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The BBC’s McMafia is boring, pretentious and unnecessarily difficult to follow

Don’t believe the McHype.

Early on in BBC One’s serious crime drama McMafia, we are told in no uncertain terms how to feel about our protagonist, the glassily smooth banker Alex Godman (James Norton). “You ever know what he’s thinking?” his Uncle Boris asks sarcastically. “He’s got this beautiful smile, but underneath maybe he’s thinking, ‘Screw you and your friends, Uncle Boris!’” “He’s like a wall,” he adds. “I should practise tennis against him.”

The impassive, mysterious, morally ambiguous antihero is a staple of prestige spy and action thrillers, from James Bond to Sherlock to well, every character Tom Hardy’s ever played. We’re used to watching our leads narrow their eyes to let us know that complex thoughts about an ethical dilemma are swirling around their heads as gracefully as the ice in their scotch, before smiling blandly at their wives and loved ones, hollowly insisting that everything’s fine. But McMafia dispenses with the subtleties of letting the ambiguity of Alex’s character surface on its own, instead spelling it out for us less than eight minutes in with heavy-handed dialogue. Just in case you missed it: this dude is impenetrable as fuck and he doesn’t care who knows it!!

This is the problem with the over-hyped McMafia, which reaches audiences thanks to both old-school channels (the BBC and America’s AMC) and Amazon Prime Video. It ticks every box in terms of what we expect from “prestige” drama – lavishly expensive and tasteful international sets; subtitled foreign-language dialogue, spoken by authentic Russian actors; complex, layered plotting; the constant exchange of darkly significant looks; mumbling and, of course, badly written women. But its desperation to be slick, exciting and high-brow has resulted in a show that’s also insincere, pretentious and unnecessarily difficult to follow. Even David Aaronovitch can’t keep up.

We move from location to location so quickly the producers resort to cartoonish sets to remind us where in the world we’re supposed to be. France? Let’s inexplicably send them to Versailles. Prague? Ah, of course, everyone’s conducting their business meetings in a novelty medieval tavern, complete with swords adorning the walls, that looks like it was also used as a set for Scott Disik’s “royal” parties on Keeping Up With The Kardashians.

Some plotlines are obviously tired: the third episode revolves powerful men and their decisions to obscure their business moves from their partners, which is handled with the same level of maturity as the 2002 Spiderman. (They’re lying to protect them. It’s a good thing, dummy.) Five episodes in, and Alex’s partner Rebecca (Juliet Rylance) seems to exist simply to look expensive, clean and concerned while holding very large bouquets of flowers, or to look expensive, clean and concerned while asking her fiancé who he was just on the phone to.

The dialogue is wooden, episodes are filled with close-ups of computer screens streaming with code and dramatic mouse-clicks, and metaphors are overdone. (A man is murdered with a caviar knife!!!! Extreme wealth is violence!!!)

Still, the makers themselves acknowledge that McMafia isn’t everything it sells itself to be. “It's actually a state-of-the-nation treatise on globalisation masquerading as a slick thriller” director James Watkins told the Guardian. “And we’re fine with that.” Instead, he hoped to portray a world in which “the corporate has become criminal and the criminal corporate”.

Misha Glenny’s non-fiction book McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime, on which this series is based, opens in 1994 on the Barnesbury Estate in Woking, Surrey. 33-year-old Karen Reed, opens the door when a pizza delivery man rings her bell, and is immediately shot in the head. She died because of her proximity to a world of organised crime she knew nothing about. The story works because it emphasises that anyone, even an ordinary woman, from an ordinary place, can have ties to organised crime without even being aware of it.

The super-rich, mega-elite bankers and oligarchs of McMafia don’t have quite the same impact. We are given little reason to empathise with or even care about these characters. Alex becomes involved with dodgy money worryingly fast – so it hardly feels like a story of well-meaning ordinary guy gets in over his head and can’t back out. Instead, the show slowly reveals the links between what are, at first, very desperate worlds: Alex’s luxurious, calm, plush life and the violent crimes he’s funding. Eventually, overlap appears: like the “gift” of a beaten and chained man in the basement of a beautiful villa in the south of France. But Alex doesn’t seem to care too much about the horrors he funds, and with no good guys to root for, why, then, should we?

As McMafia gears up to go Stateside, UK viewers are getting bored: viewing figures have dropped by over two million, and there are still four episodes left to go. As for me, I think I’d rather practice tennis against Alex Goodman the wall than keep watching him.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.

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Why do politicians keep making podcasts?

Nick Clegg is the latest to take to the internet airwaves.

