The story behind How I Found My Voice

The podcast is the idea of Intelligence Squared’s Matt McAllester and was developed by producer Farah Jassat – one of the brightest young talents in broadcasting – who recently joined Intelligence Squared after several years at the BBC as a production trainee and producer in current affairs and culture notably on BBC2’s Newsnight. Intelligence Squared is well known in the US and Canada as well as the UK for its live discussions and debates around culture and politics. Both Farah and I have always enjoyed that intersection of politics, culture and news. I believe in thorough research, listening, and digging around behind the obvious to find out something new. And it was delightful to be approached by Intelligence Squared as the perfect match to host it, so here’s a podcast devoted to how we all like to approach the world. Listen via ACAST or SPOTIFY or iTUNES . And rating and recommending it would be great.

Producer Farah Jassat with Philip Pullman recording How I Found my Voice
in his library. Reading from the yellow folder manuscript to The Secret Commonwealth. His (red) first edition of Paradise Lost

We’ve tried to choose a range of people – comedians, writers, actors, artists, but potentially politicians and non arts figures too – to get inside that sense of awakening power. What people did as children and when and how their influences shaped them finding their voice as professionals.

In my case it was imbibing the news from my earliest years, writing school compositions drawn on real news events like terrorism, making my own radio shows with a tape recorder and microphone and my own newspapers and magazines.

Rose McGowan was an obvious choice for episode 1. I’d loved her film and TV performances, and after reading her powerful and thoughtful memoir Brave, was struck how the activist and actress has been slandered in news and online since she came forward to speak up about sexual exploitation (that Adam Sandler casting call) and then Harvey Weinstein. There was also something my teenage daughter said about watching old episodes of her show Charmed – how you could tell she was always pushing at the boundaries and subverting things. Rose McGowan’s beautiful, articulate and good humoured interview is peppered with shocking experiences – her abusive childhood in the Children of God cult in Italy and then later in the US , and the way she was treated in Hollywood as her career took off in the 90s. (A fascinating counterhistory to the jolly 90s indie scene version of that decade on film). But it’s also full of great fun – how she got the studio to write in her hair colour change when she came back to shoot the next series of Charmed. Her directing and music career are significant moves. I want to see what she does next. And above all it’s an inspiring reminder of someone who has chosen to be in the resistance not a collaborator.

If Rose is a newly adopted Londoner, then Katherine Ryan is very much an old established city sister now, having moved here some years ago. She intrigues me, especially for how she’s forged her own space in the macho arena of standup and panel shows which have seemed to problematic for women. She is a formidable feminist combination of intelligence, beauty and fearlessness.

We talked about the importance of performance taught in our Catholic schools – hers French Canadian and mine Irish – where we both learned to recite poetry before audiences. But it’s Katherine’s experience working as a waitress in Hooters that revealed the most unexpected lessons – in female solidarity, pushing the boundaries on humour and male expectations. Her new Netflix sitcom The Duchess, drawing inspiration from her own experiences as a single parent will be unmissable.

Philip Pullman and his wife Judith Speller’s generosity was touching. They invited us to do the interview at their home in Oxford and made us a beautiful lunch with home made bread and soup. We recorded in the library and if you like the word “exclusive” you’ll get your very first listen to Philip reading the opening of his long awaited Book of Dust 2 – The Secret Commonwealth.

Philip Pullman’s childhood seems to have come from a postwar British children’s novel – an RAF father who died when he was a young boy, a beloved older relative who shared the joy of books with him, and a peripatetic childhood of journeys by ship to live in Africa, Australia and then Wales. How Philip regards it is fascinating and honest.

Our conversation is peppered with the poetry and rhythms that shaped his confident, absorbing style – Longfellow’s Hiawatha, Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Just So Stories. But also the visuals he draws that are such a strong part of his books and his style – those Edgar Allen Poe inspired images of ravens, and beetles. For those who don’t know his career, Philip Pullman’s story of finding his voice is refreshing self-made: His English degree at Oxford was not a happy experience, but teaching in schools and discovering the joy of story telling was transformative. His is a model of a career based on stamina, diligence and passion.

It was also good to talk about the moral steel I love in his work. From his committment to humanism (we have fun discussing why he loves Milton’s Paradise Lost) to the powerful evocation of a Stasi/Stalinist style purge in the school in La Belle Sauvage, where children are enlisted by the authoritarian church regime to report on teachers who defy the new orthodoxy. Philip Pullman is definitely another member of the resistance.

