[The following contains spoilers.]
Over the last ten years, ghost tours on the streets of Edinburgh have become an obvious growth bubble, in inflating as visibly as independent barista coffee shops had once done and as vegan restaurants are currently doing. You need charisma to be in charge of a ghost tour but this has to be a very precise kind of charisma. Successful tour guides – the ones who can put their kids through private education on the tips – must always maintain three indispensable but opposing factors in a difficult equilibrium.
The first is the horror: the murders and witchcraft that had supposedly occurred in the wynds and vaults of Edinburgh’s Old Town. The second is conditions of absolute safety. Anything genuinely dangerous and unpleasant must be kept as distant from the tourist as a rhinoceros in a safari park. And the third is a certain plastic manifestation of the Scottish character, which will be most familiar to fans of the movie Shrek. The tour guide must be jocularly fierce and gruff, hamming up a “‘gardyloo’ mean’t a jobbie an yer heid” vulgarity for the half-comprehending delight of the American tourist.
The balance is always a fine one. If the guide is too funny, then the tourist misses that snug, cosy tingle that they have allowed themselves to mistake for flesh-creeping horror. If he is too scary, then the tourist becomes offended or uneasy. Matthew McLean and Robert Cudmore are two talented podcastmakers and in A Scottish Podcast they try their hands at the ghost tour game. Like an Edinburgh tour guide, they are flogging Edinburgh to the world whilst being constantly mindful of the same trip hazard between humour and horror. Fortunately, their show has a roguish and knowing charm. You never get that cold feeling that you are simply a customer.
Cudmore and McLean play Lee Power and Dougie, two Edinburgh guys who have given up on unpromising careers in the traditional media to make The Terror Files, a paranormal investigation podcast. A Scottish Podcast is not that podcast – it is instead the behind-the-scenes story of how the podcast-within-a-podcast is made. The Terror Files begins by breaking into an ancient and newly discovered vault on Edinburgh’s Blackfriars Street. In an upending of the traditional symbolism, the old media is left back in the New Town, whilst these representatives of the new media are rediscovering the Old.
A Scottish Podcast is modelled partway on the hugely influential fictional podcast The Black Tapes (2015-2017), as well as holding it up to some amiable mockery. Both stories deal with paranormal investigations but they never get near enough to the paranormal to spin out of control or come to any harm. In both cases, it is fictional listeners getting in touch with the show that jolts the plot forward; an important element of the investigation concerns a satanic rock band; and the podcast acquires some inevitably unglamorous sponsorship. In a pushing of the envelope beyond the plodding realism of The Black Tapes, however, the band in A Scottish Podcast was called Thatcher’s Fanny and the podcast has to settle for endorsing piles cream in place of Alex Reagan’s eternally accursed Bombas Socks. The spectre that the podcasters end up investigating goes by the unmistakably jokey name of Alpin the Barbarian. So this is more the Edinburgh of Horrible Histories than of Most Haunted.
This is not quite to master the subtle shifts in register that are evinced by our most streetwise Edinburgh ghost tour guides. In committing to jokiness, and settling down comfortably into a sitcom, A Scottish Podcast fails to live up to its horror sales pitch. As a sitcom, it still continues to do what it does very well. Its characters are excellently drawn and they are paired with some vivid vocal performances. Cudmore and McLean clearly have an expert grasp of Wetherspoons’ banter and the rich folk melody of Scots profanity and sarcasm. The dialogue is the unique strength of this podcast.
But A Scottish Podcast remains housebound within its humour and the horror is consequently locked out. This becomes apparent during The Terror Files’ visit to the evacuated Outer Hebridean island of St Caillic (the dead spit of St Kilda). The characters remain hunkered in a bunker with their banter whilst a sea monster rampages around outside. It is unimaginable here that Lee and Dougie could vacate the cellar and behold the supernatural force. That cellar is a physical incarnation of what is, without a doubt, and for all of their “cunts” and “fucks,” the men’s unpoppable innocence.
The supernatural, and indeed The Terror Files podcast itself, are both at the centre of the story and simultaneously inaccessible from within it. Instead, we find ourselves left only with this peripheral, comedic metafiction on our hands.
There are nevertheless a couple of serviceable resting points midway between the comedy and the horror. In a shrewd husbandry of this show’s vocal talents, some of its human characters turn out to be far more unsettling than the supernatural ones. The suave and kindly Englishness of Karim Kronfli ends up being somehow affixed to Bruce Mercer, a Glaswegian gangster. This initially seems like a bit of teasing but Mercer’s strange character gradually grows more haunting and perplexing than any ghost. He adheres to his faultless politeness even during a weirdly illogical phone call when we can hear a man being tortured in the background. Sarah Golding’s Drunk Helen, an authentically tipsy bag lady, is ten times more terrifying than anything in The Terror Files. Her slithering, off-key sing-song is more excruciating to listen to than the howling of the dead. Indeed, she appears randomly throughout the story like an eerie vision.
A Scottish Podcast concludes with a comprehensive detective-drama solution that unexpectedly fixes many fluctuating details into place. Byers (David Ault), an Edinburgh councilman, is revealed to be harbouring psychopathic secrets, but his whole character proves too wobbly to bear the weight that is placed on him. No jokes or worthwhile satire are tickled out of the councillor, whilst he is lacking the bristle of a serious killer. Only his later offstage recruitment by Bruce Mercer generates some belated disquiet.
A final thing to note is that political Scottish nationalism has dropped completely out of the universe within A Scottish Podcast. There are no allusions to the bitter referendum of 2014 or to the SNP. English and Scots characters mix unselfconsciously within the Edinburgh melting pot, although there eventually comes to be something mildly or more than mildly sinister to each character with an English accent. Even Dougie’s cockney boss (Michael Hudson) rather creepily refuses to pay the minimum wage, a decision which Dougie is inexplicably relaxed about. Whilst the resultant Unionist harmony is very fortuitous, we might look askance at how Edinburgh in A Scottish Podcast remains so firmly Scottish. If you plucked seventeen random people off the streets of Edinburgh, a goodly proportion of them would be Polish or Spanish or Chinese or Brazilian. A Scottish Podcast thus fails to do justice to Edinburgh’s cosmopolitanism.
This podcast is still a great product – original, thoughtful, and fun. Work is already underway on building a second season. It will be interesting to observe what choices A Scottish Podcast makes during its next incursions into Edinburgh.