RADIO / An impressive feat of liquid engineering: Dam and blast - Robert Hanks on an unpromising subject flooded with fact, myth and speculation

Click to follow
Most of us, challenged to find a category of civil engineering project that's sufficiently attractive and interesting to sustain a seven-part radio series, would surely plump for bridges. Take the Humber Bridge - an astounding thing to look at, both stupefyingly large and transfixingly elegant; but also possessing a dynamic purpose (it gets you from one place to another, though admittedly these aren't necessarily places you want to go) and structural clarity (you can see how it all fits together). Dams, on the other hand: what can you say about dams? They squat there and they stop water moving. Nothing dynamic, nothing glamorous there.

Do we get Seven Bridges, though? No, we get Seven Dams (Radio 4, Thursday). Still, even if this is a less charming prospect, you can't deny that Noah Richler has found ingenious ways of squeezing material out of the subject. His thesis is that hydro-electric projects provide a unique focusing mirror for social and political issues - so that a programme about the Narmada Dam of northern India is actually a programme about the entire political structure of the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. And not only that, but also about local mythology, tribal hierarchies, sexual politics, ecology, not to mention the Faust myth, the World Bank and, I shouldn't wonder, Tottenham's prospects of staying up next season. All this is cantilevered into place by Vikram Seth, reading his new poem in which the animals protest to man about his attempts to subdue nature.

Holding together all these diverse elements of documentary and speculation, the first of the Seven Dams was an impressive feat of engineering in itself. The only doubt was whether, like the Narmada Dam, it was trying to contain more than it ought - a doubt given some substance by Richler's quick-fire, 'Hey, how many words can I fit into a three-second link?' style.

The problem was not the range of issues covered. True, it wasn't always easy to follow the sequence of the studio debates between gurus and sages from East and West, as the conversation shifted within the space of a minute from Faust to masculine vs feminine to the moral impact of technology. But since the Narmada project was going to involve flooding thousands of square miles of land, displacing hundreds of villages and drowning a surprisingly large number of stubborn, fatalistic protesters, the discussion could hardly cover too much ground.

The difficulty was more that Richler tried to marry observable facts with myth in ways that weren't really practical. He asked one of the engineers, following a catalogue of the dam's technical specifications, 'When you look at the dam slowly growing towards the sky, do you ever feel that you're slightly sinning against the heavens?', and you could feel the engineer bristle with dismay: to him, the question was simply muddle-headed.

What made Seven Dams worthwhile, though, was the strength of the reportage - an interview with a man who had built a garden of delights to disprove governmental blather about the need for irrigation; a debate between civil servants and village elders, with Richler providing a ringside commentary on the physical style of the combatants - and Richler's emotional involvement. And it was the sheer intellectual boldness - a welcome stranger on Radio 4 these days. When Richler gabbed on about Faust and over-reaching ambition, you felt that he had something of a plank in his own eye with regard to this one; but also that he should probably leave it there.

Environmental outrages and the gulf between the masculine and the feminine were also the central themes of the Monday Play, Fatal Distraction (Radio 4). In this case, the issue was noise pollution - a pair of suspected prostitutes with associated children, dogs, pushers, etc, move into a respectable inner-London street and proceed to keep the neighbours awake all night, every night, until their sanity starts to show the strain.

Patrice Chaplin's script steered uneasily between serious exploration of the issues and black comedy. The issues part didn't come off - even those of us who are middle-class Hackney residents found it hard to muster sympathy for a high-class beautician and a TV cameraman complaining to council officers about being penalised for being rich. As a grim joke about burgeoning urban paranoia, it was - well, not satisfying, but certainly familiar. That's worth making some noise about.