Daisy Dunn

Seldom less than gripping: Banged Up podcast reviewed

Plus: a Radio 3 documentary that brings Virginia Woolf's The Waves to life

Seldom less than gripping: Banged Up podcast reviewed
Rob Morrison, Claire Salama and Mike Boateng, the highly engaging presenters of Banged Up podcast. Image: Goalhanger Films
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Banged Up

Spotify, Apple Podcasts and other platforms

Riding the Waves

BBC Radio 3

Prison-based podcast Banged Up, now in its second series, is far more uplifting — and less soapy — than its name suggests. It begins with the tacit assumption that, if you haven’t personally been incarcerated, you probably have at least a dozen questions you’d want to ask someone who had. Is the food really awful? How likely are you to be beaten up? Is there a lending library? (I’d start with the last.) Banged Up has the answers to plenty more besides.

The podcast is hosted by a prison lawyer named Claire Salama and two ex-inmates, a former footballer, Mike Boateng, known as ‘Boats’, and university-educated Rob Morrison, who describes himself as ‘probably not their [prisons’] target market’. While Claire takes the back seat, dropping in the odd bit on the criminal justice system and steering the discussion, Rob and Boats speak honestly about life behind bars. They are, both of them, highly engaging speakers.

Most episodes feature a guest who has also served time. Recently, Boats brought in Ed, who had been locked up at High Down in his teens after being arrested for possession of an offensive weapon. Ed was in hospital, where he had been treated for a stab wound to his own arm, when the police approached him. Although he knew who his attacker was, he refused to tell them his identity, explaining to us: ‘It’s not really how it works.’

Those who need to imagine how it works can appreciate the courage it takes to recount all this publicly. I was struck by the young man’s maturity and readiness to acknowledge his mistakes. Throughout, in fact, he came down harder on himself than on the police or the system, some of the shortcomings of which became only too apparent to the listener as the programme progressed. The total absence of resentment and self-pity on his part was extraordinary.

One of the things you’ll notice about this podcast, which is seldom less than gripping, is that its presenters only ever interject to gain more information or detail from their guests, never to pass moral judgment. Recently, for example, they hosted a Swiss-born madam, who last decade set up a ‘high-end prostitution ring’ in New York, operating across four continents. In answer to their friendly, chattily phrased questions, she revealed that she had earned up to $60,000 a month at her peak, before being stung and sentenced to two years in prison and then deported.

As she told her story it was as if she were watching it play out on screen. Her downfall came, it emerged, when she agreed to hand over drugs to a friend in a restaurant, unaware that he had the joint surrounded. Eventually she was taken to Rikers Island, one of the world’s largest jails. Every one of her convictions, she clarified to the clearly surprised lawyer on the podcast, related to the sale of drugs, none to the business she was running. She has since written a book.

As much as I adore Virginia Woolf, I have never got on with The Waves. ‘Less a stream of consciousness than a tide of consciousness,’ as the novelist Amy Sackville described it in Riding the Waves on Radio 3, the book’s narrative is entirely secondary to its rhythm. I once took a copy to Manorbier, where Woolf used to holiday, and read it aloud near the Pembrokeshire coast. This was less an act of pretension than of desperation to enjoy it.

If only Emma Fielding had been reading for me I might have opened my heart to this book as I have to Woolf’s others. In Fielding’s voice, and to the accompaniment of everything from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 to Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, The Waves actually sounded beautiful.

In the course of the feature, the composer Jeremy Thurlow introduced a new composition inspired by the book, in which Woolf’s words were layered as melodies over the piano. Her own musical tastes may not have been radical — she was fond of Bach as well as Beethoven — but the process of listening to their music would have had, for her, ‘a modernist edge’, Thurlow explained, owing to its abstraction and the way it spoke through time and emotion. Breaking and ebbing like, well, waves, Thurlow’s piece was highly calming, especially by comparison with Laura Veirs’s Rapture, which crashed in at odd intervals in the 45-minute programme. I could have done with a little less of that.

Riding the Waves worked because its contributors made no pretence of recreating Woolf’s novel in its entirety. As individual lines and passages floated down the airwaves, Woolf’s rhythms, isolated from their storyline, came fully into their own. Like the third act of Wayne McGregor’s ballet Woolf Works, the documentary took me by surprise, and proved far more enjoyable than this kymophobe could have expected.