“I’m such a square and so worried about getting into trouble… but there must be something.” Broadcaster Alice Levine thinks long and hard about the most scandalous thing she’s ever done (that she can share with a journalist over the phone), then delivers something that a lot of us can relate to.
“Going to work and being on air hungover – and probably still a bit drunk,” she laughs. “I had Dev as my co-pilot on Radio 1, so I could run to the bathroom or have a lie down in between songs. But if you’d seen how we really felt on that show sometimes, it would have been quite the scandal.”
Though she might not be the person to get herself caught up in anything too naughty, Levine loves a good scandal just as much as the rest of us. The online feud between Marks & Spencer and Aldi over the Colin The Caterpillar vs Cuthbert The Caterpillar controversy is a recent favourite: “The Swiss roll saga. The memes, the truce. It’s just great.”
But it’s The Profumo Affair – a major political scandal in the 60s, involving model Christine Keeler and Secretary of State for War John Profumo – that she has been most obsessed with: “It has sex, power, politics, tragedy – you know, all of these incredible things for a drama, but it’s real life. If you’ve watched The Crown (or The Trial of Christine Keeler) you have a sort of peripheral exposure to it – with some liberties taken! But I think it would be so fun to deep dive into.”
It’s this love of unpicking a true crime story that led to self-proclaimed “nerd” Levine taking on her latest project, the British Scandal podcast. Already a podcast pro – My Dad Wrote A Porno, which she has co-hosted since 2015, continues to be just as iconic and hilarious six years on – has teamed up with comedian and former political advisor Matt Forde for the gripping new Wondery series. Each of the three seasons tells the dramatic story of a major modern-day scandal that sent shockwaves around the globe, and it launches with a story of espionage, intrigue and speculation: The Salisbury Poisonings.
In November 2016, Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian dissident who dared to take on the Kremlin and subsequently fled to the UK to be granted asylum in 2000, became extremely ill and was hospitalised in London. Just over three weeks later, he became the first person in the world to be killed by lethal drug polonium-210, sparking a diplomatic crisis which dragged UK and Russia relations to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.
With expert contributors joining Levine and Forde to offer insight, updates and commentary, the three-part season traces the roots of the story from Litvinenko’s earlier life working for the KGB through to the public enquiry into his death nearly 10 years later. It explores the big questions: how did this take place on British shores? Who was really behind it? And following the Salisbury poisoning of 2018, can it ever happen again?
Levine describes the listener she thinks will quickly become obsessed with the podcast as being “the kind of person who does their own Sherlocking, has an interest in moments in history and society, and wants a way of diving into these stranger-than-fiction stories.”
She adds: “If you’re the kind of person who watches a Netflix documentary and has to go down a Wikipedia hole about it for an hour – trying to find articles about a random fringe character in the story – then this will really be for you… Or if you watch films that are based on true stories then go to track down the real people involved on Twitter, I think you’d really enjoy it.”
If you do become quickly absorbed in the series, two other scandals have been confirmed for the next couple of seasons. The second season explores the tragic story of David Kelly, the renowned British scientist and weapons expert who was found dead in an Oxfordshire wood in 2003. And the third season looks at the 2018 Cambridge Analytica crisis in which the analytics firm was implicated in a massive data breach, illegally harvesting the personal data of over 87 million Facebook users for political purposes.
Like Levine says, “Basically, it’s just great storytelling”. And yet, these are real scandals that you couldn’t make up or write – which the true crime genre has proven to be the most gripping type of entertainment. Consider us hooked.
The first episode of the British Scandal podcast with Alice Levine and Matthew Forde is available to listen to now on Wondery.
Images: Wondery, Alex Cameron
Hollie is a digital writer at Stylist.co.uk, mainly covering the daily news on women’s issues, politics, celebrities and entertainment. She also keeps an ear out for the best podcast episodes to share with readers. Oh, and don’t even get her started on Outlander…