When is a radio show not a radio show? Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s weekly film review programme on BBC Radio 5 Live has consistently asked that question, like two bickering uncles wondering who ate the last Twix (the answer, FYI, is Sir Kenneth Branagh).
What started as a live review show on Friday afternoons swiftly became a podcast. The podcast got a nickname: Wittertainment. The nickname gave birth to a religious movement. The religious movement inspired a cruise. The cruise paid for webcams to watch the presenters live in the studio. And now, the radio show has emerged from its acoustic cocoon, grown wings and taken flight to YouTube. A Wittertainment web series? A TV show?
“It’s a radio programme with pictures,” decides Kermode in the opening minute. “Should we just call it a thing?” suggests Mayo. They both agree. “Welcome to our Thing.”
The Thing turns out to be a hybrid of radio and television. A large part of it is shot in the studio, as Kermode and Mayo argue and review the week’s new theatrical releases. Carey Mulligan also makes an appearance for an interview.
In that sense, it’s not unlike the existing webcam footage, which has often been uploaded to the Kermode and Mayo YouTube channel (edited audio clips are also common, accompanied by a static image or a still of an interviewee). But this is edited together with panache, all close-ups and cutaways, while the splendidly bequiffed Kermode is kitted out in his best suit – unlike some of his other, t-shirt-clad YouTube uploads.
The format also allows for some visual flourishes, from selfies of people’s post-cinema reactions to some neatly movie-styled titles. The package is edited down into a streaming-friendly chunk that comes in at a far shorter length than the two-hour podcast, which may disappoint some looking for the extra commentary at the start and finish. The Thing finds its feet, though, in its own exclusives: a new “Witterpedia”, animated by Jesse Richards and voiced by the mellifluous tones of Susie Dent, provides a handy introduction to terminology and in-jokes for newcomers, breaking up an argument with a HitchHiker’s Guide-style interlude. The show, meanwhile, is bookended by a quick discussion in BBC’s Broadcasting House that adds podcast-like colour to proceedings.
The result is something that’s reassuringly familiar yet excitingly new. With 50 million downloads over the past 15 years, there is no question of whether Wittertainment (in any format) is any good: Kermode and Mayo’s weary bromance – a happy marriage of ranting and undermining – has become a staple of broadcasting and criticism that manages to amuse, inform and inspire discussion among listeners from 7 years old to 70. The fact that people tune in around the world, where cinema releases are rarely in sync with the UK, is testament to the couple’s chemistry (and the universal appeal of a fart gun).
The only debate is whether it’s necessary. Despite improvements over the years, BBC One’s Film programme has never managed to capture that same colourful character on the screen as Wittertainment has on the wireless – it’s no surprise that the 5 Live show has earned the reputation as the Beeb’s flagship film show. Moving it from the radio to the TV, though, where it would languish in an 11pm weekday slot, would feel like a waste of the Wittertaining magic.
Instead, a web series provides an unexpectedly perfect halfway house for the pair, providing a treat for hair admirers, Trotskyists and avid listeners alike, without losing their outsider, non-establishement appeal. They even make the welcome addition of VOD into the mix, an absence that would have been particularly glaring on a streaming platform – we’ve written Wittertainment-inspired lists before highlighting relevant movies on Netflix.
Would BBC iPlayer be a better home for it than YouTube? Perhaps: with the addition of young poets and new comedy faces to the catalogue, the Beeb’s catch-up service is an increasingly diverse pool of talent. (The show is available to watch on the BBC site here, but not on iPlayer.) Either way, it works. As an experimental pilot, Kermode and Mayo’s Film Thing is an interesting insight into what the future of radio could look like in a VOD age. As two people talking – occasionally about film – it’s as entertaining as ever.
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