The Hauntening is a new BBC Radio 4 comedy series from Tom Neenan, previously the half of The Gentlemen of Leisure that wasn’t Nish Kumar. It’s podcast-sized, at around the quarter-hour mark, and it sets itself a specific niche as soon as it starts, taking Tom (playing a technology blogger) into a rapid exploration of the potential connection between the ubiquitious technology of our age and the gothic horrors of classic chain-rattlers and shiver-makers.
In Episode 1 – Soulmaits, the show proposes a version of Tinder that can find you potential matches within a geographical radius of your phone’s location. Things go the wrong sort of bump in the night when Tom finds himself in a millionaire’s mansion to deal with his blogger’s block, and someone makes a date with him. Someone with their own agenda, who wants to spend eternity with their own ‘soulmait.’
Neenan’s new creation is agreeably sweet while being suitably flustered for a comedy lead. Yes, it takes some fairly rapid quantum situation leaps to fit its premise and its gags into fifteen minutes; Tom ends up at the millionaire’s mansion because his friend Heidi – a ‘PR guru and part-time nice person’ – works for the mogul, and he happens to have a house going spare. Yes, also, Episode 1 tries awfully hard to make you laugh with similes, and their hit rate is about 40%. They could be grating if they went on too long, but in a fifteen minute format, there’s never long enough for it to make you want to stamp on The Hauntening and bury it with a stake through it’s always well-placed heart.
Besides, 40% of gags hitting home in a fifteen minute comedy that takes us from swiping right to bodysnatching and technically exorcism is still pretty good going for the launch episode of a new show. The funniest moments of Episode 1 though are its waspish asides, with both Tom and Heidi waxing a little despairing on the state of modern society.
The relentless nature of the date-finding Soulmaits app is funny too. Heidi describes it as a ‘sexually frustrated satnav,’ and queen of comic sultriness Frances Barber is excellent as its voice, revealing the sense of desperation inherent in an app that finds people who might just possibly want to sleep with you in your immediate vicinity, and then shifting up a gear to give the app the tone of a predatory electronic stalker when the supernatural peeps into Tom’s life. Barber’s countdown of the distance between him and his ‘soulmait’ is dramatically effective in raising hairs on the back of your neck.
Despite its small run-time, Episode 1 of The Hauntening manages to set up its leading characters, take a sideways look at an element of modern technology we all take for granted, give us a more than half-decent ghost-ish story, deliver some unexpected, genuine romance and make us like Tom’s character into the bargain. It also, like all good Marvel movies, delivers a post-credits treat, so make sure you listen all the way through.
The Hauntening is something new and fresh, and one to put on your must-listen list. Neenan’s character and the world he creates – part tech-blogger, part experiencer-of-weird-stuff – is welcoming, and the podcast-length episodes mean there’s barely any room for fluff – so it’s definitely worth your time of day.