Winston Churchill’s “detente” with his prostate is not what you’d expect popping up, as it were, in the opening minutes of an ambitious new Audible series. But there the newly deposed prime minister is, played by Wink Taylor, peeing with abandon next to his successor, Clement Attlee (Mike Wozniak), while giving advice on who to pick for his cabinet as Britain emerges from war. “I woke up with pneumonia once – the new is not always a blessing, as I fear the country may be about to discover!”
Getting Better is about the creation of the NHS, a story that was set in optimum conditions for drama: in the dispersing smoke of post-second world war Britain, and between men in possession of perfectly polished vowels and a no-good boyo from the valleys booming from the despatch box. Aneurin Bevan was Clement Attlee’s youngest postwar cabinet member at 47, known as much for his rebellious charisma as his socialist chops. Bevan is this 10-part podcast’s sturdy anchor.
Playing him is the standup comedian and TV panel game regular Rhod Gilbert, in his first serious acting role. For reasons relating to my inescapable Welshness, I was initially sceptical of the casting – a r-r-r-rolling accent plus fame shouldn’t be enough to bag the plum roles, I cursed from the Monmouthshire hills, one of the areas covered by Gwent’s appropriately named Aneurin Bevan University Health Board.
But I’ll put my hands up: Gilbert’s casting is inspired. If you know his comic style already, you’ll feel echoes of the bone-dry humour and warmth he exudes presenting the likes of Have I Got News for You. His delivery is also frequently delicious. “Win him over?“ 他说, of Bevan’s party colleague and adversary Herbert Morrison. “I want to run him over.” Later episodes dip into Bevan’s past, which sidesteps the risk of him turning into a bombastic caricature. There’s a flashback to a childhood stammer in episode two, and hints about his wandering eye (listen out for Neve McIntosh, playing his wife, the Scottish MP Jennie Lee, and her nicely waspish tone).
But the series isn’t just about one man. A subplot focusing on an unexploded mortar bomb in Manchester and the arrival of Dr Eva Callaway (played by Bridgerton’s Kathryn Drysdale) underlines the pressures the poor faced when sudden accidents or illness befell them. Occasionally, this narrative feels like a heavy-handed parallel (Callaway’s lines from the wards often mirroring those Bevan is spouting in parliament), but at least it lays out the need for universal healthcare in stark, brutal terms. Better are the lines that subtly reference things happening today: politicians having “big ideas”; people rattling tins to collect money for nurses; the Labour government having arguments with itself. It reminds us, powerfully, that things can change.
I also had to keep reminding myself that this was an Audible production, not one by Auntie Beeb. In a year when Steve McQueen’s incredible films exploring social history and callous injustice are essential primetime viewing, Getting Better could be beefed up into a perfect Sunday evening TV drama.
In terms of its public service remit, the BBC’s new World Service series The Fake Paralympians makes a solid contribution to the cause. Launched last week in the run-up to the Paralympic Games, it tells the story of the Spanish basketball team that won gold in the intellectual disabilities category in Sydney 2000 – the first time that classification was included – before they were exposed as having fraudulent members in their ranks.
Presented by Paralympic swimmer Dan Pepper, it’s a slow-burning, quietly raging documentary. Pepper was 11 在 2000, a young boy in Stockport finding strength, joy and escapism in the pool, a world away from the bullies mocking him for his learning disabilities, with a trainer who thought he could compete in Athens in 2004. Ray Torres, whom Pepper interviews, had felt similarly about sport as a child, the basketball becoming a friend that didn’t hit him or call him names. “That type of stuff doesn’t go away,” Torres says of the abuse he suffered.
在 2000, Torres was the Spanish captain, trying to shrug away suspicions about members of his team who kept themselves away from him. When the scandal emerges – after some faces are recognised in a photograph of the medallists in the Spanish press – his devastation is palpable. The impacts are wide too, the intellectual disabilities category being withdrawn for the next two Games by the International Paralympic Committee, penalising the career chances of genuine athletes as well as hopeful young people such as Pepper. He talks movingly about those lost years not coming back, and the production is sensitively handled, experts, sportspeople and family members weaving the story together unhurriedly, without sensationalism.
On a final public service tip, the BBC has also snuck out a podcast spin-off of the Horrible Histories TV series in the last weeks of the school holidays. We’re saved! By “we”, I’m referring to the parents of young children, 当然, not the kids themselves (I was once at a party where all the adults were in the living room watching Charles Dickens singing his life story over a pastiche of the Smiths as the kids played Lego elsewhere). 有 10 16-minute shows here, including one where Henry VIII interviews Anne of Cleves, who teases him about his lack of physical prowess. “Fake news!” he booms, before ordering porpoise for lunch.