A review of the Podcast “Chop Bard”

I have loved Shakespeare primarily since I looked in depth at “King Lear” and “Anthony and Cleopatra” for my A-Levels under the tutelage of the fantastically named and fantastically gifted “Ms Powers.”

Reading critical commentaries, seeing performances, and grappling with the texts hooked me on Shakespeare’s vivid explorations of the human experience.

Going on to study Shakespeare as part of my English Literature Degree, I was again blessed with gifted tutors, and my reading of the plays, critics and commentators, and knowledge and experience of productions increased.  Amongst other things I thrilled to the dark psychology and politics of Coriolanus, empathised with Hamlet’s tortured over-thinking, and thrilled to the young King Harry finding his Royal identity as warrior King.  I was introduced to the BBC Shakespeare canon of the 1970’s and 1980’s and found them, and still do, wonderful.  As a leaving present for a past job I was presented with a dvd box-set of these productions in their entirety.  I have never been more thrilled with such a gift in my life.

How wonderful then, 20 years after my studies, to come across this podcast.  It is fantastic.  It’s hosted by Ehren Ziegler, a Graphic Artist in New York who has a theatre background.  Taking a Shakespeare play, it will then over a course of weeks, and here I can do no worse than quote the website, “passionately pick apart the plays of William Shakespeare, scene by scene, line by line, in search of entertainment and understanding.” Mr Ziegler is a passionate and insightful commentator, his knowledge and learning on the plays is formidable, and judging from his reading of the lines, he is no slouch as an actor.  He draws from a range of sources, on the literary history of the texts including the ‘folio’ vs. ‘quarto’ controversies, literary and dramatic criticism, various productions on theatre and screen, and more. His unpacking of the relevance and dramatic power of the works on the human psyche, what it means to be human,  the impact of our choices and actions on each other, and our capacity for great good and good evil, in an an accessible and clear way, is second to none.  Now with me he is pushing at an open door admittedly.  I am not one who has ever, as an adult, struggled with Shakespeare.  But I can see how this podcast will engender that love of Shakespeare that was kindled in me for others who see barriers to the plays in such things as their historicity and language.  And the fact they may have been put off by bad teaching at school (or teaching that did not work for them).

For a full list of the plays the podcast has covered see the website.  Currently we’re into “The Winter’s Tale,” having just taken on “King Lear.”

The podcast draws on the talents of other actors to help expound the scenes sometimes.

So far my podcast of the year .  Brilliant.


A review of the podcast “The Robcast”

“The Rob Cast” is a weekly podcast presented by Rob Bell.  Rob is many things.  He’s an ex Pastor at Mars Hill Church, a ‘Mega-Church’in the US.  Rob became controversial when his book “Love Wins” firmly positioned him as a proponent of the ‘Universalist’ branch of Christian thought; that is, that all, without exception, will be saved.  This was too much for those who like their Hell, be it good old fashioned ‘eternal torment,’ or those who take to the ‘annihilationist’ position.  That is, you don’t get tortured for ever if you reject the Gospel.  That would be barbaric!  You instead get ‘executed’ or snuffed out to nothing if you reject the Christian God.  Liberals today, huh?

But all that is in the past.  Now Rob continues to tour, speak, host conferences, help businesses, broadcast, and write.  His latest, “How to be Here,” is being promoted by Rob through a tour.

His podcast is notable because it is a treasure trove of fresh, clear thinking, and is the kind of resource that will open up new horizons to you if you let it.  Rob has studied the Talmud and the Jewish faith and its lore and has connected it with his Christian faith.  He communicates some of what he has learnt, and it is truly illuminating, and led me to buy a copy of “Everyman’s Talmud.”

The podcast also has guest speakers and guests, and is informed by other passions of Rob’s including diving, and his experiences of being a husband and parent.

Everyone will find something here to inspire them or get them thinking, if but they keep an open mind.

Rob has his catchphrases and mannerisms, that someone recently observed you could base a drinking game on, including the repetition of “so good.”

The podcast is stripped down, just Rob or Rob and his guests speaking, and it’s all the better for that. So good.



Bending the Brain around the Big Questions: A review of the radio show and podcast “Unbelievable.”

“Hello and welcome to Unbelievable, the show that keeps you thinking”  I’m Justin Brierley, and today I’ll be talking to….”

So opens the long running (from 2007) radio show and podcast, Unbelievable, to be found on the radio station Premiere.  This is a show where Christians debate with Atheists and secular humanists from all of their various branches, sects, denominations, meetings, groups, and organisations.  And not only that, Mr Brierley puts representatives from different faiths round the table, and if that wasn’t fraught with potential for grief enough, representatives from different denominations of the same faith.

