Catherine Renton gives us a peak at the latest podcast from Wondery to focus on a scandal in the UK…
Podcasts based on scandals are so ubiquitous that it takes a juicy story to stand out nowadays. Thankfully, Wondery has really upped the ante with Hooked on Freddie, the true story of a dolphin sex scandal set in a sleepy English town in the late 1980s.
The podcast tells the story of animal rights activist Alan Cooper, who developed a close friendship with a wild bottlenose dolphin (nicknamed Freddie by locals) when the mammal appeared in Amble Harbour in Northumberland. The quiet town was concrete and grey before Freddie turned up but soon became a vibrant tourist trap, with B&Bs selling out for the first time in years and everyone from New Age digeridoo players to the Blue Peter team turning up to get a look at Freddie.
As well as the friendship with Freddie, we hear about Cooper’s rivalry with Peter Bloom, dolphinarium manager and head trainer at Flamingo Land in North Yorkshire. Both men claim to be animal lovers, but Cooper rails against the idea of exotic animals in captivity and hates everything Bloom stands for. The feud will threaten one of the men’s livelihoods and destroy the other’s life.
The six-part podcast series is hosted by Becky Milligan, who first covered Freddie’s appearance in the North Sea as a student journalist. Milligan, who once reluctantly swam with Freddie herself, draws on original interviews from the late 1980s and early 1990s and new reporting — including interviews with Cooper and the Bloom — to tell the tale.
I had family local to Northumberland who lived through the scandal, so I’d heard about the “man who loved a dolphin a little too much”, as my older cousin tried to describe the story. However, I knew little beyond the tabloid headlines and nothing of what happened next. Hooked on Freddie is a podcast that benefits from knowing as little as possible, so I suggest you don’t Google the case before diving in.
But it is worth saying that Cooper became the subject of nasty rumours about potentially inappropriate behaviour with Freddie in 1990. Cooper laughed these off, but by 1991, the animal rights activist faced criminal charges of sexually assaulting a dolphin — setting off a tabloid storm.
The first unfounded accusation changed the course of Cooper’s life, and the series details the aftermath of his arrest for, as a police officer couldn’t bring himself to say without laughing, “wanking off a dolphin.”
The accusation seems barely credible to Cooper’s friends, but the case goes to the crown court, where the animal lover faces a deeply humiliating trial. The charges could hardly be more disgusting for a vegan animal rights activist. And however unbelievable the accusations are, they cause other activists to distance themselves for fear of guilt by association.
Wondery is known for its incredible range of true crime podcasts, including Dirty John, Dr. Death, and The Shrink Next Door, and Hooked on Freddie features the same levels of suspense, intrigue and twists we’ve come to expect from the network. With vivid soundscapes scoring the story and Milligan’s excellent reporting, the episodes (clocking in at under 40 minutes) whiz by. I greedily gobbled up the first three episodes and now face the prospect of waiting weeks for the story’s conclusion.
It’s a ridiculous story that you wouldn’t imagine having lifetime consequences, but the ripple effect on Cooper’s life after the accusations add a layer of tragedy. The episodes may have a heavy subject matter but feature real moments of genuine levity to break the tension. Milligan gets some great quotes from her interviewees, and her delivery is full of wit. Hooked on Freddie is a great and sometimes tragic story of love and rivalry, truth and rumour and the relationship between humans and the natural world. I can’t wait to see how it all plays out.
Catherine Renton is a freelance journalist specialising in lifestyle and culture. Her work has been featured in the likes of The Guardian, the i, Metro, Vogue, Refinery29, PodPod and Empire Magazine. She regularly appears on live radio and as a guest on BBC Radio podcasts, including Woman’s Hour and the Digital Human. When she’s not writing, she will likely be walking her dog while listening to one of the hundreds of podcast episodes she refuses to delete from her phone. Find out more about Catherine >>