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The week in audio: The Battersea Poltergeist; Catching Melanie's Killer; Eddie Mair – review

Miranda Sawyer
·6-min read

The Battersea Poltergeist (Radio 4 podcast) | BBC Sounds
Catching Melanie’s Killer (ITV News podcast) | itv.com
Eddie Mair (LBC) | globalplayer

63 Wycliffe Road, home of the Hitchings family, was just an ordinary terraced house in Battersea, south London. That is, until January 1956, when strange things started happening. Banging in the walls and ceiling so loud that the neighbours complained. Pots and pans that hurled themselves across the room. Slippers that walked by themselves. A teenage girl levitating above her bed…

Ah, who doesn’t love a poltergeist? Those most visceral of unexplained presences: naughty, physical, chaotic, somehow connected to a child’s energy… When I was young, poltergeists were the one type of ghost that everyone believed in. Secretly, we all loved them and hoped that one might attach itself to someone we knew. But, having listened to the first three episodes of The Battersea Poltergeist, I’m quite glad that never happened.

This hugely entertaining podcast, scripted and hosted by Haunted presenter Danny Robins, combines several elements. First, the real-life “cold case”: a poltergeist haunting that continued for years. Robins has gone back over the newspaper reports and, in a proper scoop, the detailed notes of Harold Chibbett, a paranormal investigator involved from the start. Robins also – amazingly – talks to Shirley, the girl who was haunted by the poltergeist (the family called it Donald). Shirley is now 80, and her testimony is convincing and chilling. As well as all this, Robins has two experts on hand: Ciarán O’Keeffe and Evelyn Hollow. O’Keeffe is a sceptic, Hollow not so much. At one point O’Keeffe puts Robins through a virtual reality test, to show how fear can alter your perceptions of everyday life.

Another strand to the podcast is a dramatic re-enactment of what happened. Actors play the family – Dafne Keen is Shirley, Toby Jones is Chibbett – and their scenes pop in and out of the story. At first I found these parts stagey, but it didn’t take long to start relishing their gothic campery, the sudden noises, the screams and palaver. Plus – plus! – musicians Nadine Shah and Ben Hillier add a dramatic atmosphere that heightens the mad theatrics, their strange music woven through the knockings and bangs that move around your headphones, as though you’re in the room as well…

As you can tell, Robins and producer/director Simon Barnard have gone to immense lengths to make this podcast work. And it does: this really is a strange story, and The Battersea Poltergeist is a fabulous telling of it. Enjoy on headphones in the dark.

Melanie Road, whose murder in 1984 was the subject of Catching Melanie’s Killer.
Melanie Road, whose murder in 1984 was the subject of Catching Melanie’s Killer. Photograph: Avon and Somerset Police/PA

Here’s another old mystery, this one from the 1980s. But Catching Melanie’s Killer has a far more familiar feel. It tells the story of 17-year-old Melanie Road, who was stabbed to death in Bath in 1984 after a night out. ITV journalist Robert Murphy takes us through the case.

The difficulty with such podcasts lies in finding a balance between the adrenaline of the detectives working through their clues and the devastation of the bereaved family. Murphy manages this well, his interviews with Road’s family sensitive and revealing. There’s an added interest in hearing how the police managed such investigations in the days before DNA analysis and computers. Detectives called in 90 people to be interviewed, some just on a hunch. They had 80,000 entries on file, and linked pieces of paper that stretched along a corridor.

The central police character, DCI Julie Mackay, who took over the unsolved case in 2009, was just two years younger than Melanie when she was killed. Mackay spent years unable to progress in the police force because she was looking after her young children. I’m not always a fan of true crime podcasts, but this one is sensitively handled, well paced and moves towards a true conclusion. It serves to show how far we’ve come and what we’ve left behind.

Which brings me to Eddie Mair on LBC. With a three-hour live show at 4pm, Mair’s PM days are long behind him. On Wednesday he talked us through the Biden inauguration, à la Graham Norton on Eurovision: “Well, she gave that some welly,” he observed of Lady Gaga. “She appears to be in a giant red meringue from the waist down, but I’m no fashion commentator.” Cheering and delightful, and accompanied afterwards by some excellent political analysis from Washington correspondent Simon Marks and US diplomat John Bolton. Mair has always been brilliant at switching between different moods, from silly to serious, and this show quite made my night. Onwards!

Three podcasts about human monsters

Power: The Maxwells
Hot on the heels of John Sweeney’s excellent Hunting Ghislaine, here’s another podcast about the Maxwells. Robert Maxwell, of course, is the looming monster here: “You likely don’t know him,” says the blurb on iTunes, presumably talking to the younger listener. American investigative reporter Tara Palmeri is our dynamic host. “In some ways, his death shines a whole new light on his life,” she announces, over a Serial-style piano riff. This is a slick podcast, with a fruity, dramatic feel from Somethin’ Else, who know what they’re doing. There are echo effects added to voices and much dubious commentary, such as “there was no sign of tears”, referring to Ghislaine’s reaction to her father’s death. Hmm. We’re only two episodes in. Try the Sweeney first.

I’m Not a Monster
The tale of an ordinary American family who decided to join the war in Syria, this combines the investigative forces of the BBC’s Panorama and the American PBS network show Frontline to tell the tale of Sam Sally and her children. Reporter Joshua Baker met Sally in Syria and followed her story back in the US. In November 2019, she admitted that she’d supported her husband, Moussa, in joining Isis. But did she? Did Moussa lie to her? Is she a monster too? Baker has amazing access to those involved, including Isis fighters (though I don’t think he should have interviewed Sally’s child), yet this gripping podcast allows you to make up your own mind.

Blood on the Tracks: The Phil Spector Story
I can’t imagine you missed this news, but Phil Spector, bullying pop genius and convicted murderer, died last week. This podcast, which tells the Spector story in 10 episodes, came out last year. Suitably, it’s bananas. There is much audio lip-smacking around the Spector yarns, as his “so-called friends”, including Ike Turner and Leonard Cohen, tell their tales (not live: their stories are reimagined and read out). A plethora of ludicrous noir-ish sound effects, added to inappropriately sweet background music, makes this a difficult listen. I admire the imagination, but I’m not entirely impressed by the result.