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The best podcasts of 2016

From relationship horror stories to the solving of a decades-old cold case, it’s been a great year for listening.

When I started writing my podcast column for the New Statesman a few months ago, I had a bit of a dig at publications that only cover podcasts through lists. Yet here I am, at the end of the year, with a list the top ten shows I think you should catch up on over Christmas. I hope you enjoy them.


The Allusionist

Helen Zaltzman uncovers the surprising stories behind our words, from “Winterval” to “Pride”. Always surprising, this is a podcast that has earned its place on my “must listen immediately” list via well-structured episodes and carefully crafted interviews.

Where to start: With this episode about getting losing your words in Antarctic and this one about transatlantic differences in the use of “please”.

 


In the Dark

A thrilling investigative documentary into the abduction and murder of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling in Minnesota in 1989. There are some similarities to Serial, but this true crime podcast is better, not least because you find out who did it.

Where to start: With the first of the nine episodes, “The Crime”, before you binge through the rest in short order.

 

The Receipts

Four funny, honest British women discuss love, sex, infidelity and the pitfalls of interracial dating. It’s a relatively new show, so there are four episodes so far, but it’s worth getting on board early with this one. It’s going far.

Where to start: This episode about, among other things, women who cheat.

 

Election Profit Makers

To really understand Donald Trump’s election victory, you need to hear from the people who bet against it. David Rees, Jon Kimball and Starlee Kine embarked on their profit-making adventure back in July, and, well, we all know how it ended.

Where to start: This episode about Clinton’s pneumonia scare. Or just immerse yourself in the podcast’s bonus mixtape, which features tunes remixed from the most memorable moments of the campaign.

 

Another Round

A superb interview show from New York. Guests include Hillary Clinton and Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, and there are plenty of regular rotating segments so it never feels stale.

Where to start: This interview with Rachel Wilkerson Miller about getting your life in order.

 

Not By Accident

An Australian documentary that follows one woman’s decision to become a single mother. Sophie Harper has been recording since she decided to get pregnant, and hasn't stopped. The result is a textured, intimate portrait of her life with her child.

Where to start: At the beginning, with her “Insemination Story”.

 

Wooden Overcoats

Move over, Radio 4. This ensemble scripted comedy about a pair of doomed undertakers is funnier than anything broadcast on the BBC. Siblings Rudyard and Antigone Funn battle to keep their undertaking business on the small island of Piffling going after a new competitor arrives in town.

Where to start: The opening episode of series two is a good introduction, if you don't want to go all the way back to the start.

 

Call Your Girlfriend

Two best friends maintain their relationship long distance via this heartwarming weekly podcast. Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow talk about politics, current affairs, celebrities, books and anything else they want to catch up on.

Where to start: The 2016 in review episode features lots of clips from across the year.

 

Millennial

Megan Tan documents the struggles of Generation Y by recording every important moment in her own life. She’s incredibly honest and open on the podcast, so it's no surprise this show has gathered a strong community around it.

Where to start: This episode about income inequality in relationships.

 

The Secret History of Hollywood

Adam Roche makes beautifully produced, compelling documentaries about the early days of Hollywood. They’re like audiobooks, but better because there’s music and sound effects as well as narration.

Where to start: With the “Bullets and Blood” series that traces the origin story of Warner Brothers.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016

Credit: The Bureau/Film4 Productions/British Film Council
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Lean on Pete builds on the proud history of horses in film

Cinema’s equine love affair is in no danger of dimming.

The mane attraction in cinemas next week is Andrew Haigh’s film adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s novel Lean On Pete, the story of a teenage boy and the horse he rescues.

