May 18, 2024

SPOILER ALERT: This story discusses major plot developments in the podcast “Hooked on Freddie,” currently available on Wondery, as well as the real tale it’s based on.

Has there ever been a better elevator pitch than “dolphin sex scandal”?

On the face of it, Wondery’s new podcast “Hooked on Freddie” is about precisely that. But the six-part series goes deeper, delving beneath the sensational headlines to investigate how a scurrilous rumor in the early 1990s nearly came to ruin a man’s life.

Hosted by journalist Becky Milligan, the podcast tells the story of a wild bottlenose dolphin who turned up off the coast of Amble, an English town by the North Sea, in the mid 1980s. Nicknamed Freddie by local school children, the mammal soon became a nationwide sensation, with people travelling across the country – and even from the U.S. – to try and get close to him.

One of them was Milligan herself, then a student journalist in her early 20s, who was making an audio documentary. The early ‘90s was a time when people were “dolphin nuts,” Milligan recalls when she sits down for an interview with Variety, citing the proliferation of dolphinariums and films such as 1996 hit “Flipper.” She decided to do a story about how swimming with dolphins could help people suffering from clinical depression. A source suggested she head to Amble where she found a sailor to take her out into the freezing and choppy North Sea. “He threw me in the water and then I saw this fin coming towards me,” Milligan recalls. “I literally thought I was going to throw up.”

Remarkably, the journalist retained all her recordings from the documentary (“I keep most of my old cassettes,” she says. “I have bags and bags and bags.”) which have now been repurposed for the new podcast. As well as capturing the sounds of Amble in the early 1990s, the recordings take on a greater poignancy since many of the sources she spoke to at the time – including the sailor who threw her into the water – have now died.

“It was just so lovely to hear those voices come back to life,” she says. “And it reminded me of how much I had slightly dismissed swimming with a dolphin. I thought I needed to do it for the documentary but, in fact, it just punches the air out of you. It takes your breath away.”

The story of Freddie the dolphin and how he revitalized an old, depressed coal mining town in the North of England stayed with Milligan over the decades, even as she moved on to hard news and war reporting, including a stint at The Sunday Times of London. “It was something that bubbled away.”

So when she joined Blanchard House, a podcasting outfit founded by Rosie Pye and Kimberly Jung in 2021, she pitched the tale of Freddie as a kind of redemption story about Amble and its residents. “I thought it was a great story of this town, down on its heel, and a dolphin changes its fortunes,” she recalls. “And then it got really wild.”

After stumbling across the “wild” part, the focus of her story shifted and a new protagonist emerged alongside Freddie: Alan Cooper, an animal rights activist who had developed an unusually close relationship with the dolphin. In the early 1990s Cooper would frequently visit the North Sea to swim with Freddie. In return, the dolphin would always shower Cooper with attention whenever he was in the water. But events took a turn when Cooper became embroiled in a feud with Peter Bloom, a dolphin trainer from a nearby zoo, who was also a regular Freddie visitor.

Although the origins of the rumor are still in dispute, at some point someone claimed to have seen Cooper masturbating Freddie. The fabrication swept through the town before materializing into a criminal charge. In 1991, Cooper stood trial for sexually assaulting a dolphin, sending Britain’s tabloid press into a frenzy. Although it took the jury less than an hour to return a unanimous not guilty verdict the experience – which included briefly being locked in a jail cell after his arrest – stayed with Cooper for life.

“Mud sticks,” says Milligan. “Once you’re accused of something, how do you ever rub that clean and recover from it?” The accusation was all the more painful because Cooper, who even now, in his seventies, remains a committed vegan, was a passionate advocate of animal rights. “It was the worst thing he could be accused of in his mind.”

Unsurprisingly, when Milligan first approached Cooper about participating in the podcast, he was less than enthusiastic. “He didn’t particularly want to talk about it, he doesn’t trust anyone in the media, doesn’t trust any journalists. He felt very suspicious because he was laughed at so much,” she recalls. But the animal rights activist also harbored a desire to set the record straight (in 2013 he self-published an autobiography about his relationship with Freddie and subsequent arrest.)

For Milligan, dredging up the details was a delicate task. “I was very careful,” she explains. “I felt I had an enormous duty of care to make sure his story was told really quite closely to what his memoir is, but we needed to back it up with all the facts.” There was also the fact that the accusation was, despite the damage it did, plain funny. “It is really funny,” acknowledges Milligan, saying that sometimes she and Cooper would find themselves laughing (in the podcast, even Cooper’s lawyer admits he thought the charge was “hilarious” when it first landed on his desk).

“It’s crazy. It’s wild. It’s just mad. But I think it’s also that serious side, it can flip very easily in and out of that,” she explains, referring to the very real horror Cooper experienced as his trial approached as well as the knock-on effect the accusation had on his life. “This thing that’s so funny actually was sort of weaponized in order to hurt someone.”

Wondery have turned a number of their podcasts into high-end drama series, among them “WeCrashed” starring Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway and “The Shrink Next Door” with Paul Rudd and Will Ferrell. Will “Hooked on Freddie” be next? Rosie Pye, who is also Blanchard House’s creative director, declines to comment on discussions about a screen adaptation but emphasizes that the podcasting outfit specifically looks for stories with character and plot.

“And ‘Hooked on Freddie’ has that in spades,” she says. “What the team tried to focus on was doing justice to quite a complicated story which is wild and absurd and funny but also very profound and very universal and human.”

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