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Radio review: In Our Time, Springleaf, and My Mate’s a Footballer

15 December 2023


The influence of Karl Barth was discussed on In Our Time (Radio 4, Thursday of last week)

The influence of Karl Barth was discussed on In Our Time (Radio 4, Thursday of last week)

THOSE who trust in the power of seasonal paraphernalia to bring the inquisitive soul to Christ might need a sobering dose of Karl Barth. For all the tinsel and trees, the decorations and descants, God reveals himself only at his choosing. No human blandishment, however soulful or mystical, can by itself lead to the Divine. God may come to meet us through a carol by candlelight, or in a dead dog.

If you are a newcomer to the Swiss theologian, or need a refresher course, In Our Time (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) is the place to go. Melvyn Bragg, here in his comfort zone, is a masterful chair of experts, each keen to speed off in their own scholarly direction; and the best compliment that one might pay to their efforts is that it infects one with the desire to have a go at Barth oneself.

No invocation of contemporary relevance — the cliché with which academics in the humanities so often justify themselves — was necessary here. Indeed, one might be encouraged by Barth to dismiss relevance as another example of the human vanity that flatters our ambition to know the unknowable.

The podcast medium has reached the “meta” stage: that point in its evolution at which its rules and language are sufficiently well understood to allow for sophisticated games of subversion and irony. At the start of the most recent episode of Springleaf (Mighty Bunny Productions; released Tuesdays), the guest, the comedian Romesh Ranganathan, asks in exasperation, “Is this a sitcom within a fictional podcast?”, a question to which the answer is yes — and no.

Suffice to say, there is a story running through the series involving a detective working undercover as a stand-up comedian. That comedian is the television personality also known as James Acaster.

The rest is too baffling to explain — baffling, but also hugely enjoyable. While the script teases us with alternative realities, there is, at its heart, a charmingly traditional, pantomimic feel to the sitcom, reminiscent of radio comedy from the post-war era (bar the effing and jeffing). And the podcast does not eschew all the traditions of the newer medium — including the merry-go-round of celebrity appearances, by which everybody ends up being a guest on everybody else’s show.

My Mate’s a Footballer (BBC Sounds podcast, released Mondays) is driven by a similarly knowing, if less elaborate, conceit, by which, over the course of a series, the podcast presenter attempts to ingratiate himself with his star guest. The former is the comedian Joe Wilkinson (who, no doubt, has, or will, turn up on Ancaster’s show); the latter is the former Chelsea, now Leeds United, striker Patrick Bamford.

The value here lies not in the banter, but in the authenticity of Bamford’s account of a footballing life. Last week, the topic was transfers, and the cruel decisiveness of club politics. Players can, of course, give as good as they get. Witness the story of Troy Deeney, formerly of Watford, insisting on the removal of all speed bumps from the club driveway as a condition of his loyalty.

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