Wittertainment: the world’s flagship film review programme

Why Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo's film review programme is an unmissable weekly listen for movie fans...

Here’s an exchange between Mark Kermode (bold) and Simon Mayo (italics) that took place on Friday 21st August 2015, as part of Kermode & Mayo’s Film Review programme. For the purpose of context, this conversation was initially sparked by the film Sinister 2. A film that, despite the words that follow, Mr Kermode wasn’t keen on.

“I like anything that involves Super 8 movies, and the idea of cameras, and the lacing up of projectors. There’s something very… almost erotic about lacing up a projector.”

“No there’s not.”

“There is.”

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“No there isn’t.”

“I’m sorry, there’s…”

“What is erotic about lacing up a camera?”

“I can’t explain it…”


“There’s a frisson. The way the celluloid goes through the sprockets.”

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“Is it to do with sprockets and holes? Is that what you’re talking about?”

“NO! It’s nothing that crass. It’s just to do with the machinery. There’s something mechanical. I’m sorry…”

“Mechanical? I can do mechanical.”

That, friends, is a sample exchange from the BBC’s flagship film programme, flagship film podcast, and basically flagship programme that involves two men of a certain vintage bickering a lot.

Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode’s Radio Five Live film review programme – aka Wittertainment, aka Kermode & Mayo’s Film Review – has been running since 2001, and it’s proof that once you’ve locked down a good concept, that’s little point tinkering with it.

In this case, the concept has something Morecambe & Wise-esque about it, bringing to mind those scenes where the pair used to be sat up in bed together, arguing. Only here, they’re arguing about films. Well, most of the time.

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Thus, you have Mark Kermode, a film critic with hands that flap and rants that sometimes end, who goes through the week’s releases and defends Minions. Then you have Simon Mayo, experienced broadcaster, bestselling author and one-time chairman of Melchester Rovers Football Club, the host of the show, and possessor of an exquisite bullshit detector, that he occasionally fires in his colleague’s direction. One goes off on flights of fancy, the other shoots him down. Audio gold is formed, with more of it usually just a week away.

There’s a lot more to it than that, though.

The structure of the programme is fairly straightforward. A box office top 10 round up (which tends to be dominated by listener feedback, and Kermode attempting not to dismiss opinions that he evidently disagrees with – my favourite of late being the correspondent who was insistent that Pixels is better than Inside Out), an interview with a guest, film reviews, and as much listener feedback as can be squeezed in. It sounds straightforward when you write it down like that.

Yet to be a listener of the show feels like being part of a special club. Fellow Wittertainees will know what I meant there.

The weekly parish notices set the scene certainly, but what about stories of listening to the show whilst undergoing surgery? Or Wittertainment-related injuries (WRI)? Maybe people trying to jump aboard the Wittertainment Cruise? Perhaps the moment where what started as a simple entry to Clergy Corner turned into a chat about (Do) The Hucklebuck by Coast To Coast (no wonder each episode of the show now comes with a playlist) and a Tweet from St Paul’s Cathedral?

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Heck, every now and then, the reader correspondence occasionally manages to stray onto films too.

No wonder so many listen to one episode, and then head for the podcast archive to get hold of instalments dating back to 2005. The pickings are rich.

For the podcast in itself has taken on a life of its own. After all, whilst the foundations of Wittertainment are found in its Friday afternoon slot on Radio 5/Five Live/Radio Five Live/whatever it’s called this week, there’s an army of listeners to the programme who only really know it through the podcast. In fact, they’re often moved to write in when they have the rare opportunity to hear the show actually broadcast live in its mobile 2 until 4 home (or maybe even watch the live stream). When they do so, they find it’s missing the podcast extras, which have proven more than once that it’s worth playing the show right through to the very end.

The podcast, it says here, is the fourth most downloaded of the ones that the BBC produces, and it only seems to be regularly trumped by The Archers. That said, following older storylines on The Archers can sometimes be an easier ball of twine to unwind than getting on top of just when chatter about the Cruise started in the first place.

There’s a richness to Wittertainment and its history that’s real reward for two strong broadcasters committing to a show for such a period of time. But also this: it does the film side brilliantly. It only manages so much success with the, er, ‘less relevant’ conversation because there’s a thirst for movies at its heart. Plus, for all the way that the chat darts around, the skill of Simon Mayo is that he rarely lets it stray too far for too long.

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Mayo is clearly an excellent broadcaster, and in a sense the voice of the listener. But to shortchange him on films too would be brutally unfair. His interviews are more often than not top class (and appreciated, in an era when the quality of interviews with filmmakers is variable), not least because he has a skill of putting guests at ease, whilst being willing to ask interesting questions that he’s clearly spent some time researching. Furthermore, his dry wit is a superb foil for Mark Kermode’s particular brand of enthused reviews. 

Kermode as a critic is divisive of course (as all critics arguably should be), and he himself is well aware that as many people side against him as with him. Furthermore, he also shares his film views in print, on radio and on screen. But I’d argue that radio in particular feels like his natural home. Again, you can feel his love of the medium. Furthermore, whilst some critics file their copy and hide, Kermode positively welcomes the engagement of other voices and other opinions, and concedes good points. There’s a real passion for film that never fails to come through, and in particular, his championing of films that others seem to be miss is a real public service.

And then there are the rants. It’s perhaps a little unfair, given how few flat-out Kermodian rants there have been on Wittertainment to pigeonhole Kermode himself as a ranter entire. As a critic, if anything, he tends to be warmer than most. Yet uncoiled, you get the justifiably legendary beratings of Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End (“it’s enough. It has to stop now…. You’re bringing down the collapse of western civilisation”), Death Proof (“infantile, adolescent claptrap”), Entourage (“compared to this, Sex And The City 2 is a call to arms for the dispossessed masses of the world”) and Transformers: Dark Of The Moon (“a horrible vulgarisation of what once was a children’s toy”).

It’s listening to the mixture that Mayo and Kermode concoct that I’ve come to appreciate that radio is the perfect medium for a film review programme. There’s something relaxed about it, that a two hour running time (less news, travel, sport, interruptions for a horse race, occasional truncations due to elections) can accommodate. Need ten minutes to bang the table about one film? Or for a director to come on and argue the case for their film? The format and medium supports that. It’s to the credit of radio, and to the show.

In an era where media seems increasingly controlled, there’s something genuinely joyful about listening to two people, both experts in their field, generally bickering, and clearly loving what they’re doing. The exchange at the very top of this article is one but example, but as regular devotees of the Church Of Wittertainment can testify, there’s generally something of this ilk to be found every week.

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Every now and then, talk surfaces of moving the pair to television, and at one stage, they did trial what they called a ‘thing’. Yet I think Wittertainment belongs firmly on the wireless, where it has the space to play around, spend more than a minute or two on each movie, and try things without any sign of a focus group ever veering close to it. Contrast it with Film 20Whatever, for instance, and it simply doesn’t feel like a fair fight.

If you’ve never had the pleasure, you can find the full podcast archive for the show here. And as for how do you actually download an episode? Well, as regular listeners to Wittertainment will tell you, ‘you just download an episode’…

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