The week in audio: Under Cover of Knight; The Missing Madonna; The Trial of Lucy Letby; Four Sides of Seamus Heaney
A woman’s death in Texas is unexpectedly mundane and the nurse’s court case a little too lurid. But there’s lots to love in the true story of a stolen Leonardo and a portrait of the Irish poet
Under Cover of Knight (Apple TV+) | Apple PodcastsThe Missing Madonna | BBC Sounds The Trial of Lucy Letby (Mail Metro Media) | Apple Podcasts Four Sides of Seamus Heaney (BBC Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
A few years ago, on a long drive to a holiday destination, I listened to S-Town all the way and it was great. I’d hoped for a similar experience with Under Cover of Knight, a 10-part “Who were they really?” show from Apple TV+ that takes a deep dive into the life of a woman called Sue Knight, who died in a small town in Texas in 1996. Spoiler: this is no S-Town.
Still, the first episode does set things up nicely. Through interviews with people who knew her, we discover that Knight was popular, but a bit of a mystery. She was a lively British woman with no known family and her death was unexpected. When the executor of her estate went round to her home, he and his wife discovered a place free from personal mementoes, but with a room filled with computers (unusual for that time) that suddenly flicked into life and were then discovered to be wiped. There was a cupboard packed with prescription drugs, hidden certificates that revealed Knight to be a fantastic gunswoman and, weirdly, ripped-open teddy bears strewn across the floor. Subsequent anonymous phone calls insisted that Knight was involved with the FBI, that the executor should stop trying to find out anything about her life and – most odd of all – that she was still alive.
You’re intrigued, no? Sadly, as the diligent producers work through the leads, everything about the Knight mystery is revealed as … not very interesting at all. The computers were part of her job. They flicked on and off because of a power surge, which probably also wiped them. She sewed stuffed bears as a hobby. She was a crack shot because a boyfriend taught her. The FBI was definitely not involved. Over and over, questions are answered in the most mundane manner. Still, the producers continue with their investigation, pondering everything from the autopsy report to why she left the UK. When they earnestly wonder whether Knight was a member of the IRA, I have to admit, I lost it.
God, there’s so much work here for such a dull result. Why didn’t the exec producers kill this show? Or at least reduce the number of episodes. It’s a fact that many podcast cold-case investigations start strongly and fade, usually because the producers or presenters don’t get what they want, which is an on-tape confession from the bad guy (if you want that, try Bone Valley). But here, there isn’t even a baddie. Knight was a charismatic woman who moved house a lot, had a tricky childhood and a family life that she didn’t want to reveal. And … that’s it. The one saving grace of the show is that, through their investigations, the producers were able to locate members of Knight’s British family, who had no idea where she’d gone. But as much as everyone involved wants this Knight’s tale to be fascinating, all this diligent digging just reveals a life more ordinary.
Much more lively and fun is BBC Sounds’s The Missing Madonna, a proper true-crime tale involving a stolen Leonardo da Vinci painting and hundreds of thousands of pounds handed over to get it back. In 2003, Leonardo’s beautiful Madonna of the Yarnwinder artwork was swiped from the wall of Drumlanrig Castle in Dumfries and Galloway in what is usually described as “an audacious heist”. Two men arrived at the castle in the guise of National Trust-style tourists, threatened the poor in-room guide and walked away with the painting, speeding off in a battered 1980s white VW Golf. A fantastic detail: and this series is packed full of them, from start to finish.
Plus, our host, Olivia Graham, is great. She is a clear, charismatic scouser and you wonder, for a while, why she’s presenting the series – until she reveals her late father’s involvement in the scheme to get the Madonna back. The episodes where she describes her dad driving (in his mint green Jaguar) to various obscure places to pick up the ransom money, then hand it over and retrieve the painting are gripping and hilarious. He’s given the wrong directions; the money takes too long to pile into his car boot; and his lovely Jag starts playing up … It’s the little things that make this series so enjoyable, and it lickety-splits through its nine parts to its unpredictable conclusion. Very cheering.
Less cheering is The Trial of Lucy Letby, a podcast I was unaware of until the neonatal nurse was recently convicted of murder. It’s a Daily Mail show that’s been following the court case since its beginning – as I write, it’s on episode 54 – and is hosted by journalists Liz Hull and Caroline Cheetham. The show’s promotion borders on the offensive – “more of our favourite moments from our best guests!” – but the podcast itself is interesting and well done, if you wonder how such complicated crimes are investigated and tried. The in-court process forms the central pillar of the podcast, though the psychology of murder is also a driving element. The show isn’t for me – the tone veers too often into lip-smacking – but, as criminal psychologist Dr David Holmes says in episode 52, this is a modern reinvention of traditional court reporting.
If all this crime is getting you down, here is a gorgeous Radio 4 programme about Seamus Heaney. The first part of Four Sides of Seamus Heaney is about place and has the poet John Kelly visiting Bellaghy, County Derry, where Heaney was born and spent his younger years. Kelly speaks to Dan, one of Heaney’s brothers; Maura Johnston, from the Seamus Heaney HomePlace arts and literary centre, discusses the language of Ulster Scots, of Irish and Shakespeare; and we hear Heaney himself, reading his work. Every voice is beautiful and intelligent. An absolute delight.Under Cover of KnightThe Missing MadonnaThe Trial of Lucy LetbyFour Sides of Seamus HeaneyUnder Cover of KnightThe Missing MadonnaThe Trial of Lucy LetbyFour Sides of Seamus Heaney