Headed by two of the best comedians currently around (Ed Gamble & James Acaster) and presenting an immediately digestible format, Off Menu feels like it struck podcast gold when it came along in 2018. Gamble & Acaster interview a guest each episode and get them to pick their dream starter, main, side dish, drink and pudding, mixing in chat, anecdotes and surreal verbal tangents (often led by Acaster). Past guests have found an interesting mix of fellow comedians (Greg Davies, Aisling Bea, Nish Kumar) and some more unexpected choices (Jess Phillips, Richard Osman, Krishnan Guru-Murthy), and each episode is likely to have you in stitches.
The BBC is famous for offering high-quality broadcasts that are entertaining, educational, and informative. Radio 4 is perhaps seen as the most institutional of the channels – equal parts respected and mocked for its clipped, authoritative tone. Fortunately…, chaired by Jane Garvey (presenter of Women’s Hour) and Fi Glover (currently hosting The Listening Project), offers a surprisingly candid peek behind the curtain at Broadcasting House. With a tone that’s fun and intimate (feeling very much like two friends catching up over coffee – which, on a level, it is) it feels a bit subversive, as the presenters and guests “share stories that they probably shouldn’t”. As Fi and Jane sit in the canteen, or out on the piazza, discussing internal politics (and catering!) they rope in passing personalities and producers, in addition to the scheduled guests. I’d particularly recommend the episode with John Morton.
There’s a famous line about deconstructing comedy: “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.” (E.B. White). While that might be true of individual jokes, Rule of Three proves that discussing the mechanics of comedy can be equal parts educational, and hilarious. Hosted by two comedy writers at the top of their game (Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris, the minds behind Philomena Cunk, Agendum, and those inescapable Ladybird Books For Grown-Ups), the podcast features guests from the comedy industry talking about something that they find inspiring. If you write comedy, it’s a really useful educational tool, and if you love comedy, it can be really interesting to hear what different performers and writers cite as influences - Marcus Brigstocke talks about The Great Gonzo, Charlie Brooker muses on Airplane!, and, perhaps slightly surprisingly, John Finnemore talks about Chris Morris!
As Daily Info’s resident cinema connoisseur, now is prime time for me to explore film history. And though there are many to choose from, The Evolution of Horror stands above the rest. By focusing in on one genre (horror) and picking a different sub-genre per season (ghosts, the occult, folk horror) it allows host Mike to present a timeline for how each has developed and shifted (from Psycho & Peeping Tom to Black Christmas & Halloween to the Scream franchise). Each episode brings on a guest or two who bring their own perspective to the film being discussed. There are currently five seasons to digest and each is a fun and easy way to expand your knowledge of the horror genre.
Cast your minds back to the heady days of 2012. Gotye’s 'Somebody That I Used to Know' has spent four weeks at the top of the chart. Apple have just released the new iPod nano (now with a touch screen!), and London is gearing up to host the Olympics. Meanwhile, on the internet, Welcome to Nightvale has burst onto the scene, bringing an equal mix of joy and horror to the world. Featuring dispatches from a local radio station, set in a nightmarish hellscape, Night Vale is a town where unmarked helicopters pass at night, strange hooded figures congregate on street corners, and a faceless old woman and a five-headed dragon fight it out for the position of mayor. Combining the unlikely genres of local news and Eldritch horror, Night Vale is perfect for those who like their coffee like they like their nights: "dark, endless, and impossible to sleep through."
With no footballs being professionally kicked anywhere in Europe, all the podcast pundits will be twiddling their thumbs (though this may still be worth tuning into, especially if it's the Guardian Football Weekly). Instead, dive into the archives of The Magic Sponge, hosted by Rob Beckett, Ian Smith and Jimmy Bullard and available on Apple Podcast or online at Acast. The trio chat to some of football's more colourful characters, both household names (Paul Merson, Ray Parlour, David Bentley) and divisional journeymen (Graham Stack, David Noble, Jamie Hand), and the latter especially have got bags of golden anecdotes from the time when football was less polished, less sanitised, and far less professional. It's like That Peter Crouch Podcast, but arguably better, and should tide you over until the real thing is back on the telly.
