Sideways: Matthew Syed on the Stories that Changed His Mind

  • 07.03.2023

Sideways, the Novel show devoted to ideas that challenge our perspective, is now in its sixth series for Radio 4 and BBC Sounds. Host Matthew Syed picks the topics that have revolutionised his own worldview – from Stockholm syndrome and nuclear war to restorative justice – and explains why it pays to look on the bright side


How would you describe Sideways to someone who hasn’t discovered it yet?

The idea of the series is to try and take ideas and stories that illustrate some aspect of the world and tell them in a compelling way – to build up a mosaic of where we are in terms of our ideas and our culture, in a way that’s counterintuitive. We love big ideas, especially ones that go against the grain.

There are a million ideas out there, of course. How do you decide which ones to cover? What makes something suitable for the Sideways treatment?

The key is having a good personal story to connect the idea to. It’s not enough for an idea to be interesting on its own; very rarely would I just talk to a scientist about their research, say. The key is to find a person whose life has been affected in some way by an idea – it’s the real-life context and nuance that makes it come alive. When you hear a personal story, it makes a concept come alive: it infuses it with an emotional intensity that takes it beyond the merely intellectual. Last series, we did a story about altruism, where  Jack [Richardson], who was homeless,  fell in love with Toni [Osborne] whom he gave some money to  – he gave her 5p to help with her electricity meter. It was an insight into altruism and human connection, sociability. That was a really great episode. But the challenge is finding those stories.

How does your production process work? Has it been the same, series to series?

Before each series I have a meeting with Katherine Godfrey, who's the series editor, and the producers at Novel. We go through different ideas and stories and try and winnow it down to however many we need. Once we have that shortlist, a producer will go away and try and find a way of turning it into a 30-minute show. Then it's an iterative process; we’ll get a structure together, go back and forth, and then slowly but surely life is breathed into it. Maybe a week before we record, we get a final script and the interviews cut down. I like a deadline, and it’s also nice to keep it feeling current. We want each story to feel quite universal, but it’s also good to make them feel a little current too.

Do you have particular shows or stories that are favourites? What’s turned your own thinking upside-down?

The very first episode we made, “Siding with the Enemy” , was all about Stockholm syndrome, which has become this anthropological and psychological trope. The idea is that when you’re held captive, you start to become sympathetic to your captors; you start thinking like and identifying with them, is the theory. It’s called Stockholm syndrome because it was first recorded during a bank robbery in Stockholm in 1973 – the people who were taken hostage ended up siding with their captors, to the extent that they refused to testify against them in court.

But we heard from Kristin Enmark, who was one of the hostages, and it turns out that her perspective is quite different: the reason she was seemingly sympathetic to her captors is she didn't trust the police to not mess up the rescue. If the police had come in all guns blazing, they would all have died, so she strategically tried to make friends with the bank robbers and develop a rapport with them in the hopes that it would help keep them alive. Kristin was trying to manage a very difficult situation, and yet she was pathologised as somebody who was suffering from Stockholm syndrome in the way that women often are pathologised – for example, if a woman stays in an abusive relationship rather than leaving it, she’s often criticised: “if it was so bad, why didn’t you leave?” Yet if she has children who need to be cared for, leaving a husband who might be the breadwinner without a social safety net might not really be enough.

The point that Kristin made is that often it's men who get to decide what’s rational and what’s not. They have more power to do so. That was something that completely turned on its head the way I thought about this condition, but also about the power relations in things like mental health diagnoses. So that's probably the episode that changed the way I think more than any other.

'I hope that there's something constructive in what we do' ... Matthew Syed
'I hope that there's something constructive in what we do' ... Matthew Syed

An episode you did in series 3, “Sweet Harmony”, was fascinating, too, because it argued that the human instinct to make music as a group, whether it’s singing in a choir or playing in a band, is really hard-wired – it’s all about co-operating. It’s literally better for us to live in harmony.

Absolutely, yes – cooperation is fundamentally human. Very few animals cooperate on the scale that we can. I don't think we realise how miraculous that is, that we're able with a different organism to build some kind of trust, to sing together, to work together towards a common goal, to feel a moral concern for each other. It’s one of the most interesting questions in social science.

