Unreal is a new Radio 4 documentary podcast about the ups and downs of reality TV. Hosted by two excellent journalists, Pandora Sykes and Sirin Kale, it takes 10 hour-long episodes (all available) to unpick every major UK reality show since 2000, making stately progress from Nasty Nick (removed from the house by Big Brother’s producers) through to Faye and Teddy (Love Island, whose argument last summer sparked almost 25,000 complaints).
There is much to enjoy. Kale and Sykes are great interviewers, unafraid of asking tricky questions, and they land some excellent chats with the right people (they talk to Tom Rooke, who won There’s Something About Miriam, which Harsh Reality, a standalone podcast about the show, didn’t manage). They are comprehensive: grilling contestants, commentators, producers, psychotherapists. And it’s oddly entertaining to remember the silly details of the programmes you’ve watched, to boggle at the nationwide, if temporary, impact of the rows and betrayals. I was once at a high-level art party and the whole shebang stopped because the artist insisted on watching the first ever Big Brother finale.
Unreal’s flaw is its earnestness. At the start of every episode we’re solemnly told that, when it comes to reality TV, Sykes and Kale “think it’s possible to enjoy it while also questioning the ethical foundations on which it was built”. Well: of course. As one commentator says about Love Island: “You’re looking for explosions; you’re looking for confrontations, betrayal. And all those thing come at a very human cost.” Who doesn’t know what reality TV is and does? Generally, as you get older you stop watching. The drama and cruelty lose their shine.
But reality TV is also fun, and a wryer tone might have helped Unreal to reflect the format’s descent. Nobody wants to minimise the harm that several ex-contestants have suffered – mental breakdowns, leading in some cases to suicide – but podcasts such as the aforementioned Harsh Reality and Welcome to Your Fantasy (about the Chippendales, which ended in a murder), even British Scandal (Salisbury poisoning; Jeffrey Archer generally), all manage to document dark details with a light touch. While full of empathy and rigour, Unreal’s script makes it occasionally feel more like a lecture.
Speaking of real human lives being milked for public entertainment, here’s another BBC podcast. It’s… Wagatha Christie has been giving us a blow-by-blow analysis of the court case between Rebekah Vardy and Coleen Rooney. Hosted by comedian Abi Clarke, this show plonks itself right at the other end of the sympathy scale from Unreal. Here, the tone is more of a delighted WhatsApp friend group picking over petty details: Ooh, have you noticed that Wayne holds Coleen’s Fendi bag whereas Jamie holds Becky’s hand? Some of Unreal’s seriousness wouldn’t go amiss. Weird to say, but I wanted some more moral hand-wringing.
Which brings us to Piers Morgan – not one of life’s moral hand-wringers. There’s been a lot of chatter about his new TalkTV show Piers Morgan Uncensored, but not so much about it also being a TalkRadio programme. Like Tonight With Andrew Marr on LBC, Piers Morgan Uncensored is a simulcast, filmed as though it’s a telly show but broadcast live as radio.
There’s also a hit-and-miss highlights podcast. On Monday it began with Morgan’s “Brain Dump” – essentially a full tabloid column from our host, giving us his opinions on Netflix “telling the wokies to do one”, on Liverpool fans booing Prince William, on a 59-year-old arts centre boss egging a statue of Margaret Thatcher. All rather gabbled and very “read”. Morgan’s true talent is not his predictable ranting but his interviewing, as demonstrated by several brief, occasionally spiky chats – 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 has just been into space. All were entertaining, though I wish Morgan would stop angling everything into a “war on woke” rant. He even tried to get Shatner to say that viewing the Earth from space gave him some “common sense”.
Finally, if you want an example of excellent audio tone, why not try Andi Oliver’s new weekly Radio 4 podcast One Dish. Oliver herself is a lovely broadcasting presence: warm, informed, spontaneous. Her links sound unplanned rather than scripted; her interviews are a delight. Producer Lucy Dearlove edits super snappily, giving a food scientist an informative couple of minutes, using kitchen noises (a timer’s ping, the whirr of a food processor) as stings. And there’s an online recipe to go with the dish discussed. Each episode is a 15-minute bundle of joy. A relief, after all that seriousness and sneering.