Wondery’s British Scandal is a jarring mish-mash of tragedy and comedy

This series about the death of Alexander Litvinenko is full of bizarre tonal shifts that are at odds with the show’s content. 

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The podcast network Wondery is one of the biggest in the US. Launched just five years ago with backing from 20th Century Fox, its docu-thrillers Dr Death and Dirty John quickly climbed the charts, and it now has a broad slate of shows (including The Apology Line, reviewed in these pages at the end of April). The company was acquired by Amazon at the end of 2020. The New York Times suggested that the deal was valued at $300m; Bloomberg called it “the ­biggest deal yet in the booming podcast market”. ­Wondery is an American podcast giant with big budgets, and now it has launched its first podcast produced in the UK.

As its first UK series, British Scandal is something of a baffling choice. Following on from the success of Wondery’s American Scandal, the show promises to cover phone hacking, Jimmy Savile and the ­Profumo affair. The first series focuses on the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko – a horrifying but compelling story – and is hosted by the former Radio 1 DJ Alice Levine and the comedian Matt Forde.

[See also: BBC Radio 4’s The Untold returns with offbeat human stories]

Levine reads from a script by Karen Laws, which dramatises the well-known events, giving them a vaguely novelistic feel (“Peter Clarke rubs his eyes and looks around the deserted office at Scotland Yard… he’s one of the last people to leave the office – again”). Laws is seemingly indebted to two books written about the poisoning that are mentioned at the end of each episode – The Litvinenko File and A Very Expensive Poison.

Levine and Forde regularly interrupt the script with attempts to bring a sort of light-hearted water-cooler banter to proceedings. “It takes a lot to speak out about things in life,” says Forde of Litvinenko. “It’s awkward for people to speak in a meeting!”

This is an inexplicably jarring choice of format. Discussing the oligarch/­politician/Putin critic Boris Berezovsky – who took his own life in 2013 – Levine jokes that “he should be a millennial with all those [forward] slashes!” This gets a big laugh from Forde. “He would have made a great TikTok star!” Intrusive music and ads for the “greatest ball hair trimmer ever created”, (“Let’s get that bush to tush clean!”) only add more bizarre tonal shifts that are, ultimately, at complete odds with the show’s content. 

[See also: BBC Radio 4’s Conspiracies is a deep, broad consideration of conspiratorial thinking]

British Scandal 
Podcasts/Spotify/Wondery+

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 12 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Without total change Labour will die

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