John Maier

Contains moments of spellbinding banality: Radio 4’s The Poet Laureate has Gone to his Shed reviewed

Plus: a podcast that, rather than merely ‘having’ a conversation, attempts to do that more progressive thing of ‘starting’ one

The moderately fanciful premise of Simon Armitage's new Radio 4 series sees the poet inviting a well-known friend or fellow artist into his garden shed ‘to call in for a natter’

The interview podcast is a genre immoderately drawn to gimmicks, as the logical space of possible formats is gradually exhausted. The interviewee, quite often themselves a podcaster, might be, for example, invited to noisily eat lunch while nominating their top-five deceased childhood pets.

The theory is that fanciful formats encourage the interviewee to open up. Under such conditions, the interview itself can come to seem incidental to the main event, the atmosphere chummy, comfortable, back-scratching, but fundamentally uninterested: you do my interview, I’ll do yours, no real questions asked.

‘Look, I can still fit into my old burqa!’

The moderately fanciful premise of The Poet Laureate has Gone to his Shed sees the poet Simon Armitage solitary and at work in his garden shed, turning out haiku as part of a summer project. He is glad of interruption, though, and each week a well-known friend or fellow artist — J.K. Rowling, Antony Gormley, Johnny Marr — is invited ‘to call in for a natter’, answer a playful questionnaire, bring a ‘show-and-tell’ object and sample ‘a little tot of laureate sherry’. The fanciful premise — or, rather, premises — of the shed is forgotten with pleasing efficiency. (‘Did sheds figure in your upbringing?’ Armitage asks one guest, a little half–heartedly, before moving on.)

These are not so much interviews as overheard conversations, the listener forced into the posture of eavesdropper. (‘Put your ear to one of the many knotholes in the wall’, Armitage directs us.) Suitably positioned, we enjoy moments of occasionally spellbinding banality. There is something about Armitage — his subdued but obvious kindliness; his Eeyoreish voice — that compels his guests to lockstep at his undemanding tempo. ‘I like a plain Hula Hoop’, he muses during an unhurried digression about crisps with Jo Whiley, ‘though not in a sandwich.’

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