A couple of new series to make you feel clever. First up, the inimitable author and broadcaster Jon Ronson is back on Radio 4 (and BBC Sounds) with Things Fell Apart, in which he considers today’s culture wars. As hinted at by the title, which refers to WB Yeats’s poem The Second Coming (“things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”), Ronson is looking at extremes of argument. Actually, he’s searching for the source of those arguments: the event or idea that eventually resulted in the horribly polarised disputes that now rage across social media. QAnon, trans rights, cancel culture… you get the idea. Political dog whistles. Dinner party bombs. Family-splitters.
Ronson’s approach is non-confrontational – he’s a non-confrontational man – and very similar to the one he used in his excellent The Butterfly Effect podcast. Essentially he looks at how a small act can have unforeseen ripple effects. In The Butterfly Effect, it was when a chap called Fabian decided to offer free online porn. Ronson traced that effect across the world, meeting people whose lives were utterly wrecked by the unexpected consequences.
In Things Fell Apart, his vision is more focused, covering a different topic in each of its eight episodes. The first concentrates on the argument between US pro-life anti-abortionists and those who favour women having easily accessible, legal abortion services. Ah, Roe v Wade, I hear you say. But the story is more unexpected than that. Ronson manages to pinpoint the start of the anti-abortion movement among American evangelicals… to, of all places, 1960s Switzerland and a vaguely hippy young man, Frank Schaeffer, who wanted to become a film director. Without giving too much away, the programme traces a direct line from Schaeffer’s youthful filmic hopes right through to an abortion doctor in the US being shot and killed in his home. Ronson interviews Schaeffer, who thoroughly regrets everything that has happened since. It’s quite astonishing.
In the next episode, Ronson talks to Alice Moore, a US pastor’s wife who manoeuvred herself on to a local schools board in the 1970s because she wasn’t happy about the text books on the curriculum. Somehow this leads to a Roger McGough poem, which Moore misinterpreted as being more permissive than it is (Ronson talks to McGough). Her campaign also led to important black writers being excluded from the school libraries. All in the name of protecting children.
So, great research. But Ronson is also a brilliant interviewer, asking the toughest of questions in an amiable, amused way, disarming his interviewees and allowing them to put their own point of view. Because Things Fell Apart is a radio show, there are time restrictions, and each episode is cut and polished to perfection; carved and crafted, like a teeny Japanese netsuke sculpture. Every element matters, and this is a thoroughly satisfying listen.
Doomsday Watch enlightens as it scares the living doo-dah out of you. From indie company Podmasters, this has former diplomat and counter-terrorism operative Arthur Snell talking to experts about which of today’s rocky world situations might trigger the apocalypse. Yay!
First up: civil war in America. Or: Trump supporters go fully tonto. No time restrictions on this show, so each expert is allowed to speak freely, which is great. But they’re so erudite that I found I needed an occasional breather from their relentless brilliance and logic. Also, casually delivered sentences such as “there are more guns than people in America” and “Trump’s Republican party has decided to ignore any election result that doesn’t suit them” do have an effect. Excuse me while I breathe into a paper bag.
The next two episodes consider China and Putin and are equally fascinating. Interestingly, each involves a powerful man wanting to return his country to what seems like better times: “Make America/China/Russia Great Again”. All that potential devastation because middle-aged men tend to believe that life was better when they were young and virile.
On 5 live, Rick Edwards has started his new breakfast gig, presenting alongside veteran Rachel Burden. He’s doing very well, actually: holding his own, whether chatting to listeners or grilling sporting greats. Weirdly, ex-host Nicky Campbell has been popping up on Breakfast every day, in order to promote his new phone-in show, which now runs from 9-11am. Campbell can never resist a little alpha-male-ing, saying on Monday that he was answering Burden as though he was still hosting alongside her.
Edwards is up to the challenge though. On Tuesday, he made a quip about “fake bonhomie”, and Campbell was reduced to “God, he’s good, isn’t he?” Campbell shouldn’t worry about leaving Breakfast: his phone-in show is as excellent as you’d imagine, and 5 live seems to have managed this important transition very smoothly indeed.
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