Adam Buxton defies categorisation, but he’s such a huge star I was delighted he was up for taking part. And as someone of almost exactly the same age I enjoyed seeing how we shared many of the same influences – Kenny Everett, a fascination with the idea of being on TV, the possibilities of pop videos – but he’d transformed his passion into a new hybrid artform.

His many fans will find something new in the backstory of the schoolboy friendship with Joe Cornish and Louis Theroux. Like Philip Pullman, Buxton is driven by the passion for making the best work he can. From his TV and radio shows, to his videos, to his live happenings, to his podcasts – he’s been years ahead of everyone else on finding art and joy in the internet. And most delightfully of all, as his art school tutors failed to understand, he is driven by a sense of fun. The latest series of his hugely popular Adam Buxton podcast starts this Friday (April 21st)

Meeting Mark Millar at the Kingsman junket (2015) That’s director Matthew Vaughn’s hand

Mark Millar was the first guest I knew I HAD to have on and suggested to Farah — the renowned comic book writer and creator of worlds at Millar World (recently bought by Netflix). He’s that rare thing — a celebrity guest I’d got to know, interviewing him at a junket (for the Kingsman film, based on his own comic) and ended up becoming friends with. We’d both been to see the same Sinbad/Spiderman double bill circa 1978 and grown up loving the same old films and TV; notably the original Christopher Reeve Superman. His life story is remarkable.

Mark Millar aged 6 (right) – photo copyright Mark Millar

A working class boy with five older siblings from Coatbridge near Glasgow, he seemed driven from an early age to work in comics and to head for NY and LA. His episode features his writing a letter of commiseration to British Prime Minister James Callaghan on losing the 1979 general election to Margaret Thatcher, dressing up as Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock and trying to solve crimes around his local housing estate, coming up with the idea of his acclaimed Superman Red Son comic series aged 6 (baby Kal-el crashing in Soviet Russia in the 1930s instead of the USA) and why Kick-Ass is based on him as a teenager and him as a dad. What is infectious about Mark is his endless curiosity, his ability to conjure up new stories, and his open mindedness. I should say we have a healthy disagreement about conspiracy theorists like David Icke. But you’ll come away with a real understanding of superheroes and villains and the new boundaries he’s pushing now with his latest creations such as Jupiter’s Legacy and Empress.

Still to come:

With Benjamin Zephaniah at Brunel University

I’ve been recommending the autobiography The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah to everyone over the past 6 months and buying it as birthday presents for all the men I know. So he was another obvious choice for me and Farah.

My personal fascination with his career and writing goes back decades. He wrote and starred in my favourite ever piece of British television – Dread Poets’ Society – a short BBC2 comedy drama film about him encountering the spirits of the Romantics – Byron, Keats, Shelley and Mary Shelley based on his own experience being demonised by the national press and literary establishment when he was under consideration for a poetry professorship at Cambridge University in the 1980s. Its now very famous and impressive cast also features Timothy Spall and a then unknown Alan Cumming.

Then when I worked at Channel 4 News I remember sitting in the studio watching him convince – on air – the writer and broadcaster Yasmin Alibai-Brown to give back her MBE and reject the whole British system of honours.

Benjamin Zephaniah’s life story is so complex and so inspiring. From the world of Birmingham in the 50s and 60s through to the exciting radical fringes of London in the 70s; from racism and violence in childhood, to crime and borstal in his youth, to finally getting recognition for his literary powers and becoming one of Britain’s most famous and respected poets. And vegans. We conducted the interview at Brunel University, where he’s Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing.

Elif Shafak after recording How I Found My Voice

Novelist and activist Elif Shafak‘s eloquent interviews about literature, freedom and Turkish politics have made her a regular fixture on news and current affairs shows such as Radio 4’s Today as well as in the book world. She’s another writer I first encountered through an earlier work interview, speaking to her about her novels. Writing in English and Turkish and embracing the history of both worlds as well as the present in her fiction, Elif Shafak is another of life’s resisters. And, with the ongoing turmoil in Turkey, an ever more essential voice challenging attempts to divide or diminish shared principles of human rights. Her episode has fascinating insights into her warm and creative childhood and way of seeing the world.

I hope you enjoy the series and do let us know what you think. Recommendations and ratings where you download it and all that stuff are really helpful for a new podcast, especially for me, if you’ve been following my work. as it’s my first.

Several episodes of How I Found My Voice are already available on acast, iTunes and Spotify. The others will drop every Monday.




About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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