John Phipps

Insane and fascinating: BBC World Service’s Lazarus Heist reviewed

Plus: O.C. Swingers is an archetypal narrative podcast, one that left me feeling seasick

Posters for Sony's US-hegemony-cum-stoner-comedy The Interview, in which Seth Rogen and James Franco are sent to assassinate Kim Jong-un. Image: AFP / Getty Images

The narrative podcast remains a form in search of a genre. The template set by the hit show Serial — enterprising American journalists with janky piano theme tune shed new light on tantalising murder — still predominates seven years on. To this we can add the format pioneered by S-Town (initial murder investigation subsides into rich human detail) and, more recently, the excellent Wind of Change (intriguing what-if maps cultural and macropolitical shifts, with bonus CIA window-dressing). I remain sceptical about the form’s usefulness as a way of breaking hard news. Caliphate, the New York Times jaw-dropper on the Islamic State, is less gripping now its key source has been revealed as a fraud.

Too often, podcasts promise what they can’t deliver — whether that’s the murderer’s identity or the espionage roots of a hair-metal anthem — and end up having no choice but to elevate the theme, having promised answers. They are a bunch of rug-pullers, no mistake: confident that their inciting question has chiselled enough from the broader culture that, on balance, the listener will agree that the richness of context buys out the failure to provide solutions. We don’t agree, though. We always want to know who the murderer is.

He wanted to set up an industrial crystal-meth lab inside North Korea, aided by the regime’s officials

Perhaps cognisant that listeners have grown wary of podcasts with big hooks but no mackerel, The Lazarus Heist sets itself more modest parameters for its investigation. It’s a highly entertaining retelling of the diplomatic fallout that ensued when Sony Pictures advertised the release of its US-hegemony-cum-stoner-comedy The Interview, in which Seth Rogen and James Franco are sent to assassinate Kim Jong-un. (The North Korean state disputes the BBC’s version of events.)

In North Korea, depicting the death of Kim Jong-un would be an act of high political sacrilege, somewhat comparable to urinating on the Queen.

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