The week in audio: The Birthday Cake Game; A Wish for Afghanistan; Finding Q; Dr Death: Miracle Man | Radio

The Birthday Cake Game BBC Radio 4 | BBC Sounds
A Wish for Afghanistan BBC World Service | BBC Sounds
Finding Q: My Journey Into QAnon Audible
Dr Death: Miracle Man Wondery

Richard Osman is a lovely man, dedicated to what was once known as “the gaiety of the nation”: everything he works on, from Pointless to House of Games to The Thursday Murder Club, is clever, cheery and mainstream. (Disclaimer: I don’t know Osman. He might be appalling behind closed doors. Perhaps we should ask his cat.) His best creations are instantly familiar, as though they’ve always been there, and Osman has simply given them a nice polish and brought them to our attention. Much harder than it looks.

Which brings us to his new Radio 4 show, The Birthday Cake Game, in which a panel of three try to guess the age of a celebrity who’s having a birthday this week. The premise is familiar in a couple of ways: first, it’s a lazy weekend breakfast game for newspaper readers – “Ooh, guess how old Peter Mandelson is today! What do you mean, who?” – and second, Osman first hosted it as a (non-BBC) podcast called The Birthday Game, which came out in late 2019. You can’t hear it now; presumably it’s been blocked for rights reasons.

Anyway, that’s it. That’s the show. The panellists get three points for guessing the right year, one point for a year either side and nothing otherwise. On Tuesday’s first episode, Osman was as engaging as ever, gently teasing TV presenter Jayne Sharp when she wasn’t sure what sport Lennox Lewis was famous for. He also tried hard to involve the listeners – “play along at home!” – and one got to phone in so that the panel could guess his age too. I did play along, and got five points (bang on for Fearne Cotton, a year out for Richard Gere and Antony Gormley, go me). But really, this is thin stuff.

To be fair, the Radio 4 6.30pm “funny” slot has long been a tricky one to conquer, and several excellent comedians and writers have wilted in its glare. But its most successful panel shows are far smarter than this: Just a Minute, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue and The Unbelievable Truth all require wit and ingenuity, for panellists to dazzle with the swiftness of their brains. There’s not much room for biting repartee when all they have to play with is a celebrity’s age or whether they actually know who’s being discussed. The Birthday Cake Game seems like a daft, Ken Bruce-style feature given 20 minutes too long.

There is no way to segue smoothly from that to Afghanistan, so I’m not going to bother. Over on the World Service, the formidable Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s chief international correspondent, has a new programme, A Wish for Afghanistan. If, like me, you’ve gone a bit hazy as to the motivations of the US, or the recent Afghan government, or the Taliban, or what Afghans themselves want for the future, this is the programme to turn to. Doucet will be speaking to 10 different people, who all have a stake in the country. In last week’s first episode, The Envoy, she interviewed Zalmay Khalilzad, who grew up in Afghanistan, emigrated to the US and became a governmental policy adviser and diplomat. After 9/11 he was an important adviser to Bush; last year, Trump asked him to negotiate the deal with the Taliban (not the Afghan government, Doucet noted) that led to the US leaving the country.

The ‘formidable’ Lyse Doucet in Kabul. Photograph: Paula Bronstein/BBC

Doucet interviewed Khalilzad from Kabul and did not hold back, challenging him on the terrible results of those decisions. “The situation on the ground is … the Taliban believe they have won,” she said. Khalilzad said he had been “optimistic” about the recent deal. Riveting, unmissable stuff, if you can stomach high-up men explaining their political manoeuvres, or shaking their heads over opportunities missed. The consequences are there for all to see. Next week, Doucet speaks to a member of the Taliban.

Finally, a couple of investigative shows that have been topping the podcast charts for weeks: Finding Q and the third series of Dr Death. The former sees British journalist Nicky Woolf trying to find out just who is behind QAnon. If you’re unsure as to who or what QAnon is, remember when people broke into the Capitol building after Trump lost the election? Many of those believed that QAnon was a governmental insider who was giving online information – “QDrops” – to those who wanted the truth. And the truth, apparently, is that there’s a celebrity cabal (pop stars, media people, Democratic politicians) who are involved in child trafficking and paedophilia. Woolf’s reporting is excellent, and he is determined and brave, especially when confronting one of his main Q suspects. I raced through this series, gripped throughout.

Wondery’s Dr Death: Miracle Man, is less gory than series one, less woolly than series two, and gets most of its pep from Benita Alexander, an NBC producer who was seduced by an Italian doctor, Paolo Macchiarini, who claimed to be able to surgically implant stem cell-coated plastic tracheas. Her Dirty John-style tale holds you in its grasp while making you shout at her for her silliness. Just as a side point: every Dr Death series demonstrates that arrogant men literally get away with murder (even if unintentional) in institutions that suppress whistleblowers.