The Week In Radio

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The Independent Culture
SERGO BERIA was pretty pally with the Stalins. His father, Lavrenti, was head of the KGB, and young Sergo was always round at their place. He showed his fondness for Svetlana, Stalin's daughter, by presenting her with a revolver. Her dad was not, at first, best pleased - Svetlana's mother had blown out her own brains - as Sergo recalls in next week's My Century (BBC World Service, 648MW, Saturdays 6.30am, Sundays 10.20am and Mondays 1.30am).

Luckily for Sergo, Stalin could see the funny side. (He filled idle moments by watching George Formby's films.) "He liked very much humour, but you could see that it's not so laughing for you," Sergo says. As it wasn't "so laughing" for the millions who starved to death or disappeared into the gulags between 1936 and 1953. Yes, Stalin was also, concedes Sergo, "very strict".

My Century is, throughout 1999, quietly recalling the last 100 years through the voices of eyewitnesses to history. "Quietly" because it is broadcast only on the BBC World Service, available to UK listeners outside the South-east of England only at night on the Radio 4 frequencies.

The recollections, taking a different theme each week, were for a time also aired on Today, but this was soon dropped when the domestic news johnnies noticed that many of the events that have shaped the century took place overseas. And foreign news, they decided some time ago, takes up air time best devoted to another dreary Westminster windbag. Shame.

Sergo's joshings with Josef appear in next week's programme, the theme of which is "Last of their Generation". We will also hear from Marcel Cerbu, who worked undercover for the French resistance in Nazi-occupied Paris; then there is Hans Hass, "the father of underwater photography".

Hass developed the first waterproof movie camera and swam with sharks in the Caribbean in the Forties, long before wildlife filming of this kind became routine and, you feel, before he'd given a moment's thought to the dangers. "Sharks are in fact," he says, "very shy." And it was Hass who became the first person to witness - and film - squid mating. (At last!) It was pioneering work: "You must be a fish among fishes," he says. Which is as good a description as you will hear of the contributors to this gem of a programme.

If you've ever wondered "What was it like to be there?" then My Century takes you as close to the experience as you are likely to get. In a recent edition we heard from a Beirut hostage negotiator, Giandomenico Picco, who let himself be abducted in order to talk to the kidnappers. A Bosnian psychiatrist brought home the horrors of the siege of Sarajevo with memories of a little girl who, after a double amputation, insisted she still had two legs.

Another patient was a mother who warned her children not to pick the fruit from the cherry tree in their back garden. It was within the view of Serbian snipers. One day, in the kitchen, she heard a bang, and ran out into the yard to find her children torn to pieces. (Those responsible are still strutting around a UN-controlled region because the "international community" hasn't got the stomach for the minor gunfight necessary to nick Karadzic and Mladic. Do it, for those children.)

Dan Keating, 98, recalled joining the IRA in the war of Independence between 1919 and 1921. For pounds 1 he bought a rifle in a bar in Tralee and went off with a friend to ambush a British Army patrol. At the end of the war there was partition but no peace. "Same now," Dan concluded. "Because until there's a commitment that the British withdraw their forces and their influence over this country, you'll never have peace."

Alas, those holed up in the Stormont talks had neither the time nor the opportunity to catch this edition of My Century. All the programmes can be heard at the website, worldservice/mycentury.

In a broadcasting year soon to be rich in forgettable millennial bollocks, I doubt there will be a radio series more important and gripping than this. Before bringing us yet another dismal and expensive rolling news channel, perhaps the BBC could give the whole nation the benefit of the World Service, the rolling news channel it has had for years but denied to most of us.