When journalists Dolly Alderton (Exeter alumna) and Pandora Sykes began their pop-culture and current affairs podcast, The High Low, in 2017 it is possible they underestimated the following they would gain from the expanding popularity of the show. With 111 recorded episodes and an average listenership of 250,000 people per week, the pair’s undeniable success has led them to this current UK tour. “The High Low Experience”, which I had the fortune to attend at the Barbican Centre in London, brings together the high-end and low-brow topics that the podcast has become known for.
The show kicked off with some selected stories from “ye olde mail bag”, a segment frequently visited on the podcast, in which listeners send in anecdotes from their lives. Alderton remarked on how the podcast has “become very much about other people’s stories”, acknowledging how The High Low is now less about what is going on in the world around us and more about encouraging audience engagement by talking about everyday life. One submission told the story of an unnamed boyfriend, referred to as “The Fleece”, leading the pair to agree, “we’ve all been with one of those.” Granted, this is a vast generalisation, but one that nevertheless makes you feel part of the special friendship which Alderton and Sykes have cultivated with one another and their listeners.
Part of this feeling of alliance derives from the duo’s frank openness about their own lives. Avoiding the pretence associated with public figures allows them to become empathetic characters. Whether it’s Sykes casually remarking that her therapist would be her least favourite person to see on Naked Attraction, or Alderton discussing her unhealthy fixation on the past, we are reminded that it’s okay to talk about these things. As Dolly concludes in her book, Everything I Know About Love, female friendship is one of the most important components of modern life, and what better example of this than the pair sitting on the stage in front of us? And if this friendship involves some comical taunting, such as Pandora commenting on the precociousness of writing a book about love before you reach the age of thirty, then even better – the genuine affection between these two women only adds to the humour and overall appeal of their performance.
The evening also involved book readings, another common feature of The High Low. As an avid Rod Stewart fan, Alderton chose an excerpt from his autobiography in which he discusses being “ready to settle down” at the age of 65. She quoted him commenting on his “biological privilege”, which Sykes interpreted as an example of the “fundamental difference between men and women.” The natural and seamless repertoire which the two have built up with one another, seemingly improvised but more likely well-rehearsed for an event of this scale, is another aspect of the show’s palpable charm. Maintaining their tradition of switching between the trivial and the sincere, Alderton then read out the often referenced “fig tree” quotation from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Presenting this as a testimony to the “millennial affliction”, FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), she admitted her intention of getting a fig tattoo and acknowledged how this makes her everyone’s idea of a “basic white girl nightmare”. The pair’s ability to simultaneously mock themselves and one another, while also conveying something profound to the audience, contributes to their impressive routine.
Despite its huge following, The High Low’s listener demographic, reflected in the live show audience, is overwhelmingly female. Alderton began the show by commenting on the disproportionate number of girls in attendance, thanking the male members of the audience who had been “dragged along”, including but not (quite) limited to Sykes’ husband Ollie Tritton and The High Low’s producer Charlie Jones. Critics have also picked up on the podcast’s exclusivity in regard to class and background. The Guardian journalist Hannah Verdier described the duo as “posh podcasters who make themselves shiver with shame”. There is something to be said for this, but not enough to prevent a sell-out show at the Barbican, and what the duo may lack in content diversity they certainly make up for in humour and style.
The last part of the show involved a Q&A, in which audience members were encouraged to tweet in to #AskTheHighLow. Alderton and Sykes answered questions ranging from how they met to what they would recommend to an all-female book club (aptly named, “Read Between the Wines”). These questions proved the way in which this podcast pairing have become icons to a generation who are now more interested in the duo’s personal lives than how they feel about what is going on in the news. If this phenomenon means the show may have transitioned from a pop-culture and current affairs podcast to a comedic advice podcast, then so be it – the experience isn’t made any less enjoyable.
– Esther Huntington-Whiteley