Bone Valley (Lava for Good)
There Are No Greater Heroes (Sam Tyler and Thomas Freeman) | Apple podcasts
The Crowning of Everest (BBC Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
Song For Belper (BBC Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
Pet Classics (Classic FM) | globalplayer
Whew, but I have a treat for all you fans of true-crime-cold-case-clue-by-clue-to-the-truth podcasts. Bone Valley, about a 1987 murder in Florida, and the far-reaching consequences of its seemingly botched police investigation, is an absolute doozy. Dogged and meticulous, with a spine of moral certainty, it makes other true crime podcasts look lazy simply through its completeness. Not only do journalist Gilbert King and his assistant reporter, Kelsey Decker, take you through every single step, from background to current situation, they do so without artifice or ego. I enjoy a spot of clever-me script flummery, but Bone Valley aims to be thorough and direct and is all the more hard hitting because of it.
King is known for his Pulitzer prize-winning 2012 book Devil in the Grove, about the Groveland boys, four young black men falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1949. After giving a lecture to some Florida lawmakers about this work, King is approached by Scott Cupp, a judge who tells him about another miscarriage of justice. In the late 1980s, Leo Schofield was convicted of the murder of his wife, Michelle, and has been in prison ever since. He’s innocent, says Cupp. Just read the court transcripts. So King does and finds himself compelled to investigate. It takes him and Decker four years.
I don’t want to give too much away, but be assured that Bone Valley is not one of those true crime shows that starts brilliantly and then falls away because the investigator can’t track down the real perpetrator, or finds them but doesn’t get to speak to them. Here, King and Decker not only solve the murder of Michelle, they also solve another seemingly unconnected cold case.
Which all sounds… exciting, I suppose. Gripping, definitely. Not only did 19-year-old Michelle die violently (we get a strong sense of who she was throughout the series), but Schofield has been in prison for this crime for almost 35 years. Every one of his appeals has failed; he has not even been bailed for good behaviour. The podcast is also a grinding indictment of the local police forces and the US criminal justice system; each time you think Leo must surely be absolved the system fails him.
This is a long series – nine episodes, each more than an hour long. It’s occasionally gruesome, but never gratuitous. The journalism is excellent. Decker, who initially seems naive and nervous, has every fact straight, and King’s ethical rage, occasionally expressed through swearing, is the driving force that keeps everything on track. Bone Valley came out at the end of last year, but has somehow slipped under the radar in the UK. I thoroughly recommend it, and if you get to the end and agree that Schofield is the wrong man, there’s a petition that you can sign to try to get his conviction independently reviewed.
Folk trio Tony, Caro and John in 1972. Photograph: Dai Wenham
Once you’ve got through all that, you might need something lighter. Or at least sweeter. So why not try There Are No Greater Heroes, which came out last week. A first-time podcast from music promoter Sam Tyler, this is a lovely tale about a British psych-folk trio Tony, Caro and John, who released one record, All on the First Day, in the early 1970s and then disappeared from view. Tyler decides to track them down and tell their story. The result is a short, slight, heartwarming three-parter, combining the ordinary and exceptional. Tony and Caro, the remaining members, are still very good friends, and their retelling of the band’s story is engaging. John, who died of cancer in 2005, was a careful archivist, so the trio’s songs, threaded throughout, are beautifully recorded. Nothing combines memory, feeling, youth and age like music, and this documentary series understands that. Heroes indeed.
A more conventional heroism is examined by Radio 4’s The Crowning of Everest, about the 1953 expedition that finally got two men, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, to the top of the highest mountain on Earth. Ably presented by explorer Wade Davis, this series is best heard on headphones. Sound designer Richard Hannaford goes to town – snow crunching underfoot, flags flapping in the wind – and it’s beautifully atmospheric, with some lovely details (Norgay left a small bag of sweets at the top, to honour the Buddhist gods; Hillary refused a photo of himself, but took shots of the view, to prove they made it). This is far from a man-conquers-nature series, instead making a case for allying the Everest climb with Elizabeth II’s coronation and an examination of what it was to be British. Hillary was a Kiwi; Norgay Nepalese-Indian. Both were treated as Brits, claimed by the Commonwealth.
More Britishness, and more music, in the chatty and funny Radio 4 documentary Song for Belper, about that little known genre of pop songs commissioned by town councils and presented by Jason Hazeley and Peter Curran. I was cry-laughing from the opening song, Frankie Vaughan’s (“I’m Going Back to”) Stockport. And if you want something just as sweetly daft (and British), why not flip back to New Year’s Eve on Classic FM, which offered an anti-fireworks soothing soundtrack for pets? Makes you proud.