Magic and mentalism

Ghostly goings-on at the Duke of York's Theatre.

Halloween approaches, when "the world's edge seeps and bleeds" according to Hilary Mantel, and so what better time to enjoy the tricks and treats on offer at the Duke of York's Theatre? Ghost Stories is the scary love-child of Andy Nyman (Derren Brown's mind-control collaborator) and Jeremy Dyson (one quarter of The League of Gentlemen); it's in the tenebrous tradition of Victorian mentalism and magic, and comes with dire warnings attached for those of a nervous disposition - namely me.

Nyman himself plays anchorman to the entire proceedings, a certain professorial parapsychologist by the name of Philip Goodman. It's a cunning ruse to have an arch-apologist for the rational curate the ghoulish tales for us in an analytical lecture format. He fluently makes the case for ghosts as manifestations of the troubled mind but then, some way into the show, glitches start to appear in his performance, and at one point he literally comes apart at the seams. Without giving too much away (we're all sworn to secrecy) it turns out that the poor old Prof is protesting too much and is prey, as it were, to his own unresolved anxieties.

The three exemplars offered up by the corduroy-clad Nyman are great fun in an end of pier Ghost Train kind of way, though properly speaking it's more of a slow train - and this is meant as a compliment. Doubtless the intention behind giving the actors the room to do very little for extended periods is to crank up the tension but personally I enjoyed watching the actors unhurriedly go about their mundane, gadget-based affairs: a night watchman ticks away time with internet porn and radio phone-ins; a city broker-type is permanently paired with his smartphone to conduct the adrenalized business of sustaining two Mercs and a mortgage as his domestic life unravels.

Technology is used here to disturbing effect: there is something innately disquieting about the recorded voice - all that spooky distortion - and sound designer Nick Manning makes ample use of speech variously garbled by phones, tape recorders, walkie-talkies, late-night radio. He also subjects us to an indeterminate background rumble as events unfold and jacks up the volume at moments of stress just to shred the nerves a little. Of course night-time is a precondition for things that go bump to really put the wind up the punters and James Farncombe shows a dastardly sleight of hand with the lighting or, more accurately, its absence. This, combined with ingenious misdirection and a highly mobile set, makes for some very nasty surprises indeed.

But it's all rather jolly and a festive mood prevails in the stalls. There's a knowing wit and a conscious hyperbole at work alongside the reveals that would seem to render them harmless as a joke-shop prank or a sophisticated version of peek-a-boo. In the absence of anything truly terrifying, one's imagination is apt to recruit all the chance noises of the auditorium into the narrative: the coughs, rustles and exits are just as jangling as the calculated onstage frighteners.

As a confirmed horror dodger ever since Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (it's not so much the flying car that was creepy, you understand, as the child catcher), I was beginning to congratulate myself on emerging unscathed. Until, that is, the final stretch of the performance, when a new reality kicks in, which, like a double exposure, contains ghostly echoes from the old one. Our touchstone shatters and cracks open to reveal dark ambiguities.

Never mind what it says about us as decadents and voluptuaries that we seek to flirt with fear, and treat yourself to a good scare this Halloween: it's a scream.

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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times