The Guardian

The ultimate parent trap

Miranda Sawyer

The Gift BBC Radio 4 Political Currency Persophonica

When It Hits the Fan BBC Radio 4 Newscast BBC Sounds

Here’s a show that couldn’t have been made even a few years ago: Radio 4’s The Gift, an engaging six-part series that examines what can happen when someone gets given a DNA kit, from 23andMe or Ancestry, as a present for Christmas or a birthday. We can all guess where this is likely to go – a friend of mine happily did one such test and the result sent the whole family into a tailspin (their father was not their father, many complications arising) – and, yep, the first show concerns fatherhood. But the story was weirder and, really, much more serious.

We meet two women whose DNA tests set them wondering. For both, it turns out that the story is more complicated than just a hidden affair. Gradually, the truth is revealed as something creepier, involving rogue fertility experts. Judging by this show, and podcasts such as

The Retrievals or The Immaculate Deception, infertility doctors don’t always centre the women they’re treating. Sometimes, they’re too busy playing God to remember.

The Gift’s host, Jenny Kleeman, was the presenter of The Immaculate Deception too: plainly, she’s interested in the question of fertility and parenthood. She’s the right mixture of serious and light, and what becomes clear is that different people react differently to an unexpected discovery. The two women in this episode had contrasting reactions to discovering their father was not who they thought: one, devastated and angry; one, curious and determined. The biological father of one of them responded in yet another way, calmly accepting of the shocking news that he had a child he’d never known about: “It’s a bit annoying,” he said. Was he angry? “No, too long ago, mate. Too long ago.” This week, we’re promised a DNA revelation that actually solves a crime. Old secrets cleared up – what’s not to like?

On Thursday – after my deadline for this column – brand new weekly economics show Political Currency was due to burst into our podcast feeds with great fanfare; mostly around its hosts, George Osborne and Ed Balls. Remember those guys? They were both chancellors/ chancellor wannabes: Osborne, shadow chancellor from 2005 to 2010, then actual chancellor under David Cameron’s Tory austerity government from 2010 to 2016; Labour’s Balls doing the shadow thing from 2011 to 2015. Clearly, the pair were on different sides during those years. But now, apparently, they’re mates.

Post-politics, they’ve operated in different fields too: Osborne moving smoothly between various highly paid positions, Balls working in more public but less wellremunerated media roles and, since November 2022, regularly co-presenting ITV’s Good Morning Britain with Susanna Reid. (Osborne popped up on the show on Wednesday morning to promo Political Currency: Reid made mincement of him, as you might expect.) But they’ve also been a double act on Andrew Neil’s show for the last year or so. Tweedledum and Tweedledeeconomics, ho ho.

They call themselves “frenemies”, but they’re very different. In their 15-minute teaser, Balls is human – scoffing, joking, reacting, and, most importantly, listening; Osborne’s natural broadcast mode is more combative, trying to get a point across. They plan to discuss the most important political story of the week, the one dominating the news; plus a story that’s not discussed much but is still vital. In between, they’ll unpick a business or economic story that, they believe, will shape things to come.

Yeah, I know: James Acaster must be quaking in front of his mic. With topics this dry, the most important element in Political Currency will be its chemistry, both between the hosts, and between the hosts and the audience. Balls will be fine, but Osborne has a big likability gap to cross. We’ll see if he can make it.

Does podcasting need any more middle-aged men, once insiders, now not so much, but still very keen to let us know their thoughts on life? Well, funny you should ask, because here’s another double act of such chaps: When It Hits the Fan. Our hosts are ex-Sun editor David Yelland (below left) and former PR for both the late queen and Gordon Brown, Simon Lewis (below right). I have a soft spot for Yelland, a sober alcoholic and fundamentally kind man who’s fessed up to acting badly during his Sun days. But, oh dear, this too is dry stuff. These podcasts only work if there’s some life in them: some jokes, or warmth, or intimacy, a little sparkle in the relationship that means you want to spend time with these people. The production here doesn’t let us get anywhere near these two, so their insights don’t land. And the insights weren’t all that: “The palace is an extraordinary place to work,” Lewis kept saying (the queen told a lame joke! Blimey!). More pep needed.

Newscast, a show that knows what it is and who it’s for, has moved to seven days a week. might take some tips from it. During the week, Adam Fleming and Chris Mason are our hosts; now, on Saturdays and Sundays, we’re getting Laura Kuenssberg and Paddy O’Connell. Although O’Connell was away last weekend, so Kuenssberg teamed up with Dominic Casciani (Saturday) and James Cook (Sunday). There’s a briskness and jollity here that means you can’t get bored. Plus, of course, everyone on the show has the advantage of actually still being involved in the areas they’re talking about: Kuenssberg came out of hosting her Sunday morning TV show, which featured an interview with justice secretary Alex Chalk, and gave Newscast an immediate analysis of how it went, which questions she thought he dodged. Usually, O’Connell will also be coming to Newscast straight out of his Sunday morning job, hosting Broadcasting House.

I could have done without O’Connell’s little recorded missive from his holiday, not that it wasn’t sweet, but because we didn’t need it. The show already has a sense of community and both the familiar Kuenssberg and the funny O’Connell will slot right in.

Elon Musk Walter Isaacson Simon & Schuster, £28, pp688

The big question in the public mind about Elon Musk, as a London cabbie once put it to me, is whether he’s “a pillock or a genius”. The quick answer is that he’s both; a better answer is that there’s a lot of detail between those two extremes – so much so, in fact, that it takes Walter Isaacson 688 pages to cram it all in. But cram it in he does.

Isaacson is an experienced biographer, with lives of Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, Jennifer Doudna and Steve Jobs to his credit. With the benefit of hindsight, that last volume looks like a practice run for a life of Elon Musk, who, like Jobs, makes people wonder whether appalling personal behaviour can be separated from the relentless drive that has made him successful.

But at least Jobs was not a Twitter troll, whereas Musk likes shitposting so much that he bought the company (which may turn out to be the worst decision he’s ever made). And it’s that particular social media addiction that has shaped public perceptions of him, leading people – and the media – to regard him purely as a pillock and overlook his remarkable achievements.

Like what? Well, as he said, introducing himself to the audience of Saturday Night Live: “To anyone I’ve offended, I just want to say I reinvented electric cars and I’m sending people to Mars in a rocket ship. Did you think I was also going to be a chill, normal dude?” But the full roll-call of Musk’s achievements runs like this: PayPal (of which he was a co-founder), Tesla, SpaceX, Starlink (now providing internet links to Ukrainian forces), Neuralink, the Boring Company (a large-scale tunnelling operation) and a new AI company called xAI. Of these, the only really mundane business is the tunnelling company.

One of the merits of Isaacson’s book is the way he delves into how these formidable organisations came into being. It’s clear from his account that none of them would have happened without Musk’s distinctive combination of vision, maniacal determination, personal commitment and ruthlessness.

He believes that if people want to prioritise their leisure they should leave his company

Naomi Klein

Tim Adams reviews the author’s account of being mistaken for conspiracy theorist Naomi Wolf