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Review of the year 2021: Radio

17 December 2021

YouTube/British Swimming

Dan Pepper (a genuine Paralympian) presented The Fake Paralympians (World Service), a look at how a Spanish basketball team duped the officals

Dan Pepper (a genuine Paralympian) presented The Fake Paralympians (World Service), a look at how a Spanish basketball team duped the officals

BOX-SET radio is now firmly established, as the relevance of daily broadcasting schedules is gradually eroded by the downloadable podcast and streamed playlist. And, in 2021, the BBC started to produce some examples that can stand tall alongside their independent, mainly American, counterparts.

The World Service was responsible for two outstanding series last year. The Lazarus Heist (released in May) told a story that began with the hacking of Sony Pictures by a North Korean group, and ended in a massive bank robbery. Released in August, The Fake Paralympians revealed how organisers at the Sydney Para-Olympics in 2000 were duped into awarding gold medals to a basketball team from Spain which had only two qualifying athletes.

The joy of these shows is in the richly textured back stories, at one and the same time tragic and ludicrous: the slow, painful realisation by Ray Torres that his team-mates were not at all like him; the toe-curling emails that revealed so much about the back-stage politics of a media empire.

Long-form radio provides the space for these shifts of register. In Nuremberg (Radio 4, September), a multi-part dramatisation of the hunt for and trial of members of the Nazi high command, the laughable banality and appalling gravity of evil are complementary. Jonathan Myerson’s excellent script manages to avoid the many clichés to which this material is prone.

AlamyNuremberg (Radio 4) related in dramatic form how Nazi war criminals came to be captured, imprisoned, and tried after the Second World War

Innovation in mainstream radio is not easy to find beyond a few, dedicated strands; and so one should at least applaud the effort shown by the creators of U.Me: The musical (World Service, May) for attempting a lockdown musical, recorded and edited by the crew individually, with contributions from the BBC Philharmonic and Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts.

Ultimately, the inspiration that it provided was more due to the effort than the product, the trouble with lockdown being that it is an inherently tedious subject. Yet, while one was prepared to indulge worthy experimentalism in this case, when it comes to programmes such as Michael Palin’s Memory Palaces (Radio 4, July), the audio trickery does nothing but underline the essential pretentiousness of the project. And, what’s more, Palin had barely anything to do with it.

To finish, a few specialist prizes. Comedy about Christianity most deserving of a full series: God Squad (Radio 4, November). Most theologically savvy drama: David Mamet’s The Christopher Boy’s Communion (Radio 4, March), though you have to forgive the histrionics of the finale. Best account of the craft of acting: Geoffrey Colman’s series for The Essay (Radio 3, February).

Prize for the most specious intervention of a neuro-scientist in a documentary (a hard-fought category): Girl Stuck in a Basketball Hoop (Radio 4, June), in which a charming and quirky tale was spoiled by a white-coat telling us sombrely about the teenage brain. And most disappointing interview by a prelate (this one may have to become an annual award): our own Archbishop of Canterbury on Sunday (Radio 4, April), trying to explain what authority might be exercised in response to the report of the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce.

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