“Rage is the opposite of reason. Discuss!”, Nick Clegg declares jauntily at the start of the first episode of his new podcast, Anger Management. The former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister can now be heard on the internet airwaves fortnightly, grilling guests about what he calls “the politics of anger”. Since his show is introduced by a montage of angry politicians shouting, it’s guaranteed to raise the listener’s blood pressure before the host even starts talking.

Clegg is just the latest in a long run of politicians to try their hand at podcasting. Perhaps the most notable example in the UK is the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose Reasons to be Cheerful show made in partnership with the former Absolute Radio DJ Geoff Lloyd hit number two in the iTunes podcast chart when it debuted in September 2017 and was recently nominated for a 2018 British Podcast Award. Jacob Rees-Mogg, too, has a fortnightly podcast called the Moggcast, which launched in January 2018 and is hosted by Conservative Home. Where once a politician might do a phone-in show on LBC or guest host The Jeremy Vine Show  on BBC Radio 2 to show how in touch and relatable they are (as in Call Clegg, which aired on LBC from 2013 to 2015, or Ed Milibands lunch time death metal scream), they can now go it alone.

In his column in the i newspaper introducing the podcast, Clegg puts his finger on exactly why it is that politicians find podcasting so attractive: it’s all about control. “I have grown to abhor the tired and tested confrontational interview format,” he writes. On his podcast, “there is no wish to pounce on a slip of the tongue or endure a soundbite being hammered home”. There’s a freedom to this kind of on-demand internet audio, which can be delivered directly to an audience without having to get past the traditional gatekeepers of broadcasting. There’s no need to put up with John Humphrys or work with the BBC’s requirement for political balance. The politician, usually on the receiving end of whatever the interviewer wants to throw at them, is in charge.

Given this, it’s unfortunate that in his first episode Nick Clegg falls foul of his own edicts. His first guest is former Ukip leader Nigel Farage (coincidentally also the host of a podcast called Farage Against the Machine). It’s a slightly odd choice of guest to launch the show — made, no doubt, to generate controversy and a higher iTunes chart position — and it doesn’t exactly show Clegg’s broadcasting skills in a good light.

In a recorded disclaimer that plays before the interview, the former Lib Dem leader and vocal Remainer tries to pre-empt criticism that he’s giving a platform to someone with pretty unpalatable views. He explains that the first half of the 47-minute episode is meant to be about Farage’s “life, not really me cross-questioning him”, and that to hear them “locking horns more on the issues of the day” listeners must wait until the latter part of the show.

This approach results in Clegg letting Farage get away with a number of fact-light statements early on, and then later adopting the Humphrys-style tactic of repeatedly interrupting Farage before he can finish a point. As an interview style, it’s the worst of both worlds — neither spacious enough to allow the guest to explain their thinking fully, nor robust enough to provide an effective rebuttal. Hosting a podcast is a deceptively hard thing to do. It would take someone substantially more skilled behind the microphone than Clegg to completely reinvent the one-on-one discussion format in a single episode.

The lure of podcasting for politicians is in the way listeners react to the medium. The entire burgeoning podcast advert market is founded on research that points to a strong sense of intimacy between podcast host and audience — it’s a level of loyalty and engagement that surpasses many other forms of media. In politics, that can be harnessed for electoral gain: for instance, Hillary Clinton had a podcast called With Her that ran during her 2016 presidential campaign.

The trouble is that politicians aren’t necessarily that good at making podcasts. They’re not journalists, and they don’t often have a good nose for what makes a strong show for the listener, or take the advice of those who do. For those still in office (or, like Clegg, still wanting to participate in politics despite losing his seat), there are other pressures that can prevent them being completely honest on air. As Amanda Hess pointed out in the New York Times in 2017, the best episodes of Clinton’s podcast were made after she lost the election, when she moved out of campaign mode and just tried to process what had happened like everyone else.

The rise of the podcasting politician is the result of a few different factors: an increased dominance of personality in politics; the tendency for us all to gravitate towards our own “filter bubbles” of reassuring content; and an ever-more polarised media climate. For my money, the best show to come out of this trend so far is Ed Miliband’s. He leans in to the “geeky” stereotype that haunted him for his entire career and, guided by veteran broadcaster Geoff Lloyd, is seeking to make something that looks beyond the political bubble.

Podcasts are at their best when they serve a particular niche interest group: there’s clearly a community of people who enjoy listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg intoning bleakly about obscure areas of policy, and best of luck to them. Politicians should realise that it is not a form that works when you try to appeal to everyone. Otherwise, like Nick Clegg, they will end up telling Nigel Farage that he’s “very good at the high horse stuff about how the EU is ghastly” in a strained tone of voice.

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