A podcast for the culturally curious that turns a critical eye on some of the most-hyped plays, books, films and music in recent years and asks where they came from and what they tell us about culture today. Zoe Strimpel is a historian of gender and intimacy, Sunday Telegraph columnist and sincere contrarian. Tom Stammers is a fair-minded historian of 19th century France and a lecturer in European history at Durham University - who nonetheless knows how to turn the screw when necessary. They've been yammering about culture together since university.
Why is the sheer mundanity, the dreary colourlessness of police procedure, so utterly transfixing when it comes to the doings of AC-12? (That's anti-police corruption unit 12 if you're one of the rare uninitiated). Zoe and Tom consider the latest season (six), its shortcomings, its relationships, and the formal majesty that lent earlier Line of Duty such magic, as well as what role such drama serves in our society.
A Jpeg by digital artist Beeple (Mike Winkelmann), 39, sold for $69.3 at Christie's New York in March. For his pennies, the buyer got an NFT, a non-fungible token, a marker of authenticity enabled by blockchain technology. Zoe and Tom discuss what the sale – and the frenzy for NFTs – means for art and aesthetics and discuss the nature of the new digital markets redefining value itself.
Zoe and Tom pick over the interview and its reception, considering the couple's claims to victimhood and their path to 'authenticity', and chewing over the biggest casualties of the interview in the Royal family. They brooch race and class, wondering how, in the rush for righteous blame, the latter somehow seems to get lost, along with any thought for the British taxpayer. Something for everyone. Well, perhaps not everyone.
The inauguration was a jamboree of digital pomp, and saw the making of a star in Amanda Gorman. Zoe and Tom discuss the pageantry and celebrity and where it all fits within American political culture, plus their thoughts on the 'unity' message.
Since we recorded, this diverse Regency romp has become Netflix's biggest series ever, downloaded over 80 million times in the 28 days after its release. Zoe and Tom find this fact both hilarious and terrifying. Join them as they dissect the series' appeal and above all its vision of the Regency court as a diverse utopia, in which present values very much dominate the picture of the past. And why does everyone have to be so thin? Well, all bar one....
The latest series of the Netflix smash hit is different: more recent, nastier, and closer to home. It covers a period within living memory of old millennials like Zoe and Tom, with one of the most painful marriages of the 20th century at its core. This season is the most controversial yet. Its treatment of the past has stirred high-level and intense controversy about whether it is obviously art or a devious form of history. Join Zoe and Tom as they consider this question, plus the strengths and weaknesses of the portraits of Charles and Diana, Thatcher and the Queen and what it all says about society today and the royals' place in it.
The Queen's Gambit (Oct 2020) fast became Netflix's most-downloaded scripted miniseries of all time. Join Zoe and Tom as they regroup to deconstruct this silky, sexy televisual creature. There is much to enjoy about the mid-century rise and rise of Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) from tranqued-up Kentucky orphan to world chess champion... but as usual, Zoe and Tom have some reservations.
These days, it is a challenge to find someone who has not read Sapiens, Harari's astonishingly bold and popular global bestseller from 2014. Sapiens attempts to explain the whole history of mankind, from early versions of the species through to the globalised, gas-guzzling world of today, via the devising of agriculture, money, empire and industry. Yet is this honest history? Harari's story is a political one - an ecological polemic - that ultimately rails against humankind, and prefers to see our legacy as one of destruction rather than ingenuity and betterment. Zoe and Tom discuss the book's flaws and strengths.
The first non-English language film to win the Best Picture Oscar, Parasite lit not just the critics alight but punters too. Rarely has one film - a relatively low budget, highly culturally specific film at that - created such a global talking point. Who or what is to blame here? Is it capitalism? Class warfare? Morality gone awry? Wealth? Who is the real parasite, if there is one? What about the mad tonal shifts in the film from comedy to horror? Join Zoe and Tom as they unpick the extreme excitement around Parasite, the 2019 film directed by Bong Joon-ho, and place it in wider context.
Michaela Coel's comedy drama about a woman trying to process a sexual assault offers TV unlike any most of us have ever seen before. Race, sex, consent, London, youth, social media, identity: it's all there, rendered with formal and intellectual iconoclasm. Zoe and Tom unpick its curious magic, and the fascination this unlikely piece of work has cast over the nation.
A best-seller following publication in 2017, Eddo-Lodge's polemic lit up a whole conversation about race in Britain, prompting millions to think for the first time about the concepts of systemic racism and white privilege in relation to the UK. The conversation, if that's the word for what often feels like a perilous obstacle course at best and an antagonistic Manichean battle to the death at worst, continues with renewed intensity following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. Eddo-Lodge's book has been as controversial and it has been influential. Join Zoe and Tom as they roll up their sleeves and wade into the debate of our times.
Stormzy is a British phenomenon. He is the man who made grime global, the first black British artist to headline Glastonbury and was dubbed 'poet laureate' in Parliament for his response to Grenfell. Stormzy is a chart-topper with political clout. We take a critical look at his 2019 platinum album Heavy is the Hype and dig below the hype to assess the content and appeal of this album, putting it in context of a wider cultural moment.
To listen to full album:
Time Out called 2019's The Souvenir 'the only film that matters' - this was enough to entice Zoe along to see it, while Tom has long been a fan of its director Joanna Hogg. In a departure from form, Tom and Zoe find the reasons reasons for its instant cult status justified, and discuss Hogg's special touch when it comes to class, art and all things visual. The mother-daughter acting from Tilda Swinton and her daughter, Honor Swinton Byrne, who play mother and daughter in the film, adds an unusual touch.
Zoe and Tom consider the mania around Rooney's 2018 best-seller and 2020 TV adaptation, tempering their slight (in Zoe's case substantial) bewilderment with plenty of analysis of what Normal People seems to be saying about sex, class, family and youth.
Zoe, a former dating columnist just like Dolly, and an author of books concerning dating, just like Dolly, certainly found herself faced with the work of a much more popular and successful - and younger - version of herself. But was it just sour grapes that made her gawp at this book's fantastic success? She likes to think it wasn't. Together with historian of France Tom, they unpack the book's themes and oddities, discuss what they didn't like (and a few things they did) and think about what made it such a hit.
Join Zoe and Tom as they unpick the hype around Sir Tom Stoppard's most recent play, a chronicle of the tragedy of European Jews in the 20th century through the fate of one sprawling family. Zoe was very very unimpressed, and Tom just unimpressed. Why did critics go wild for it? What appetite among British audience goers did it serve? What was it trying to do and where did it go wrong - and in some places, right?
Based on Deborah Feldman's best-selling memoir about leaving the Satmar ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York, Unorthodox became a global phenomenon after it dropped on Netflix in March 2020 - just in time for lockdown. Zoe and Tom puzzle over themes of gender, female self-discovery, Yiddish, Judaism and place - setting the miniseries in the context of a new, broadening interest by entertainment honchos in Jewish life and casting the usual critical eye over the whole. Join Zoe and Tom as they unpick the hype.
1917, released in the UK in January 2020, was one of the most successful war movies of all time. Unlike its smash hit stablemates, though, it focussed on World War One instead of Two. We discuss the appetite for World War One narratives, how perceptions of the war have changed, and why.