A dose of radiation sickness: radio

America Atomica / R4 Lost Childhood / R4
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The Independent Culture
There are some subjects you wouldn't imagine it was possible to treat too seriously. Listening to the first part of America Atomica (R4, Wednesday), though, you quickly realise that anything can be taken too far. John Slater's three-part survey ofthe mess left behind by America's Cold War obsession with nuclear power began last week by looking at the evidence, currently being examined by President Clinton's Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, that between the 1940s and the early 1970s thousands of American citizens were unknowingly or uncomprehendingly subjected to large doses of radiation in the name of research: pregnant women were given radioactive iron, elderly cancer patients were fried with huge doses of radiation, convicts had their testicles irradiated for $5 a month. Like other kinds of radioactive waste, this history was buried out of sight; in the end, it proved too hot to be contained. Evidence has come largely from government documents (available for scrutiny under US laws on freedom of information) that make explicit reference to the experiments; but there has also been ample testimony from people directly affected by them, and from their families. America Atomica opened with a recording of a former soldier, Leslie Lynch, breaking down as he told the Committee about his feelings on learning he had been used as a guinea pig. "Tears and testimony," explained Slater. "Hard to hear." Well, yes. But it wasn't telling you anything you didn't know; it was establishing Slater's own credentials - hard-hitting reporter,but with a human side.

Lynch's testimony was further underlined by menacing theme music; and this kind of underlining went on throughout the programme, giving an unnecessarily dramatic ring to facts stark enough to stand up on their own. For it to work in dramatic terms, you would have wanted some kind of conflict, and nobody seems to be pretending that what the government did was defensible, including the government. This isn't to say the programme didn't work - it was genuinely shocking; but it would have been easier to feel more if it hadn't hit you over the head so much.

Something similar went wrong with Lost Childhood, this week's overseas documentary in the Your Place or Mine slot (R4, Sunday). This was a Canadian feature about the psychological damage done to Jewish children who escaped the Holocaust - the ones who never went into the camps, but who lost their families and identities. Again, testimony was underlined by music - wistful bits of Schumann for childhood innocence, replaced by loud thrumming for the onset of war, all overlaid by tapes of marching boots.

The real difficulty here was with the participants - Marie, a Belgian woman who had spent most of her childhood on the run, and her resentful, unloved daughter. The idea was that by getting the daughter to understand what her mother had been through, they could mend their relationship. You could see the kind of moving programme the producers hoped to get out of the encounter. Instead, we heard sniping and competitive psychobabble - the mother sounding almost triumphant as she demanded of her daughter, "Do you feel the loneliness of that child?" This stood somewhere between soap opera and plain Oprah, and there are times when neither seems quite adequate.

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