Englishness vs California dreaming: Meghan and Harry's Archewell Audio reviewed

16 January 2021

9:00 AM

16 January 2021

9:00 AM

Archewell Audio


Woman’s Hour

BBC Radio 4

On Archewell Audio, Harry and Meghan’s new podcast, ‘love wins’, ‘change really is possible’, and ‘the courage and the creativity and the power and the possibility that’s been resting in our bones shakes loose and emerges as our new skin’. There’s no room for Christmas — the first episode dropped as a ‘Holiday Special’ — but there is for kindness, compassion and more than a few bromidic interjections of ‘So true!’

The podcast purports to ‘spotlight diverse perspectives and voices’ and ‘build community through shared experiences, powerful narratives, and universal values’. Turn down the volume and what you’ll actually hear is the most tremendous tussle between Englishness and California dreaming. There are no prizes for guessing which comes out on top.

The contest begins in the trailer, where the Duchess of Sussex encourages her husband to introduce the series, conceding him a point for his ‘really nice’ accent. ‘What, Archewe… Archewell Audio?’ stumbles the Duke. ‘I mean,’ flirts Meghan. ‘Really?’ Harry replies, with a hesitancy worthy of Hugh Grant. Archewell, the couple’s brand name, may derive in part from the Greek for ‘beginning’ or ‘dominion’, but it more readily evokes the name of their 20-month-old son. Archie speaks his first public words at the end of the episode: ‘Happy’ (American accent) ‘New’ (English accent) ‘Year’ (who knows).

The association between the baby and the brand does the couple few favours. What works for the Kardashians doesn’t necessarily sit well with English sensibilities. Curiously, too, it puts the Sussexes at the centre of a project dedicated to amplifying (a good Archewell word) more diverse voices.

Other people’s stories, they say, can remind you of stories about yourself. One wonders what life memories were stirred in them by heroic José, who uses food to ‘empower communities’, or George the Poet, or tennis player Naomi Osaka, who joined Elton John and James Corden in recording audio diaries of their year.

These diaries were often harrowing to hear, Corden supplying just a moment’s relief in his admission that he ‘could lose a day staring at the corner of a rug’ in contented isolation. His is just the sort of England-moved-to-California groundedness the Sussexes might emulate as they proceed. Listening to their first podcast, though, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that, in turning their backs on Windsor, they have given up all desire to court Merrie England. Their stars are firmly spangled from here on in.

Her Majesty the Queen has sent her congratulations to Woman’s Hour, which turns 75 this year, praising it as a ‘friend, guide and advocate to women everywhere’. Her message was read out by Emma Barnett, who took the helm of the programme last week. The pressure to revitalise the morning slot and draw in younger listeners rests firmly on her shoulders.

Those used to watching Barnett grill men on Newsnightmay be surprised by her softer front. I was struck by her constant probing last week of her guests’ feelings. ‘But how did you feel?’ she demanded of political aide Sonia Khan of her experience of being marched out of Downing Street under police guard in 2019. ‘A year on, how are you feeling, and how did you feel outside that court case?’ she asked Rosanna Arquette with reference to Harvey Weinstein’s trial. (Actor Kelechi Okafor, who was due to join the episode, dropped out when she overheard Barnett allude off-air to her alleged defence of antisemitism.) Listeners were even asked to send in poems expressing their feelings to be read to Carol Ann Duffy.

I was reminded of ITV’s Tom Bradby winning over the Duchess of Sussex last year with his deceptively simple question: ‘Are you OK?’ A guest who replied that she was fine on Woman’s Hour only came in for deeper questioning. ‘Fine’ is just a default answer. For Barnett, as for Bradby, compassion proved powerfully disarming. It was with some skill that Barnett eased Khan away from the lines she felt comfortable expressing and into the words she finally spoke.

Many of the topics tackled last week — the experience of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, #MeToo, cruel mothers — highlighted the continuing value of a women’s programme. The only thing missing was humour. Women like laughing as well as sparring, I sighed, as a rather earnest discussion ensued about the joys of naked rambling. If there was an opportunity for a joke about where to keep your water bottle, it was swiftly poured away.

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