RADIO / One for all the family

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IAN, the star of last week's Relative Values (R4), was the sort of character who flits in and out of BBC radio dramas, stubbornly refusing to come to life. A shy and intellectual rock musician, draped in black, shaven- headed and carrying a copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra in his pocket, he was a typical product of an afternoon playwright's strained imagination. The curious thing about him in this programme was that he was real and living on the south coast, along with most of the scattered members of his troubled family.

Relative Values is a nuclear- family-free zone. It homes in on sprawling and fragmented tribes, and examines their troubles in gripping, often harrowing, documentaries. You would have described the first two families in the new series as tragic, were it not for the matter-of-fact fortitude with which they outfaced calamity. Last week's Marchants shrugged off death and divorces: 'We never lose anyone by a divorce; we just get a whole set of new relations when people remarry.' This week the Glaziers told us about the marriage of their son to their foster daughter, and the death of his diabetic brother, with similar equanimity.

The programmes draw together the disparate accounts of the family members. The producer, Sharon Banoff, has an unerring feel for the emotional balance of a story, cutting from account to account, son to grandmother, at just the right moment. The unobtrusive Michael O'Donnell presents, pressing on the necessary questions - whether the Glaziers thought their son had committed suicide, for instance - and framing the narrative, with a hint of epic: 'In a bid to start life again, the uneasy trio set off to a cottage in mid-Wales.'

The present tense contributes to the feeling of a drama unfolding. Information is stealthily withheld, so that while you may have been vaguely worried by the absence of the Glaziers' son, Robert, from the discussion, his death still came as a shock, as described, with cumulative poignancy, by father and brother. The end of Ian's marriage, in the first programme, was a rigorously moral black comedy that no dramatist would dare script: 'I started seeing somebody else . . . and the girl I was involved with had left her partner. Pretty much straight away, all we ever spoke about was what a terrible thing we'd done. And in a couple of weeks she'd become a born-again Christian. She'd found the Lord.'

Work Talk (R4), a series of interviews conducted by Ferdinand Dennis with British people of Caribbean origin, began promisingly last week with a probing discussion of black identity with Val McCalla, founder of the British black newspapers the Voice and the Weekly Journal. Articulate and a touch complacent, McCalla embodied the successfully assimilated West Indian: if he yearned for Jamaica, it was only to spend more time in his holiday home there. Dennis tentatively questioned McCalla's prelapsarian view of home ('We were happy and carefree, played cricket . . .') and extravagant claims for the influence of Jamaican culture.

This week, the captivating actress Josette Simon talked about storming the canon of parts once monopolised by white actresses. Dennis was so captivated, he seemed to have packed up his critical faculties: 'You've gone from success to success, it seems to me. How have you coped with that success? Has it been easy?'

Still, the relaxed format may yet bear fruit, and the series does raise the issues without propagandising. The pity is that black experience should still be so far from the mainstream of BBC radio that it has to be stuck in a ghetto. When will the Today programme have a black presenter? When will there be so much as a black continuity announcer? That would be a Radio 4 campaign worth fighting for.