts and the producers, in that behind-the-scenes Larry Sanders or W1A style.

Actually, the acting is so good that if you were only half-listening, you might think that someone had left on the producer’s microphone by mistake. “Ooop, she’s gone again,” says the producer, when Lisa goes rogue. “I’m going to have to cut her off.” It’s rare that a fictional podcast manages to be both really funny, and unpick some of today’s trickier issues, but Dial F For Football manages it. Recommended.

Source: theguardian.com