An important story but not for the faint-hearted: Deadliest Day podcast reviewed

13 July 2019

9:00 AM

13 July 2019

9:00 AM

One of the advantages that podcasts have over the scheduled array of programmes is the space that can be given to a subject, turning what would have been a one-off into a whole series sometimes three or four hours long. This can be offputting. Who has the time to give so much to one programme? Even more so now when there’s so much else on offer to distract and entertain. But in the case of the new podcast ‘dropped’ this week by the Beyond Today team those three hours (in six half-hour episodes) have been used to best effect, allowing the story to build, the voices to become clearer, the families and the horror of what they have experienced to become more real.

Claire Read’s series, Deadliest Day (produced by Heidi Pett), takes us back to 2009 and the war in Afghanistan and to one day in particular on which five members of a single platoon of infantrymen were killed and several badly injured. But that’s not the end of the story, says Read. Two more members of 9 Platoon, C Company, 2 Rifles have died since that day in July 2009. Read wants to find out why. Could those additional deaths have been prevented? Has the army done enough to help them?

Kevin Holt was getting ready for a weekend away at a special centre for soldiers who have suffered from PTSD when he died last year from an overdose of morphine (he had testicular cancer and had been prescribed morphine tablets to help with the pain). ‘He didn’t come home’ [from Afghanistan], said his sister. ‘It completely messed with his head.’ But at the inquest into his death the given verdict was ‘death by misadventure’. He would, though, have had to take 70 tablets given the levels of morphine that were in his blood when he died.

The events of 10 July are unfolded slowly through an entire episode, and are as told to Read by members of 9 Platoon. They set out on patrol from a FOB (forward operating base) in remotest Afghanistan but were ambushed by the Taleban and then experienced another massive explosion as they were trying to bring the injured back to base. Their telling of what happened is a bit confused, which at first is rather irritating until you realise it increases the impact. Of course there is no order or direction to the narrative. How could there be?

Those who were left behind have had to live ever since with the images stuck in their minds of tidying up the mess — bodies strewn about without heads and limbs, clothes stripped off by the blast, brains strewn across the dusty ground — picking up the body of a friend and close colleague recognisable only from their chin. Most of them have experienced survivor’s guilt, no more so than Peter Sherlock who was suffering from heat stroke on that day and saw his friends go out but only the body parts arriving back. Allan Arnold, whose best friend was blown up, hanged himself two years later. As Read says: ‘Nobody can measure how broken some of those boys are.’

Those six hours mean she has time to leave surprisingly long pauses, letting the impact of what’s just been said sink in. There’s only superficial editing, so we hear the swearing, the unPC attitudes, the unappealing aspects of male bonding. Matthew, who is black, had a rough time being bullied, and never intended to sign up for the army anyway (another story we discover because there is time to leave it in). The production has been given that podcast feel, with chatty introductions by Read and an informal, sometimes overfriendly approach, like those people who come up to you at parties and insist on becoming your best friend. But Read uses the technique to draw us in and carry us with her as she travels from north to south talking to those involved. For once, too, the sound design (by Weidong Lin) enhances the atmosphere, adding to what’s being said without being a distraction. Not for the faint-hearted but the telling of an important story with purposeful intent. For once, money well spent.

On Radio 4, The Interrogation is back. Roy Williams’s crime-drama series stars Kenneth Cranham and his sidekick Alex Lanipekun as two detectives commissioned to interview suspects like a pair of cats playing with a mouse. In the first episode their job is to break down Dan whose wife has attempted suicide. Is he involved in any way?

Williams has built up a winning format, most of the exposition taking place through clever wordplay as the two detectives tease and probe the suspect until, as in Dan’s case, the perfect husband loses his veneer and turns into something more sinister. The acting is perfectly timed, and the direction (by Mary Peate) is clean and unfussy, nothing extraneous, but it’s the writing above all that’s so effective. We are given no introductory explanation of the case, no context. All has to be revealed through question and answer alone. ‘You can’t prove anything,’ says Dan, to which Cranham replies gleefully, knowing he has finally trapped his mouse, ‘Spoken like a true suspect.’

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