Russell Brand & 5 more UK politics podcasts

In the fourth part of our Pod People podcast column, we take a closer look at Russell Brand's variable output

Feature by Brian Cloughley | 14 Nov 2017

Picture a teenager describing her new boyfriend to her parents:

“Well to start with, he’s funny, smart and thoughtful. He’s open-minded, he’s observant, he questions everything.”
“He’s interested in the big picture. He’s fascinated by the limitations of democracy, the absence of spirituality in our secular lives, the yawning chasm in our beings where our souls should reside, the alienation and intangible dissatisfaction that plagues us all. He spends time with eminent outsiders from the periphery of politics, academia and science, and actually listens to them”
“Right. I’m not sure if he’s husband material but I’d like to meet this guy.”
“There’s one other thing...”
“He’s Russell Brand”
“...boyfriend you say?”

You see, liking the idea of Russell Brand is entirely different from liking Russell Brand. It’s largely because Brand doesn’t know when to shut up. His interviews (with some pretty high-profile guests including Al Gore, Naomi Klein, Yanis Varoufakis et al.) often follow a similar pattern. For the first half-hour the guests talk about their specialist subjects, and Brand chips in with stimulating questions and observations – it can be riveting. After a while though, something changes.

His questions lengthen to the point of self-parody, his stream of consciousness becomes a flood of non-sequiturs, and listeners and guests have to sift through a sludge of abstractions and malapropisms to find the nuggets of wisdom and/or humour. It’s worse in those episodes that don’t have a clearly defined subject. The Frankie Boyle episode, for example, is just an hour of half-arsed, loosely-connected gibberish.

Brand and his guests agree with each other a lot, which is nice and everything, but it leaves a lot of assumptions unchallenged. They’re so like-minded that no-one is inclined to stop and say, ‘hang-on, that’s patently bollocks.’ There’s one idea in particular that gets repeated all the time. It’s that institutions and power structures are designed to be oppressive and exploitative. That might feel true, but it presupposes that the architects and facilitators of these institutions are capable, intelligent and evil.

Sure, maybe they’re evil, but haven’t the last few years taught us that the powers-that-be are often deeply incompetent? Are Brand and his guests really so sure that someone intended for the world to be like this? Is no-one going to play the ‘patently bollocks’ card?

This stuff’s frustrating because when the podcast’s good, it’s absolutely brilliant. Check out the interview with Rupert Sheldrake. He’s a biologist and former Cambridge don who veered away from orthodoxy at some point in the 1980s with his work on – in a nutshell – telepathy amongst animals. His observations and research pushed him towards exploring the space between science and god. Brand goes crazy for this kind of stuff and Sheldrake’s a perfect guest for him; off kilter, anti-establishment, a bit trippy, spiritual in a non-specific way. The resulting discussion is more than interesting – it’s inspirational.

Five more UK politics podcasts

1) The Briefing Room – A dependably interesting half-hour podcast, David Aaronovich gets you up-to-speed on a subject in the news. For better or worse, this is everything that Russell Brand’s podcast isn’t.

2) The Political Party with Matt Forde – Often raucous interviews with British politicians in front of a live audience. The Tony Blair interview (yes, the actual Tony Blair) is absolutely mental.

3) Brexit Podcast – Brexit contains multitudes and this sharp wee podcast tries to tackle it all, one issue at a time.

4) Talking Politics – For a more high-minded and academic approach. Lots of posh-sounding men, not many explosions.

5) The British Dream – Vice’s contribution to the genre is equal parts zany audio clips and red-hot Conservative party chat. It’s probably not supposed to sound like a lost edition of Brass Eye, but sadly...