RADIO / Hines means twists

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The Independent Culture
MOST nuclear dramas end with a bang rather than a whimper. The denouement tends to involve either global conflagration (The Day After) or personal contamination (Silkwood). Thursday's Afternoon Play (R4), Looking at the Sun by Barry Hines, bucked the trend. It would have been easy for a play set around the nuclear- power industry to descend into agitprop, but Hines eschewed the easy options. Just when the story looked like becoming familiar, he gave it a twist.

The backdrop was the same bleak Northern landscape with which Hines made his name in the Sixties with the novel A Kestrel for a Knave, filmed by Ken Loach as Kes. Only this time the institution at the heart of the drama was not a school. Stuart, a redundant miner, swaps coalface for reactor, and reckons 'it's the best move I've ever made'. The doubts are all his wife Lisa's as she begins to read of the area's high leukaemia figures and two-headed calves. She distrusts the code of secrecy under which Stewart works and wonders whether she wants to bear him the child she's carrying.

You expect the play to be a vindication of Lisa, with catastrophe proving her point. Instead the counter-arguments are aired as strongly as the ones she puts to a meeting of Green Action. In such a deprived community her qualms begin to seem like self-indulgence. Survival depends on burying your head in the sand. 'Look, people don't want to know about it,' one of the other nuclear wives tells her. 'It's not the danger of nuclear power they're worried about: it's the danger of falling house prices caused by the likes of you giving the area a bad name.'

Lisa's fears about accidents are robustly countered by her husband reminding her of the plague of mining disasters that had befallen her family. In the end you didn't doubt where Hines's sympathies lay, but his evenhandedness made for drama rather than propaganda. As Stuart and Lisa, Chris Brailsford and Gillian Waugh caught the crumbling intimacy of the marriage, and avoided the woodenness that afflicted the minor roles.

The Message and the Media (R4), Sheena McDonald's four- part series, has had its moments. Last week, Bob Worcester, head of Mori, blithely quoted polls taken in the final week of the election campaign. It was like the emperor pointing to his bare stomach and asking you to admire his Turnbull & Asser tie. This week, in a discussion of foreign reporting, Max Hastings made the memorable remark that in editing the Daily Telegraph his policy was 'to listen very carefully to what middle-class readers say to me out in the country'.

It's all a bit piecemeal, though, and marred by a bitchy tone that keeps threatening to expose the whole business as a sham without ever doing so. The views of the professionals are contrasted with those of a 'wide range of viewers, readers and listeners'. Precisely five of these were heard last week, and so briefly as to make their contributions - 'I'm not interested in transfers in the Angolan football league' - almost worthless. The programme's special opinion poll, which indicated that a quarter of interviewees would like more foreign coverage, proved little and was swiftly dropped. An academic summed up: 'We have in general a high- frequency expectation of low-frequency events.' As clear as mud.

Paul Allen's examination of The Ethics of Documentary on Kaleidoscope (R4) also suffered from lack of focus, floating around the issues with no time to develop them: whether to have a visible narrator, Birtism ('an absolutely Stalinist knee-jerk' reaction, according to one contributor), subjectivity, secret filming, and the inevitable drama-documentary. A good survey, it would have been enlivened by polemic. Surprising, too, that radio should tackle documentary without mentioning its own contribution.

Why, for example, does experience often seem so much more immediate on radio? In a shattering report on The World this Weekend (R4), reporter Matt Frei accompanied an English lecturer, William Tribe, 30 years a resident of Sarajevo, on a tour of the city. Anger, horror and bewilderment mingled in Tribe's voice as he described the teeming graveyards and the 'giant clump of twisted metal and sagging burnt plastic' that was once the Olympic stadium. When he spoke of the Serbs' policy of 'ethnic cleansing' his voice caught in a sob of despair: 'I cannot think of a more primitive, disgusting, retrograde attitude. It is absolutely beyond me, and I think it's beyond anyone, to explain it.' These words hit home as hard as any of the week's harrowing pictures.