For a one-off juggernaut of a sports pod, check out the Hansie Cronje Affair on BBC Sounds. It tells the story of the fallen idol of South African cricket, former captain Hansie Cronje. Once held up by Nelson Mandela as a poster boy for the post-Apartheid era, Cronje became embroiled in a wide-reaching match-fixing scandal. The podcast runs for nearly two hours, and is a stunning exploration not only of Cronje's life, but also of cricket's seedy underbelly. Hosts Mark Chapman and Jonathan Agnew do an excellent job of sifting through the murk and charting the decline of "the golden boy who betrayed the rainbow nation". It's eye-opening, stomach-churning stuff.
Ever heard of the Eastbourne Bathers' Rebellion of 1929? Neither had we, until we listened to Coastal Stories. Writer Charlie Connelly has unearthed little-known tales from the annals of maritime history, and recorded them as 15-minute podcast snippets. There are episodes on sea serpents, lifeboats, lighthouses and all manner of sea-based skulduggery besides (building up to episode 5, The Curious Case of Ambrose Gwynett, which is a jaw-dropper). Connelly has a light, listenable delivery and a good eye for the curious and intriguing, never failing to find humour. Each episode also starts and ends with recordings of waves breaking on English beaches, which is a relaxing bonus.
A more hard-hitting historical podcast to look out for is Intrigue, produced by BBC Radio 4. Series 3, entitled Tunnel 29, takes a listener through an ambitious plot by a group of East Germans to dig an escape route under the Berlin Wall. Unfolding over the course of ten episodes, with well-cast voice actors and a tense soundtrack, the series really brings history to life. The earlier series are also exceptionally engrossing: Series 1, Murder in the Lucky Holiday Hotel, investigates the killing of British expat Neil Heywood in China in 2011, while series 2, The Ratline, explores how scores of Nazi war criminals escaped justice after the Second World War. There are some podcasts you can just chuck on while cooking or doing other things - this is not one of those. Devote some time to it, and if you really crack on, you'll be just in time for the new series, slated to arrive in the next couple of weeks.
Best of Oxford
There are also a number of top notch podcasts that either hail from Oxford, or use the city as their backdrop. One of the former is Oblivity, a sitcom podcast series following a research team on the ice plains of Pluto, led by disgraced hero Commander Falconer. Oblivity was produced independently with local support (including backing from Atomic Burger) and the team behind it are Associate Artists at the Old Fire Station.
Oxford's favourite subterranean film night Cinema Under The Stairs also runs its own podcast, with very listenable In-n-Out reviews giving you the skinny on recently released films and immediate reactions to what the CUTS crew have just seen, as well as longer pods discussing the films CUTS have chosen for their monthly movie.
DI reviewer Lita Doolan's long-running podcast series Start Your Art is a treasure trove of reviews, readings, interviews, short plays, tips, top lists and more. All the episodes are relatively short too, so you can duck and dive for an enjoyably varied listen.
For the slightly more studious, the University of Oxford has over 4000 podcasts and audio lectures online. Whatever your academic field of interest, there is more than enough to keep you going, with discussions and lectures from some of the world's leading researchers.
Though the U's games have been suspended for the foreseeable, the team behind Oxford Utd pod The Fence End are still putting out episodes, aptly named On the Fence. With no football to scrutinise, the team subject things like English breakfasts and varieties of biscuits to the same level of forensic analysis - it's entertaining and will definitely strike a chord with listless sports fans in lockdown.
And if you simply hadn't heard enough about coronavirus, Jack's Viral Podcast is a new daily pod from Jack FM. It brings together local stories that have emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic across Oxfordshire, and often touches on the positive ways that people and organisations have reacted to the outbreak. Listeners are reminded to "please wash your hands before downloading".