The show is amazingly successful with all of the above.  Truly, it has devoted atheists, secular humanists, and God botherers of all stripes.  It’s success can be in large part attributed to Mr Brierley’s relaxed, courteous and measured approach to facilitating the debates.  He is genuinely interested in hearing what everyone has to say,  appears to very much want to understand them and get his guests to understand each other, the better to engage with each others views.

The range of shows and guests is immense.  For example we recently have had a Christian group purporting to love Muslims but wanting to destroy Islam (love the person but hate their faith), then we had highlights from a range of speakers at the Unbelievable yearly conference on boosting your skills in evangelism, then a show debating the multi-verse (big enough topic for ya?), and last week it was look at the life of Christian thinker Soren Kierkegarrd.  This a small selection of a vast back catalogue that can be found here.

The format is to introduce the guests, including a short history of their life/work and what either led them to take up or reject faith. Then an introduction from both on the subject being discussed.  Then battle is joined.  Then a  final summary.  Then Justin gives feedback from various shows.  Except it rarely seems like a battle as Justin is such a skilled and decent moderator that the guests are so often so decent and respectable to each other, which if they really try to understand and critique each others ideas, is how it should be.  The worst shows are where the guests agree with each other so much you wonder what the point was.  The shows where it really kicks off are a guilty pleasure, but in the minority.  Most are part way between extremes.

As a Christian sometimes I am frustrated by the lack of grounding in absolutely anything of some of the beliefs expressed.  I have no patience with those who believe that every word of the Bible is literally true, or that God committed genocide and it can be theologically justified, or that people will really attend a conference on annihilating  the souls of unbelievers after death as opposed to just tormenting them eternally.  Liberals today eh?  It’s political correctness run mad!   Nevertheless the value of this show is to give all these views a platform, hopefully with a good critical voice.  Through the synthesis of the two we may arrive at reason.

Premier is a station with a mission based on the evangelistic wing of the Christian faith and Justin is part of that, but nevertheless the show remain accessible to even the most rabid reader of Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett.

My favourite show?  The one where Justin comes under fire from ex Mars Hill bad boy Mark Driscoll and aces him with British cool.  Find it here.

I have moved from fear and hostility of the secular humanist world to a greater understanding and appreciation.  What unites most of us is that we are seekers after truth.  Happily the show makes this utterly believable.



A review of the Audio-Drama Podcast “We’re Alive”

We’re Alive is a zombie apocalypse audio drama that ran for 4 seasons that ran between 2009 – 2014. A side story continuation ‘Lockdown’ finished has just completed as a podcast mini-series (April 2016).

And what a piece of work it is.  Starting life in season 1 it immediately established its credentials as a high quality audio drama with laudable production values.  An army sergeant Michael Cross (Jim Gleason) is pulled away from his studies on a college campus when he’s called up to deal with apparent violent riots.  Said riots turn out to be the rise of the undead.  Michael is reunited with his army buddies Angel (Shane Salk) and Saul (Nate Geez) and they realise that the established order is crumbling rapidly and they need to find a safe haven.  Banding together with fellow survivors Pegs (Elisa Eliot) and Riley (Claire Dodin), and eventually stumbling across gravelly voiced veteran Burt (Scott Marvin), they hole up in a tower block which they turn into a fortress.  This is the location of the first 2 seasons, which are centred on the defence of the tower block from monsters.  These monsters are the infected, but also humanity at its most monstrous in the form of “The Mallers,” ex-convicts who occupied a Mall and represent human survival at its most vicious and violent.  One of the Mallers leaders, ‘Scratch (Jenna McCombie),’ is a human nemesis whose battle with the tower dwellers becomes intensely personal when her brother is killed in an invasion of the tower.  Scratch will take her battle to the very end of the finale of season 4.

So season 1 starts feeling pretty generic, survival horror with a military bent, a template that has been well established.  As the story deepens over the next few seasons, however, we find that have bonded with main characters, and are engrossed with the developing lore and story arc of the series.  The creatures mutate into a range of monsters, from lumbering behemoths to smaller faster creatures.  They seem to be guided by a hive mind intelligence, and who is the tattooed figure who seems to appear as a watcher and leader of the undead army at key moments in the story?

The origin story of the creatures is hinted at in the early seasons and developed more fully in the later ones.  Whilst I’m not convinced that all the strands of this hang together, it makes for an intriguing and suspenseful listen.

