IN THE trail for his latest series, the veteran political journalist Jonathan Pie is told that the show is going straight to podcast. “Not even the radio,” he exclaims, with his trademark mix of indignation and contempt. This is followed by a plethora of obscenities, thus revealing one of the reasons that Call Jonathan Pie (BBC Sounds; all episodes released last Friday) is not included in the BBC schedules.
Indeed, one of the ironies of this fictional phone-in show and its fictional protagonist is that nothing as sweary as Call Jonathan Pie would be acceptable, whatever the lateness of the “watershed”. The character of Pie — the creation of Tom Walker, Nick Revell, and (formerly) Andrew Doyle — has been entertaining live and online audiences since 2016.
In the first, scene-setting episode of this new podcast incarnation, the self-deprecating ironies abound: we hear about the parlous state of the BBC, the migration of talent to independent radio, and the scandals that see off whoever’s left. Everyone is looking with envy at the fortunes of Emily Maitlis.
Call Jonathan Pie is made by the independent production company Yada Yada Audio; but hearing this on a BBC platform is like listening to the desperate laughter of a friend recounting in as light-hearted a manner as he can muster some recent catastrophic trauma.
The experience gets no easier or or less compelling. Pie is intent upon using his new platform to explore the most hotly contested issues of today’s culture wars. To its great credit, this is not one of those shows in which all the callers are weirdos or idiots. Many of Pie’s callers are sensible; and Pie, for all his personal flaws (of which the greatest are gross insensitivity and narcissism), articulates brilliantly and eviscerates savagely familiar arguments about Brexit, race, and gender.
While Pie’s mercurial verbosity tends to drown all voices in his vicinity, his view does not always win out; nor is there ever a clear “editorial line” at the dramatic or the meta level. Notable in this respect is the Brexit episode, during which we are left to guess Pie’s own affiliation until the end. Whether Tom Walker’s former co-writer Andrew Doyle would have approved is a tantalising question. (Mr Doyle is a Brexit supporter who is now a presenter on GB News.)
Pie seems destined, in the view of his producer, to be heading for a slot on GB News; so the show may be aimed in that direction. In any case, the show’s balance is not of the see-saw kind, one viewpoint gently yielding to another, but is reminiscent, instead, of a rickety van that shudders violently from side to side without ever quite turning over.
Call Jonathan Pie is brilliant, but exhausting. The jeer of approval which forms in response to one opinion then sticks in the throat as the next comes along. If there are two consistent themes, they are that it is generally a good thing to be nice; and that politicians are all ghastly (or, as Alan Bennett’s vicar would say, “words to that effect”).