Reviewed: Victoria Wood’s Nice Cup of Tea

Oh my Darjeeling.

Victoria Wood’s Nice Cup of Tea

BBC1

 

So you decide to send Victoria Wood, national treasure and professional Alan Bennett-alike, off to do a travelogue-cum-documentary about tea and the British (10 and 11 April, 9pm). Good plan. Everyone likes Victoria Wood. And everyone likes tea, too – except for those people who like lattes but that’s fine because they’re all watching E4 and Sky Atlantic. OK, this project will be expensive. You will have to splash out on airfares to Shanghai and Boston, plus a couple of swanksville over­night stops in Assam and Kolkata, not to mention travel insurance and the cost of limitless supplies of Imodium, Dioralyte and extra-strength Sure for Ms Wood and the crew. But consider the result. If she turns out to be the new Michael Palin, this could be the start of a whole new franchise.

Then . . . disaster! Wood and her director return to HQ with a couple of souvenir chai cups, a comedy straw hat and a film that is dull and predictable and patronises foreigners for their tendency to look foreign, talk foreign and put condensed milk in their Darjeeling. Oh, dear. Wood is not the new Palin, after all. She is not even the new Caroline Quentin.

What to do? Do you: a) put her film on ice indefinitely and get on the phone to Alan Titchmarsh to see if he is interested in making a series about leeks, a venture that would necessitate only a trip to Wales?; b) hide it on BBC4, somewhere between the repeats of I, Claudius and Timeshift: the Golden Age of Coach Travel?; or c) simply butch the whole thing out and daringly screen Wood’s film on BBC1 in hour-long segments over two consecutive nights?

Personally, I would have gone for the second option and then swiftly disappeared for a long trip abroad myself. As you will no doubt have guessed by now, the commissioning editors went nuclear on this one and Victoria Wood’s Nice Cup of Tea – a title so rubbish, not even Craig Brown could spoof it – screened on BBC1 and lasted the full 120 minutes. Was it really as bad as all that? Oh yes, it was. The travel bits were like Blue Peter circa 1976, with Wood meekly learning to pick tea (in India), to taste tea (in Harrogate) and to talk nicely to toffs about tea (at Woburn Abbey). Wood is either very shy or very gauche, with the result that she found it impossible to meet the eye of any of her interviewees or even to look at the camera half the time. Weird.

The anthropology and social history bits, meanwhile, were like The One Show gone wrong. Various random celebrities – Graham Norton, Dr Who, Morrissey – tried (and mostly failed) to explain why they and people in general love tea so very much as Wood gazed on, looking vacant and a little bit twitchy.

Yes, you did read that right. Morrissey met her in a beige American hotel room, where he served her a cup of weak Ceylon from his personal teapot, a lime-coloured metal job with red beads dangling from it. In exchange, she produced a tea cosy knitted by her friend Norah. Yes, a tea cosy – which he accepted, albeit with a certain camp truculence.

It was so painful to remember, watching this excruciating scene, that I used to think Morrissey was the most stylish and beautiful and poetic man who ever lived. For here he was playing Dame Hilda Bracket to Wood’s Dr Evadne Hinge. Were they flirting? I think they were, a little bit. And it killed me. Sic transit gloria Morrissey. I think I’d better stick the kettle on, quick.

Victoria Wood and Matt Smith enjoying a nice cup of tea. Photograph: BBC

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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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