If there’s any justice, audiences will gallop rather than trot to see it. Anyone who hasn’t read the book could be forgiven for expecting an inspirational, uplifting tale. Maybe, like the kid in Carroll Ballard’s beautiful, dialogue-light 1979 film The Black Stallion, the hero of Lean On Pete will train his four-legged companion to be a champion racehorse. But that isn’t how things turn out. Not even close. Haigh’s picture has more in common with Au hasard Balthazar, Bresson’s plaintive 1966 study of the sad life of a donkey, or Ken Loach’s Kes. Boy and horse help alleviate the other’s loneliness and suffering, at least in the short term, but they reflect it too.

That’s also the role of the horse that 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) finds tied up in Fish Tank, and attempts to liberate. As its title suggests, Andrea Arnold’s 2009 drama is not short on nature metaphors; there’s also a dog called Tennents, and a carp that meets a sticky end. To be honest, the horse is probably pushing things a bit. Don’t you see? It’s really Mia and she wants to set it free because she herself yearns to be emancipated! Yeah, yeah, we get it. But such objections count for little next to the sheer physical might of a horse on screen. There’s no getting around it. Did you ever see a horse that didn’t exude awesomeness, magnificence and film-star charisma? They’ve got what it takes.

Trigger was first out the gate. Though when Olivia de Havilland rode him in The Adventures of Robin Hood, he was still going by the name Golden Cloud, which sounds uncomfortably like an obscure sexual practice. Roy Rogers coughed up $2,500 to buy him, then changed the animal’s name when his co-star Smiley Burnette remarked that the beast was “quick on the trigger.” It stuck. Trigger and Rogers first appeared together in 1938 in Under Western Stars. Down the years, other horses sometimes stood in for him, so estimates vary as to how many appearances the horse-formerly-known-as-Golden-Cloud actually made. You’d need a photo finish, though, to tell the difference.

A horse plays a vital part in Valeska Grisebach’s recent Western, a tense and mysterious study of German labourers working in Bulgaria. The title demands at least one horse, I suppose, as well as the various macho stand-offs that occur in the course of the film, but its presence introduces an air of nobility and calm amidst the general lawlessness. “Horses make everything alright,” says a character in Willy Vlautin’s most recent novel, Don’t Skip Out On Me, and you’d have to agree. When the horse in Western is imperilled, you know trouble is a-coming. Look what happened in The Godfather.

Horse sense tells you these creatures have got to be respected. In the sort-of Bond movie Never Say Never Again (essentially a second adaptation of Thunderball, made possible due to complicated copyright reasons pertaining to the original novel), there’s a nasty stunt in which a horse leaps from a great height into the ocean, hitting the water upside down. There was a furore about it at the time of release in 1983 and it tends to be excised on those rare occasions when the film is screened today. Quite right, too. The filmmakers’ cavalier attitude toward animal safety really takes the Seabiscuit.

Equine enthusiasts aren’t short of cinematic opportunities to indulge their passion—everything from National Velvet and International Velvet to War Horse, Phar Lap and The Horse Whisperer. Among the various incarnations of Black Beauty, allow me to flag up the 1994 version, adapted and directed by Caroline Thompson, the pen behind Edward Scissorhands. Sadly it has no trace of the stirring theme music from the 1970s television series (surely a contender for greatest TV theme ever) but there is ample compensation in Alan Cummings’s gentle Scottish lilt, which gives Beauty’s internal monologue the ebbing rhythm of a bedtime story. Human roles are shaved bare but David Thewlis gets the sweetest moment, when Beauty steals his doorstep sandwich, gambols about with it victoriously, then showers him in a confetti of crumbs.

Jockeying for position with all these movie horses, though, are some that don’t exist anywhere except in the imagination. I’m referring, of course, to the invisible ones on which King Arthur rides through medieval England in Monty Python and the Holy Grail while his servant follows nearby, clapping together two halves of a coconut shell. This was the ultimate case of necessity being the mother of comic invention, since the budget wouldn’t stretch to actual horses. It’s just a shame that when Arthur later encounters three fabled knights, their catchphrase turns out to be “Nii!” rather than “neigh.”

Lean On Pete opens 4 May. Western is on release.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.