Tick tock tick tock tick tock … how lovely to hear an old clock marking time on the radio, especially when accompanied by a gentle woodwind “cuck-ooh” or the “bong” of an hour chime. Plenty of such delicious noise in Radio 4’s Time Flies, a half-hour documentary about Roman and Maz Piekarski, brothers who own the largest collection of cuckoo clocks in the world. They live near Knutsford in Cheshire, close to where I was brought up: their soothing, familiarly accented voices, plus the ticking clocks, was a reverie that made me smile.
The brothers aren’t completely happy though. Cuckooland, as their collection is called, once welcomed hundreds of visitors, but Covid changed that. More fundamentally, the Piekarskis, who are in their late 60s, are worried about what will happen to their collection after they’re gone. “We get people like you come to see us,” said Maz, “and you all come in with the enthusiasm: ‘Oh what a fantastic place!’ But then you go away. And we’re just left behind again… ”
Maz is the more talkative. He was told he would die in his 20s, but he’s still here. “It feels like yesterday we moved in here… Where’s my life gone, what’ve I been doing? Make the most of the time, that’s the saying that my brother and I think is the most important.” A delightful, philosophical listen from Michael Segalov and the ever-brilliant Eleanor McDowall.
Not quite so gentle, but just as carefully soundscaped, is RadioMan, a new 10-part drama from Audible. This is essentially a whodunnit: a character drama meets murder mystery. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays Chas Vincent Jones, a true-crime podcaster on the trail of a serial killer of local women (it’s based on a real case from Macedonia), alongside other acting heavyweights such as David Morrissey and Cathy Tyson.
There’s a lot packed into RadioMan: twists, red herrings, flashbacks, a couple of nastier moments, real-life news and music. The intense, layered soundscaping – by production supremo Benbrick, using more than 4,000 audio tracks – is dazzling, driving the plot forward. The reveal, again based on the actual case, is unexpected and, for me, a little unsatisfying, but this is a strikingly ambitious drama that rewards immersion. Listen on headphones.
While we’re talking true-crime drama, Fun Kids has brought out a new one aimed at tweens. In Truthdiggers, Alfie (Mack Keith-Roach) and Morgana (Tillie Amartey) are young podcast-makers trying to track down Odd Colin, who disappeared from their home town in 1972. The first episode is pacy and engaging, and I like the keep-’em-coming twist at the end; listeners can vote on Alfie and Morgana’s next interviewee, thus affecting the following episode’s story. Nicely done.
Equally jolly is new podcast series The Spying Game, hosted by Rory Bremner and produced by Cup & Nuzzle, a studio that has built a reputation for excellent spy-based shows (True Spies, The Great James Bond Car Robbery, For Your Ears Only). Last December’s preview episode, with the author Anthony Horowitz and ex-US intelligence officer Shawnee Delaney, was chatty and fun, and last week’s first episode proper was very similar, featuring author Ben Macintyre and former British intelligence operative Julian Fisher. Together, they recounted the real-life story behind Macintyre’s bestselling Operation Mincemeat (also now a film). This pairing – of voluble, enthusiastic writer with drier, informed ex-spy – is working well, and Bremner is a great host, prodding and stepping back as needed.
Finally – a sadly appropriate word – last week’s You, Me and the Big C was an immensely moving affair, with producer Mike Holt speaking one last time, via video link, with brave Deborah James, who, aged just 40, is in the last few weeks of her life. James was diagnosed with terminal stage 4 bowel cancer in 2016; she has been co-hosting the podcast since then, cheerfully plugging away with her treatment, somehow dodging the inevitable. This year, her life has become much harder, as anyone who has listened to her podcasts from hospital will know. Now, tragically, her body has stopped responding to treatment and she has moved to her parents’ house for palliative care.
James is a fantastic communicator and broadcaster – even now, even as she fades – honest, devastating, detailed (“You think you’ve been asleep for four hours and it’s been 10 minutes”; “I’ve had five years knowing this would happen and it’s still shocking”). And, like Maz and Roman in their cuckoo-clock world, she wants us to understand.
“Please enjoy life,” she said. “Life is so precious… All I want is more time and more life.” Then, because she is who she is: “Oh, and also: check your poo.” If she wants that phrase to be her final words, who are we to argue? Enjoy life, lovely readers. Check your poo.