But Sideways has explored scarier territory, too – last year you did a mini-series focused on nuclear war. How did that come about?

Nuclear tensions were very high after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and in the first few weeks of the war, it didn’t feel inconceivable that there would be a tactical nuclear weapon used on the battlefield, and in that situation escalation could be very quick. And when you step back, you realise that nuclear war is about a lot of interesting things – game theory, the psychology of leaders, risk and how you calculate it. If two nuclear powers go to war, it destroys the whole of the world: there’ll be no survivors. There are very interesting philosophical questions there. In the early days of the invasion, people were grappling with all of these things. So it felt really timely to do a proper analysis of all of this with some interesting stories and some of the conceptual stuff too.

Listening to it, it felt as if it was quite personal to you – you talked about your own childhood, growing up in the 1970s and 80s during the Cold War.

It’s funny how this history works. People who are older than me remember the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when the Soviet Union went eyeball to eyeball with America and it felt like the planet was on the verge of destruction. That anxiety continued for decades. But after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, we kind of forgot all that. We forgot that these nuclear arsenals are still enormous. It was pretty bracing to be reminded of all that. And the series was listened to by politicians and security people on both sides of the Atlantic and around the world. And it felt good to do a miniseries on a topical subject – we’ll definitely do more of those.

Sideways launched in early 2021, which meant that it was taking shape during the first phase of the pandemic. A lot of people thought that covid would change life utterly; there was a lot of discussion about that at the time. But did it really change us? What’s your perspective on that?

In small ways I think we've changed, but I think fundamentally we've got back to normal pretty fast. And if you look at history, that’s what happened in previous pandemics, too. There’s more working from home and stuff like that, but humans wanted to get back to socialising, for instance. So the thing that strikes me is the continuity between before the pandemic and after the pandemic. Once restrictions have gone and the mask mandates have gone, we got back into our stride remarkably rapidly. I guess that goes back to our urge to cooperate; it’s really hard-wired into who we are.

You’re halfway through series 6, which launched last month. What ideas are buzzing around your brain at the moment?

One of my favourites is produced by Eliza Lomas  – it’s about a guy, Ben [Taylor], who receives a Facebook message asking for money from a person they don’t know. That person sounds very much like a scammer: the message isn’t in great English, all the cliches. Ben makes YouTube videos where he plays along and pretends to fall for these scams. But as he starts doing that and finding out more, it turns out that this person, Joel [Mentee-Willie], isn’t a scammer at all – he’s trustworthy. Ben ends up flying over to Liberia to meet him. I'm very interested in the concept of trust and how it's built. You know, Aristotle gets a look-in on this episode, Confucius too. It’s a pretty amazing story.

What’s striking when you listen to Sideways is that so many of the stories in the show are quite optimistic. Are you an optimist yourself?

I'm quite optimistic generally, I think. An episode we did in series 2, “A Question of Justice” , was really interesting in that respect. It told the story of Ray and Vi Donovan, whose son had been killed while he walked along the street – a really horrible traumatic thing, totally random and senseless. And yet eventually they agreed to meet the three guys who’d killed their son and had gone to prison for it. All three apologised and they ended up forgiving them. The whole process of restorative justice, as it’s known, was one they found incredibly helpful and redemptive. It was really moving to encounter that. The programme we made was sufficiently morally serious to capture the complexity of the topic, I think. And yet there was a lovely line at the end where Vi said that restorative justice had changed her life. Stephen, one of their son’s killers, says that meeting Ray and Vi gave  him back his life, to which Vi responded, "I kind of think you gave us back ours too".

I like stories where there’s some kind of constructive message. I think there is a big bias in the media generally to dwell on bad news; something like 90% of stories in the news are gloomy because that’s what sells. It’s called negativity bias. So while it’s sometimes difficult to get the tone right, I hope that there's something constructive in what we do.

Sideways is broadcast on Wednesdays at 4pm on Radio 4 and every episode in the archive is available to listen on BBC Sounds

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