RADIO / De'Ath pangs: Robert Hanks on cover-ups and conspiracies in Cordoba and Looking at the Sun

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The Independent Culture
CORDOBA: the very title of Nigel Baldwin's new thriller serial (Radio 4, Thursday) puts you in mind of bull-fighting, of the hot Mediterranean sun and soft scents of the South. In fact, it's set in south Wales - something of a departure for Baldwin, whose last thriller, Burnt, was set in north Wales.

The plot concerns the mysterious death at sea of a writer, aboard a yacht called Cordoba. The police think it is suicide. Enter Alison Steadman as our hero, a cynical, alcoholic journalist called D T Mitchell. She decides that there is something suspicious about the writer's death - an idea that comes as no surprise to the listener, who has heard him being blown out of the water by a mysterious floating object.

Some kind of cover-up is clearly going on. What you don't know is just what is being covered up; so far, it's impossible to tell what knowledge is in the public realm, and what is a secret shared between writer and audience - it isn't yet clear, for instance, whether DT knows the yacht was blown up - so that it's difficult for the listener to participate in any sense of revelation.

More worrying than the plot, though, is Baldwin's weakness for joke names: what are you to make of an alcoholic named DT meeting a man called De'Ath at a funeral? Fortunately for DT, De'Ath turns out to be the dream of every lonely woman: a BBC radio sports reporter who is sophisticated, intelligent, sympathetic, 'rather sexy in a James Bondish, formal sort of way' - a David Coleman figure, you gather. Their initial dialogue doesn't augur well for the plot ('Well, well. It must be some enchanted evening' 'Pardon?' 'You will meet a stranger'), but the relationship looks to be heading somewhere serious.

Like Burnt - which was largely about Welsh nationalism - Cordoba concerns itself with the bitterness that language can engender. In this case, DT's ex-husband is bringing up their daughter to speak Welsh, and DT is sensitive to the gap this opens up. But the real gulf is between everyday English and the half-baked Chandlerese that Baldwin writes, which seems to aim for economy and wit, but usually ends up stilted and mildly embarrassing: 'Provincial journalism is so much horse- dung, don't you think?' 'Well, I'm rather fond of equestrianism as a rule.' The constant flow of failed jokes could be passed off as a naturalistic touch, but the gains in terms of realism are more than offset by the damage in terms of irritation.

The explosion at the beginning happens to the sound of a melancholy, Clapton-tinged electric guitar. At this point, you sense that you are being driven towards Edge of Darkness territory - though on the evidence of the first episode, the driver has lost the map and is bluffing when he says he knows the way. Barry Hines's play Looking at the Sun (Radio 4, Thursday) is set deep inside that land, though. It's about the conspiracy of silence surrounding the nuclear industry; but while there is some suggestion that officialdom massages statistics, and even falsifies records of nuclear accidents, the real subject is the private conspiracy of families and communities who rely on nuclear power for their livelihoods.

As you'd expect from Hines, the politics are painted in primary colours. Stuart is a redundant coal-miner, for whom nuclear power is an unexpected source of work, a delightful surprise. But as he and his wife, Lisa, settle down in a new community, they become aware of environmental groups. He reacts with violent dismissiveness to seeing their spokeswoman on television - 'Bloody hell, imagine going to bed with that. I'll bet she's a vegetarian' - while she is intrigued and impressed. She goes to a meeting of environmental groups and speaks up about her fears; he becomes more and more embedded in the ethos of the work-place, and more protective about his job. The marriage deteriorates: eventually, she leaves him, taking their young daughter and her pet rabbit.

Hines's engagement in the subject isn't in question. But the play is so imbalanced - setting heartless, manipulative, masculine nuclear power against caring, truthful, feminine environmental groups - that it sets you against its message. If you were running British Nuclear Fuels, you might play this to visitors to Sellafield.