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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Miranda Sawyer

The week in audio: Catching the Kingpins; Carol Vorderman; Stephen Mangan; Ending Homelessness the Finnish Way – review

Carol Vorderman sitting at a desk with a microphone on in an LBC studio.
‘Handling her expert guests pretty well’: Carol Vorderman on LBC. Photograph: LBC

Gangster: Catching the Kingpins (Radio 5 Live/Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
Carol Vorderman (LBC) | Global Player
Stephen Mangan (Classic FM) | Global Player
The Documentary: Ending Homelessness the Finnish Way (BBC World Service) | BBC Sounds

Catching the Kingpins is the latest six-parter from Radio 5 Live’s highly successful Gangster strand (it’s also on Radio 4, confusingly). We’ve had seasons about Paul Massey (Salford gangster), Curtis Warren (scouse gangster) and the Burger Bar Boys (Birmingham gangsters). You get the drift. If you were a naughty geezer, getting your name on a Gangster series would be a sign you’ve definitely made it.

This new series is slightly different. Hosted by the engaging Mobeen Azhar, it’s about a collection of criminals (is that the right term?) all connected by one thing. Their mobile phone. And, yes, I realise that’s what phones do, but this particular £1,500 EncroChat phone can’t be bought in Carphone Warehouse. You can only get hold of an EncroChat phone if you have a friend in the criminal fraternity.

The moment when Azhar acquires one (borrowed from the National Crime Agency) is great. It looks just like an ordinary Android phone, he says, and opens up exactly like one. But when he swipes down with his finger three times, the phone resets itself and another screen loads up with a messaging system. An EncroChat phone is simply the hardware for what Azhar calls: “A WhatsApp fraternity full of criminals.”

Exciting, right? But what’s even more exciting is that in 2020, French police managed to hack the EncroChat system. They sent a fake software update to all of the phones (60,000 users) and used it to get all of the messages. There were a lot. Thousands and thousands, all arriving at once. “It was like being in a room with them,” says one policeman. The French enlisted the Dutch and the British police forces, who worked 20 hours a day during lockdown, trying to make sense of the messages. The result? The biggest organised crime bust in British policing history.

This is a good yarn, and one of those rare true crime series that you don’t ever feel too scared or too icky about. The message-hacking leads to the arrest of a couple of violent wrong ’uns, plus a dodgy copper and his mate. Azhar even gets close to working out who actually created EncroChat. But the real delight is in the detective work, the working out who’s who from little clues in the messages, such as a picture of a girlfriend’s dog. Excellent.

Carol Vorderman, who recently quit her BBC Radio Wales show, saying she would “not be silenced”, has been given her own slot on – surprise! – LBC. These days, any BBC presenter who’s politically opinionated on social media is almost certainly hopping over to Global. (The exception is Gary Lineker, who’s building his own podcasting house instead.) Vorderman has been given 4pm to 7pm on a Sunday, a cosy slot, though nothing on LBC is cosy, and her first show last Sunday wasn’t perfect but wasn’t bad.

Her opening question was whether Rishi Sunak should have got parliament to vote on the UK bombing of Houthi military bases in Yemen. The right topic, I think, and she handled her expert guests pretty well, but LBC callers are not as controllable and she was a little less certain in dealing with them. “Can I just interrupt you there?” she said to one, who carried on speechifying, regardless.

It’s a far cry from Vorderman’s old Radio Wales gig, chatting comfortably in between music to guests such as Alison Hammond and Gyles Brandreth. LBC listeners are red in tooth and claw, and it takes nous, fluency and a lot of detailed political knowledge to know when to challenge and when to hold back. But this only comes with experience, and Vorderman is certainly smart, so I imagine that in three months’ time her show will be great.

Stephen Mangan standing beside a Classic FM logo.
Stephen Mangan, new host of the 4-7pm slot on Classic FM. Photograph: Matt Crossick/Classic FM

Stephen Mangan, curly-topped actor and genial Celebrity Gogglebox-er, has also been snapped up by Global, to host a Classic FM show at exactly the same time as Vorderman (Classic FM has had a revamp: Dan Walker is hosting the weekday breakfast show). Mangan’s definitely got the easier gig, chuntering mildly for a couple of minutes in between lengthy classical tracks. Easier, but more boring. I flipped between the two and spent much more time with Vorderman and the LBC shouties.

After Fixing Britain, Louise Casey’s excellent recent Radio 4 series on how to solve seemingly intractable political problems, the BBC World Service’s The Documentary strand gave us a heartening show about Finland’s solution to its homelessness problem. Essentially, it decided to flip the system. Instead of making homeless people wait until they “qualified” for housing (by giving up alcohol, getting a job etc), they housed them first and sorted out their life problems later. It’s been a huge success, with 90% of those housed staying on and rebuilding their lives.

Now some countries are trying out a similar approach – parts of Scotland, for instance – but others say that Finland is too different a society from their own for it to work. There are only 5.5 million people in Finland, and the public sector is well funded. “It’s a bit of a lack of courage,” says one Finnish expert. “You have all the pros [advantages] – what else do you actually need?” Well, quite.

Annie Nightingale in 2020.
Annie Nightingale in 2020. Photograph: David Levene/The Observer

Just time to mention Annie Nightingale, who died earlier this month and provided the soundtrack of my teenage Sunday nights (she was on at 7pm, straight after the Top 40). Much has been written about her being a pioneer for women on music radio, which she undoubtedly was, but she was also an exceptionally warm person in real life. You’d see her out, big hair, dark sunglasses, and she would always be fun, friendly and kind. There are many weird egos in broadcasting. Annie was never anything other than a delight.

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