RADIO / Mild and bitter: Nick Curtis on two from Radio 4: Cause Celebre and Born to Be Mild

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The Independent Culture
A series that 'explores the human stories behind the headlines' may sound like it rehashes the simplistic drivel of the headlines, but the first new Cause Celebre (R4, Thursday) took a restrained look at the story of the missing, possibly kidnapped, toddler Ben Needham. Ben disappeared in 1991 on the Greek island of Kos, where his Sheffield-born parents and grandparents worked. The family haven't seen him since, but they haven't given up hope.

What struck you first was the warmth with which Ben's parents, Simon Ward and Kerry Needham, conjured up their son's memory. Clearly Ben is still very much part of their family, hence their grim conviction that he is still alive and will be found. This belief helps them brave bureaucratic mismanagement, the duplicity of supposed friends on Kos and the abuse of people who accuse them of carelessness, when they are fundraising for further search efforts.

Although Cause Celebre sent up the sensational headlines used by newspapers to accompany Ben's case (the discovery of an organised baby-sale ring in Greece, for example), the Needhams were pragmatic about the involvement of the press. One of the most poignant moments in the programme was Kerry telling of her attempt to fight back tears - after meeting a false 'Ben' in Turkey - in front of the photographer from the newspaper that had paid for the trip.

Lest radio get too self-congratulatory, though, it should be said that Jenni Mills's questioning has a hard edge. Her velvet-voiced probing nurtured the Needhams, but also brought from them the anguished sound-bites that she needed. Or rather, that we needed. Cause Celebre gave the Needhams a depth and reality beyond their faceless 'victim' status in the newspapers. But at base it caters to our appetite for suffering.

What we don't have an appetite for, if the producers of Born to Be Mild (R4, Tuesday) are right, is social observation. At least, not unless it's dressed up with a naff joke name and a naff joke premise.

BTBM features Martin Wainwright travelling down the A34 in a clapped-out Reliant Kitten, exploring the uniqueness of the supposedly humdrum on the way.

The people on the A34 are real people, but BTBM's blend of fascination and patronisation pigeon-holes them all as 'characters'. Their straight-faced contributions are overlaid with a tongue-in-cheek soundtrack featuring Chris Rea and John Lee Hooker. Then there's Wainwright's endless capacity to be amused. It starts to snow at a car boot sale. 'It's starting to snow now, a-hur-hur-hur-hur,' he says. 'Now it's snowing quite heavily, a-hur-hur-hur-hur.'

Recently, Radio 4 sent Leslie Thomas among the people, armed only with a gravelly voice and a mission to learn. In a Novel Setting grabbed the attention like a Silver Corniche cruising by on the A34. But BTBM, with its glib title, throwaway style and wearing jokes - 'We've just overtaken a jogger, a-hur-hur-hur-hur' - is a far punier vehicle for road radio. A Reliant Kitten, perhaps?

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