RADIO / The tracks of their tears: Robert Hanks listens to tragic children and annoying soundtracks

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The Independent Culture
It's extraordinary how cheap potent music is. For any producer short on imagination or confidence, it's highly tempting to see an emotional soundtrack as an easy way of pumping extra feeling into a programme, but the stratagem can easily backfire. Caroline Sarll's otherwise excellent Growing Up with Grief (Radio 4, Sunday) showed one way that can happen. The subject was the experience of losing a parent as a child, described entirely through the voices of sufferers.

Grief is almost always affecting, more so when it's the grief of children. But what was satisfying about the programme was the variety of perspectives it offered, and the honesty of the speakers. There wasn't just sadness, but embarrassment, shyness, shame, even enjoyment of the temporary cachet of being a 'tragic child'. There was also a good deal of (forgivable) self-indulgence: some of the speakers complained that their feelings had been overlooked because they were seen as too young to understand, or too resilient to be badly hurt; others resented being sheltered from the truth because they were seen as too fragile. Two people talked about their fathers killing themselves: a 12-year-old boy wished that he had been grown-up enough to drive a car up the motorway, so that he might have been able to stop the suicide; a 31-year-old woman regretted that she had never known her father as an adult. There was also an intriguing variety of language: against the struggles of some speakers to express themselves, there was the odd articulacy of a young boy who had been to a counsellor and comfortably tripped out phrases about 'self-dependency' and 'acknowledging feelings'.

Sarll edited the interviews skilfully, juxtaposing conflicting emotions to point up the complexity and strangeness of the subject. But the effect was constantly undermined by the solemn reappearance of the Moonlight Sonata, not so much punctuation as interruption. The music signified nothing, and couldn't possibly add to the programme's emotional force: if anything, it undermined it by reducing all the difficulties and embarrassments to a simple minor key.

Eat Your Heart Out Walter Mitty (Radio 4, Sunday), a feature about the life of the adventurer Trebitsch Lincoln, was also filled with unnecessary snatches of music. Lincoln spent part of his life in Tibet - cue prayer bells and droning monks - but was born in Hungary - cue central European gypsy violin. The story moved from Lincoln's political ambitions to his business activities - so cue the theme tune for Dallas. This became wearing.

Which was a shame, since Lincoln's life was worth hearing about without the embroidery. The least interesting thing about him was that in 1910 he was briefly Liberal MP for Darlington, before his financial misdealings emerged and he was forced to resign. Otherwise, his professions included double agent during the First World War, member of the German government during the short-lived Kapp putsch of 1920, Anglican curate, Presbyterian missionary and Buddhist monk (he touted himself as the dual incarnation of both the Panchen and the Dalai Lamas). He ended up in Shanghai in 1943 as an adviser to local warlords.

He was a gifted conman, despite having 'a face in every feature of which deceit, dishonesty and brutality are written for all to read'. In England, he swindled the 1910 equivalent of pounds 400,000 out of the Rowntree family; they, being Quakers, forgave him. In Shanghai, he sold his schemes to the head of the Gestapo in the Far East (a mass-murderer, on record as saying 'I trust nobody, not even myself'). In between the theft and the Nazi associations, you may have gathered that he was not a nice man; so that Eric Robson's tut- tutting narration seemed unnecessary. Moralising, like music, comes cheap.