The start of the Brixton riots: 10 April 1981. A significant date for south London. Forty years on, the BBC 5 live podcast Brixton: Flames on the Frontline tells the story of the events that are known locally as “the uprising”. Not riots, but a civil rights reaction to sustained racist mistreatment of black people by the police.
Grime MC and TV personality Big Narstie, who grew up in Brixton, is our narrator. He doesn’t do the interviews, which I don’t like, but he does know what he’s talking about, and his immense charm and chatty, slang-peppered delivery make him a good choice as presenter. There are acted inserts, which take personal stories and make them… what? A bit tighter? More dramatic? I’m unsure. (They‘re written by the playwright Roy Williams, who is a genius, but I’m still not sure they’re needed.) But these are tiny gripes. This series is definitely worth your while.
What Flames on the Frontline does excellently is context. We’ve all seen the pictures of burning cars on Railton Road, the helmeted white policemen with riot shields, or dragging black teenagers to their cop vans. The podcast gives us personal stories to flesh out these images, to fill in the history behind the destruction and devastation.
We were on to the fourth episode of eight last week, and the late 70s. We’ve heard some disturbing testimonies in previous episodes: from Winston Trew, who was nearly killed by police and fitted up for crimes he didn’t commit; from Farrukh Dhondy, who almost died when a firebomb was thrown into Freedom News, a black bookshop underneath his flat. (In the first episode, pop fans, we also heard from the Clash’s Paul Simonon, who grew up in Brixton.) Last week’s episode was more upbeat, at first, with Sheldon Thomas and Christopher Icha, then 14 and 15, describing their sound system and the blues parties they set up, how their music gave them a social life that ignored anything else. “I don’t remember anything outside our local environment,” said Icha. “I don’t remember any football, any politics, what was on television. Because we didn’t do it… our world was sound systems… it was a complete world within a world and the outer world had no relevance.”
And there was acknowledgment of another long-established community in Brixton: the gay men who made Railton Road their home, alongside the Caribbean locals. Terry and Julian were two gay men who lived there then. “The only pubs that I didn’t get abused in were the black pubs,” said Terry. He remembered going to a pub called the George. A barmaid told him: “I’ve got to serve the Black people, but I’m not serving you fucking queers.” So they went to Pearl’s shebeen, just a few doors down from the George. Pearl was a black bisexual woman from Jamaica, and she ran her shebeen, which welcomed black and white gay people, with an iron fist. “The machete would come from under the table and she’d say, if you want to fuck about, you better fuck about with this guy.”
Great stuff, but as the episode progressed, the subtle sound design, from Wayne Parkes and Sam Turner, indicated an atmosphere change. Thomas’s brother is beaten up by 15 steel-toe-capped skinheads, as police officers stood around laughing. Thomas decides to take action: “We formed a posse to protect ourselves from racist police officers. The resentment between us and the police went to an unparalleled level.” Every time his sound system played out, he made sure his posse had weapons. Provocation, or protection? A police officer, who worked in the area at the time, described how a Rasta was beaten up in the police station, his dreadlocks pulled out and pinned to the wall like a trophy. Lines are being drawn. We know what’s about to happen. Brixton: Flames on the Frontline helps us understand what was really going on. It gives us the why behind the when.
Another couple of new BBC podcasts are worth trying too. The Lazarus Heist, from the World Service, is an unusual true-crime tale. Only one episode so far, but it’s madly intriguing. In Hollywood, Sony Pictures has been hacked, and secrets – about stars, about salaries – are being leaked to journalists. Could it have something to do with a Seth Rogen film? (Yes, it could.) And Gangster, released in its five-episode entirety last week, tells the story of Paul Massey, Salford’s Mister Big, a full force bad ’un who dominated Salford and worked at the Haçienda during its heyday. Investigative reporter Livvy Haydock does well to enliven a slightly grubby story that will have resonance for anyone who lived through the acid house years. Spoiler: It doesn’t end well for Massey.
Kick Off With Hugh Woozencroft
On Tuesday evening, at the peak of the European Super League meltdown, TalkSport’s regular evening show was an excellent listen. Hugh Woozencroft and Danny Mills were joined by Laura Woods, stationed outside Elland Road for the Leeds v Chelsea match. I loved Woods’s description of the crowd hearing the news that Chelsea were pulling out of the ESL: “It was really weird, there was just this ripple, a real moment where people started to cheer. We were like, what are they cheering about? And then word started to spread.” Radio is the best way to learn the blow-by-blow minutiae of breaking news, and last week TalkSport did it brilliantly.
BBC Radio 1
Greg James’s Tuesday morning show was the place where the much-loved Annie “Mac” MacManus announced that she will be leaving Radio 1, after 17 years as a presenter. Mac is a wonderful DJ and will be missed, though Clara Amfo is an excellent replacement for her Future Sounds slot. What I liked about Mac’s announcement was how she highlighted that a 6-8pm programme is not easy when you have little kids (she has two: one in year 3 and one about to start school). “I’ve done the evening show for six years now, so my oldest kid only knows me not being there for bedtime and dinner time, and this time I want to be there.”
BBC Radio 4
A year ago, Prison Bag, on Resonance FM, featured Josie Bevan describing how her life changed when her husband, Rob, was sent to prison for tax fraud. In Prison Break, on Radio 4, she meets him coming out: “I can see him! Oh my God, oh my God, he’s here!” The series isn’t just about their experience, it’s an examination of what jail does or should do. But still, it’s personal, and the moment where Rob and Josie unpacked his prison bag was memorable. He sounded tired. “My Adidas sliders, indispensable… a shirt! A classic. Just so middle-class, I never wore it,” he said. “You had 14 inches cut off your hair,” said Josie. “Yeah, it’s a reasonably symbolic moment,” said Rob quietly.