Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook

The best of The Rest Is …

Sequel podcasts are emerging with the inevitability of sprouts from an old potato

On Radio

This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

My work demands that I spend a lot of time alone — and my social life is hardly Beau Brummellian — so I listen to a lot of podcasts. A problem with asking for recommendations is that as surely as a Pole recommends pierogi, a 30- to 60-year-old British man recommends podcasts beginning with the words “The Rest Is”.

It’s hardly surprising. The tremendous, largely deserved success of Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook’s The Rest Is History was bound to lead to imitators. One might as well lament the fact that autumn follows summer.

I can’t even blame Goalhanger Podcasts, the production company behind The R is H, for the follow-up, The Rest Is Politics. Granted, the name is deadeningly dull marketing. “The rest is history” is a phrase. “The rest is politics” means nothing. Still, it isn’t their fault that Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart’s podcast has become one of the most successful in Britain. It’s the fault of its many, many listeners.

Yes, there’s no point in being diplomatic here — if you think the man who was tasked with brushing-up the case for the Iraq War is the man we need to speak truth to power, then I have a really charming, picturesque and affordable bridge to sell you.

Even overlooking Campbell’s past behaviour, The Rest Is Politics remains a suffocating exercise in managerialist onanism, with its hosts furiously agreeing on 99 per cent of things and boldly concluding that people very much like them should be in power.

Goalhanger Podcasts wanted more. The Rest Is … podcasts began emerging with the inevitability of sprouts from an old potato. It would be unfair of me to review The Rest Is Football because I don’t like football. One can hardly walk into Al’s Steakhouse and complain about the quantities of meat. But I do like money, so I investigated The Rest Is Money.

Here, journalists Robert Peston and Steph McGovern discuss financial matters. The podcast has one genuine quality: the hosts are likeable. This is not something you should take for granted. Robert Peston has puppyish enthusiasm, and McGovern is a calm, down-to-earth presence.

The problem is that you can’t tell why they are doing a show together. There is no more chemistry than in a failing marriage in a kitchen sink drama. “Tell us what your week has consisted of,” Peston says, awkwardly, at the beginning of one episode. McGovern does and then forgets to ask Peston what he has done.

This isn’t just a personal thing but an existential problem with the enterprise. “Shall we tell everyone what this podcast is all about?” McGovern asks in the first episode. “We’ll be recording on Wednesday mornings,” Peston replies, in a heroic non sequitur.

The hosts know their stuff. There are some clear, informative conversations here. But their alleged aim is to illustrate that we can “discuss ‘money’ in the same way we talk about sport and TV”, and Peston and McGovern’s strained and inorganic manner is not even a third cousin of a laid-back conversation about football. You can almost hear the pages rustling as the hosts survey their lists of bullet points. Burn them, guys! Your podcast will be better for it.

The Rest Is Entertainment features the producer cum presenter cum author Richard Osman and the sharp-penned Guardian columnist Marina Hyde. They have a more natural, almost conspiratorial on-air relationship, and there is an audience for the insider tales. Both of them are witty, relatively charming and, importantly, neither of them propagandised on behalf of the Iraq War.

Still, it remains a tad too chummy. Some of the best podcasts — like Sammy “The Bull” Gravano’s Our Thing or Jim Cornette’s The Jim Cornette Experience — have been built around insiders who have become outsiders. People who love nothing more than to see bridges burn. Insiders who remain insiders still have a mental censor wielding a big black pen.

But you’ll only get insiders on The Rest Is … podcasts. It’s a platform for the aspirational insider. These podcasts have become the heart and brain of bourgeois liberal England — a media empire for the kind of people who think Britain peaked with the 2012 Olympics. The world may be frightening — with its wars, and its disasters, and its Nigel Farage — but at Goalhanger Podcasts everything is neatly observed and assessed. Opinions and preferences are smoothly validated.

My main problem, though, is not a political one. It is a structural one. Podcasts are not like television. They cannot — or, rather, should not — be commissioned. The best have an essential spontaneity to them and an intimacy which invites the listener into the conversation. You can’t get that if a podcast is contrived, not because someone had something they really wanted to say, but because a marketing executive came up with a new noun to place after the words “The Rest Is …”

There is no escaping the spin-offs, though. I’m sure we’ll get The Rest Is Comedy soon. And The Rest Is Food. And The Rest Is Fashion. And The Rest Is Fitness. I fear there will be no end to The Rests Is … until we have reached our final rest.

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