The series has some stand out set pieces that live in the memory; the initial outbreak; the discovery of a grisly arena where survivors are brought to die apparently for the creatures’ amusement; battles at the tower; encounters with the behemoths; a chase through a prison with hideously mutated creatures, and more.  The story keeps its locations pretty tight and does not become too sprawling and fragmented.  We move from the tower to a colony, a series of safe houses, and war-torn streets and locations in between.

The cast are uniformly brilliant.  Michael is a solid lead, a sympathetic and very human leader who clings to his identity as a soldier.  Burt is a memorable fan favourite.  Gravelly voiced doesn’t begin to describe his tones.  It sounds like he’s gargling with gravel.  He’s an old school gun fetishist and veteran.  There’s a scene where Scratch almost breaks Burt by torturing his gun (named Sheila after his dead wife) which is probably one of the series most suspect scenes.  The female characters are varied and interesting and fight on an equal footing with their male counterparts (the apocalypse is an equal opportunities employer).  Pegs is maybe overtly cookie at times but still someone you are always glad to get back to.

Scratch is a stand out performance, Hell-bent fury and icy cruelty.

What I love about this whole series is that it is an amazing achievement that is testament to the democratic creative power crowd funding today.  Production values are cinematic in scope, and the intention to be a “theatre of the mind,” wholly immersive audio, is a successful one.  The sound effects and musical score are solid and laudable and together with the top notch voice acting, pull you in.  The snarls and roars of the creatures, especially the behemoths, are particularly memorable, and not what you want to hear in the dead of night.  It’s great that we can enjoy the whole series free (get it here) and the whole enterprise deserves your support, if you care about stories and particularly love this genre.  You can pledge support here.

Wittertainment going strong; a review of the “Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review” podcast

This massively successful podcast achieves the rare quality of hitting the mainstream, whilst allowing its listeners to feel hat they are part of a select or cult following, described in-show as “the Church of Wittertainment.” ‘Wittertainment’ being the term given host’s bantering approach.

Simon Mayo, radio presenter and DJ chiefly on BBC Radio’s 2 and 5, and Mark Kermode, leading film critic, are perfect foils.  Kermode is all urbane, sophisticated wit, and Mayo the baffled straight-man.  The podcast, which takes their Friday film show on BBC radio 5 and bookends it with a special introduction and closing extra’s, is available weekly on the same day, and runs for on average 1 hour 30 minutes.  It takes the format of said introduction which sets the show up, a run down of the top 10 films in the UK box office, Kermode’s reviews, an intreview of film star/s, or producers or directors or any combination of these involved in a current release, more reviews and banter, and podcast extras including ‘dvd of the week,’ a review of the show, and possibly more reviews of films they did not have time for.

What works so well is the strength of Mark Kermode’s film criticism, which is very good indeed.  Informed, insightful, intelligent, and impassioned with that reviewers strong value base.  He’s a self confessed “old Trot” (Trotskyite / socialist / left winger).  His reviews can be categorised as; the good ones, and you feel you trust his judgement to give a reliable quality mark (indeed the phrase “Mark Kermode says…is used up and down the UK by the film-going public when assessing exactly what to go and see next); the films he says are “ok” or “are what they are,” you get what you pay for and they do what they say on the tin; those he dislikes because they are bad technically or lazy; and those he hates, with a passion, because they are bad technically and also embed values he sees as hateful, be it the consumerist porn of the “Sex and the City” films, or the misogyny and empty over-long vacant spectacle of a Michael Bay film.  This latter category can produce a “Kermodian Rant” which are celebrated and often very funny, although Mark Kermode himself says that he is wary of such rants, not wanting to be known or reduced to a ranting critic, although he sometimes can’t help himself.

Simon Mayo, as said, is the perfect foil to all this.  He plays a baffled Everyman when his critical companion disappears verbally up his own backside through an overuse of erudite terms, or will playfully antagonise him in an number of ways.  That he is able to do this has been earned in their many years broadcasting together (the show is over 10 years old and stated on Radio 1).  He serves as the conduit to the listeners emails and reactions and is a good interviewer to boot.

The show is in danger, though, of becoming too self-referential and smug, too pleased with itself, to the point when the in-show wittering, bantering and in-jokes becomes a bit leaden and threaten to pull down or overshadow the criticism.  The opening “Wassup’s” are getting wearingly jarring to this reviewer.  The show feels like it needs a better editor to trim some of this stuff down to make space for more reviews or film talk.

However, all the looser stuff fits in with the pod-cast brief of sounding more informal and “unplugged.”  And although the wittering can be occasionally wearing, it can be more often very funny, and gives the show that character of a well known friend in whose company you are both very comfortable and very entertained.