If you have spare moments over Christmas, and want to better understand the great medical challenge of our time, turn to BBC Radio 4’s How to Vaccinate the World, said Charlotte Runcie in Prospect. Journalist and economist Tim Harford (the outstanding broadcaster behind More or Less and Cautionary Tales) explores the global Covid-19 vaccine race, and how tough decisions are being made about who gets the jab first.
But if all you really want during the holiday is comfort and joy, seek out St Elwick’s Neighbourhood Association Newsletter – a “real gem of a comedy podcast” that has provided much pleasure this year. Comedian Mike Wozniak plays Malcolm Durridge, the editor of a (fictional) parish newsletter that has supposedly switched to podcast form, due to budget constraints and Covid restrictions. It’s warm, witty and hugely entertaining, with guest appearances from villagers “who bear a striking resemblance to comedians such as Isy Suttie, Romesh Ranganathan and James Acaster”. For me, one of the year’s best – and funniest – podcasts was Dead Eyes, a “surprisingly edifying” series about one actor’s exploration of a “discomfiting milestone” in his career, said Sarah Larson in The New Yorker.
In 2001, the character actor and improv veteran Connor Ratliff, who’s best known today for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, got sacked from a small part in the HBO epic Band of Brothers. The reason? Its producer Tom Hanks – widely regarded as one of the nicest guys in Hollywood – decided that Ratliff had “dead eyes”. In his terrific podcast, Ratliff gets peers and friends (including Jon Hamm and Aimee Mann) to “reflect on career successes and failures alongside him”. It’s funny, and also insightful: “every time we think Ratliff is veering toward self-centred neurosis, he pulls the frame back to make his story universal again”.
The very best podcasts offer us “windows into worlds to which we wouldn’t usually have access”, said Fiona Sturges in the FT. Gamblers, a new six-part anthology series from journalist David Hill, does this “masterfully”. It provides a “mesmerising glimpse” into the shadowy world of high-stakes gambling, and paints striking portraits of six professionals – all of them blessed with wit, skill and resilience (and sometimes luck). First up is Gina Fiore, a casino card pro who uses an array of wigs to work incognito. In other episodes, we meet a “tattooed and pierced” racing specialist, a gin rummy professional and an international pool hustler. “Some may baulk at the fact that Gamblers skates lightly over the ethics of the business”, and the pain of addiction. But “the perils are implicit in the storytelling”, which is deft, fleet and thoroughly compelling.