Miskatonic University Press

Analyzing the structure of John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme, Series 9

john.finnemore r radio

I said before that “John Finnemore is doing something incredible with the new series of John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme.”

I don’t know how Finnemore’s going to end it, but I’m certain it’s going to be good. I think he’s doing something incredible here, and when it ends it will be not just some of his finest work but a radio series that will last forever.

It is. It’s one of the finest things I’ve ever heard on radio. If you haven’t heard it: go listen!

Structurally, it’s six half-hour episodes about an extended family, focusing on five members: mid-thirties parent Russ, his mother Deborah, her father Jerry, his mother Vanessa, and also Uncle Newt, who’s not really an uncle but has been attached to the family for decades. Each episode has scenes that go in reverse chronological order, and the first five episodes move back through the family from Russ to Newt. The sixth is different.

This structure (which really clicks into place with episode three) lets Finnemore tell the story of the family in a delightful way, where we hear unusual sayings or odd family customs long before (to us) we learn how they started. A lot of the show is about this familect. The structure (and how Finnemore chooses the scenes) also means there is no tragedy, because when we learn someone is dead, we know that in a few scenes they will be alive again. This doesn’t mean there is no sadness—there are some heartbreaking scenes—but we don’t follow someone’s life through to their death and then they’re gone, we see fragments of their lives that show how they are made up (sometimes unknowingly) of previous generations and how they in turn shape future generations.

The show doesn’t require repeated listenings, but it does deserve them. It’s not meant to be hard to put the pieces together, and it isn’t—Finnemore said on Twitter he didn’t mean it to be a puzzle—but there is a great pleasure that comes from realizing in a later episode what a small thing in an earlier episode actually meant. Many listeners made their own timelines to better appreciate all this. I did too, and put it all together into a spreadsheet. Then I wanted to see it visually, so I made some charts. Here’s one:

Scenes in time
Scenes in time

Listen to the six episodes first, then have a look at Analysing the Structure of John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme, Series 9 (PDF). It’s twelve pages long and includes a lot of code, but you can just look at the charts.

About the show and its structure:

Some background on a few things, none of which is necessary to know on first listening:

(UPDATED 18 June 2021 with the “Jawbone” point.)