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The week in audio: Today in Focus; Cold Case Cuts; Renegades: Born in the USA; Between the Ears

Miranda Sawyer
·6-min read

Today in Focus: Freshwater | The Guardian
Cold Case Crime Cuts | Apple podcasts
Renegades: Born in the USA | Spotify
Between the Ears: Concrete Paris | Radio 3/ BBC Sounds

This is a strange one: a true-crime cold case set among lobster fishers in the Channel. In 2011, the so-called Freshwater Five were convicted of conspiracy to smuggle drugs. A gobsmacking amount of drugs: 250kg of cocaine, with a street value of £53m.

On 29 May 2010, four of the five – Jamie Green, Daniel Payne, Scott Birtwistle and Zoran Dresic – went out to sea from the Isle of Wight in a force 8 gale. They said they were lobster fishing; the police said they were picking up a consignment of cocaine from another boat, and that they then hid the drugs in Freshwater Bay, off the Isle of Wight coast. The fifth man, Jon Beere, was alleged to have been involved because he picked up Dresic and brought him to work on the boat. All five were convicted and sentenced to 104 years between them. Last Tuesday, an appeal against the convictions began at the court of appeal.

Today in Focus, the Guardian’s daily behind-the-news podcast, devoted five episodes to the case, ending this miniseries on the first day of the appeal. Presented by its regular host, the excellent Anushka Asthana, the episodes tell a fascinating and – for the men’s families – devastating story.

In the first episode we heard from some of those families, notably Nicky, Green’s sister, and Sue and Maisie, Beere’s wife and daughter. Maisie was only seven when her father was taken from their home, her younger brother hanging off his legs, crying. In episode 2 we heard the police’s case, apart from one vital element. Two police officers said they had spotted the men throwing some packages from the boat into the sea. Emily Bolton, the men’s new lawyer, says this: “We started to look into it. We started to look at the logs, the observations, the amendments, the movements of the officers concerned. And a whole different picture began to emerge.” The third and fourth instalments tackle this different picture. It’s a fascinating, if depressing, listen.

As with many true-crime podcasts, the Freshwater Five tale is a story that can be interpreted in a few different ways. Almost all the evidence against the men was circumstantial: dodgy mates, odd phone calls, chucking bags into water (they have a slightly revolting explanation), why anyone would go out to sea in such bad weather. Crucially, Today in Focus does not try to decide whether they are innocent. Instead, it examines whether they might be innocent. And if they might, why were they convicted?

I always feel odd saying that I enjoyed a true-crime show – a short holiday in other people’s misery – but, anyway, I did. And I hope that the men, who have always protested their innocence, win their appeal. But it’s hard to have faith in a system that kept vital evidence away from the defence for almost a decade. Outside the court on Tuesday, Payne said: “Me personally, confidence in the British justice system is pretty low.”

Another cold case. Or is it? Cold Case Crime Cuts takes all the familiar American true-crime podcast tropes and uses them to examine the deaths and misdemeanours that take place in pop songs. First up, Barry Manilow’s Copacabana. If you don’t know the song, you might not twig that it’s the “cold case” you’re hearing: Cold Case Crime Cuts is an immense in-joke from start to finish, relying on your familiarity with over-serious podcast presenting, as well as your knowledge of Barry Manilow’s oeuvre. Still, this particular Venn diagram has a larger overlap than you might think. And even if you’re not au fait with everything, this is an excellently funny show, with plenty of chuckles per minute. There’s a brilliant late punchline around Rico (“he wore a diamond”), that really made me laugh.

President Obama and Bruce Springsteen share a moment during Obama’s campaign stop in Madison, Wisconsin, November 2012.
President Obama and Bruce Springsteen share a moment during Obama’s campaign stop in Madison, Wisconsin, November 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Just room for a couple of extras. First up, let’s welcome good-looking older US gentlemen Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen. They have a new Spotify podcast, Renegades: Born in the USA, in which they chat about life, friendship and race, because they are chums and (cough) “renegades”. I know. To be honest, they could be talking about anything. One of my mates has listened to the opening episode on replay, every night. This is a specific aural niche, with some hardcore fans. (Not me: Brucie’s not my type.)

Today’s Between the Ears on Radio 3 is also an immensely satisfying listen – definitely one for your headphones. It’s about the concrete parts of Paris, the interesting postwar housing experiments that encircle ye olde pretty centre. Voices from experts and inhabitants are layered with translations, and the sounds of the buildings are heard throughout: the bangs and creaks, the noise of people within them. An aural treat, and it made me want to see the buildings. The Choux de Créteil, cylindrical apartment towers with petal-like balconies, are wonderful: like the stems of a great plant, reaching up to the sky.

Three interesting sort-of drama podcasts

Space 1999: Volume 01
You have to pay top whack for this, but for fans of full-on, all-the-pings-and-swooshy-noises sci-fi, it’s very much worth it. Space 1999 is a reimagining of the 1970s Gerry Anderson TV series. Big Finish, who produce this show along with other nerd-friendly audio dramas (they do a lot of Doctor Who), really know what they’re doing. Meaning that the special effects and dramatic music are great, the cast are correctly OTT, and… I’m going to take over the Eagle by remote, do you read me, ovah? The pilot episode came out in 2019, and now there are three more, recorded remotely in lockdown, though you can’t tell. As camp and daft as it should be. Hours of joy!

Southwark Playhouse Elders Company: Plays for Today
There was much grumbling from the podcasting community over a recent arts feature that celebrated lockdown “audio plays”, as though podcasters haven’t been creating in-ear fiction – whether one-off plays, serials, series, or experimental soundscapes – for years. Anyhow, Southwark Playhouse in London is bringing out new audio plays every Monday and Thursday, performed by its Elders Company. Though the acting is overly “theatre”, and the plots very signposted, this is a lovely project that allows anyone over 65 to act with professional directors and facilitators. There is an admirable range of subject matter, from a future that imagines lifetimes extended to incredible lengths, to estranged sisters wondering what to do with land in Kenya.

Sour Hall
Adapted from a short story by Naomi Booth, this six-part drama by Lauren Kirwan-Ashman is a nicely spooky affair, designed to put the heebies up anyone who finds the idea of “moving to the countryside” about as enticing as “moving to a deserted, haunted graveyard”. Ash (Pearl Mackie, always great) has decided to shack up with her girlfriend, George (Lucy Fallon, ditto), settling into George’s old family farm. George doesn’t like to talk about her parents, and she’s gutted the place of all its old furniture… but why? Frightening noises and atmospheric production, as well as realistic dialogue from boggart-believing locals, gives this thriller all the jumps and scares. Excellent.