Stephen Fry’s Great Leap Years and 5 more brainy podcasts

Great Leap Years, Stephen Fry’s new fact-filled podcast series, is witty and likable but oh so dull. Instead, you might want to take a great leap on to these other IQ boosting podcasts

Feature by Brian Cloughley | 25 May 2018

There’s a bit of a problem here. Stephen Fry’s new podcast series, Great Leap Years, looks a winner from the outside. The premise is solid: taking a look at pivotal scientific breakthroughs; explaining them in layman’s terms; pulling out some interesting bits and pieces about the main actors and the historical context; and, most crucially, making connections between the seemingly unconnected to shed some light on how the world actually works. Then there’s Stephen Fry, of course, who’s written and presented the whole shebang and who’s reliably witty, smart and likable. Everything in its right place, then. So, why is this podcast so terribly, terribly dull?

Possibly it’s the form. It might not be marketed as such, but this is an educational podcast – it exists to tell you something important that you don’t already know. That’s absolutely fine of course, but it’s got to aspire to be more engaging than a volume of Encyclopedia Britannica from 1997. There’s loads of things that could be thrown into the mix – narrative, conflict, emotional resonance, humour, nudity – but Great Leap Years doesn’t really do any of this. Instead, it rambles.

It has to be said, there’s nothing wrong with a good ramble. Problem is, there’s too many bad ramble here. A good ramble can involve a funny story or an unlikely coincidence. A bad ramble might involve listing the names and specialisms of the companies that made up the conglomerate that would later become IBM. It’s as if Fry can’t recognise the parts of the story that are worth expanding on, the bits that people might find interesting.

Take Morse code, for example. No doubt it’s a great invention, somewhere between very clever and genius (midway between LSD and the internal combustion engine, to be precise), but its success is predicated on its simplicity. Spending minutes explaining its mechanics, even in Fry’s awestruck tone of voice, is frankly -... --- .-. .. -. --. / .- ... / ... .... .. - . (trans: “boring as shite”).

It’s not a complete wash out. Episode 2 is the best of the bunch, probably because it keeps its main subject – the Gutenberg press – at the centre of the story. There’s plenty of rambling for sure, but for the most part it either expands the story in important directions (where did all the money go) or adds depth to the main characters (what was Gutenberg up to before he got into the printing game).

It also has a discernible structure, using Gutenberg’s life as a frame to build around. This kind of structure just isn’t apparent in the other episodes, and this is a problem. Since the only voice is Fry’s relaxing drawl, it’s really easy to tune out for a moment. By the time you return he could be talking about anything, and not necessarily anything related to what went before. You might find yourself making the great leap on to the next track in iTunes.

5 More Podcasts that Might Teach You Something

1) No Such Thing as a Fish – On the subject of Stephen Fry, this is a spin-off from his alma-mater QI. It’s basically four researchers from the programme (the QI elves) laughing about the odd things they’ve discovered this week. You’ll definitely learn something, though it’s doubtful that it will be anything of any value outside of a pub quiz.

2) Radiolab – One of the colossi of American podcasting and deservedly so. In recent years it’s shifted slightly to cover politics with variable success, but the earlier series that told scarcely believable scientific stories in a compelling way were peerless.

3) In Our Time – A typical episode of this long-running BBC programme involves five minutes of introductory chat before the difficulty level rears up like the front side of Salisbury Crags. There’s literally hundreds of available episodes on the Radio 4 website.

4) How Stuff Works – From humble beginnings, this has flourished into an empire of podcasts, videos and articles. Dangerously deep, is this the internet’s first podhole?

5) Open Culture – It’s not a podcast as such, but Open Culture has a fine selection of free audio books (fiction and non-fiction) to download. If you can’t learn something from this lot there’s little hope for you.