"Never forget what belly you came out of," cautioned a grandfather to his granddaughter in The Listening Project. The conversation lasted just a few minutes but revealed much about the social and economic shift that had taken place over three generations of one Yorkshire family. Lindsay, who had just got a place at university to study law, was born in December 1992, exactly a year before her grandfather Chick's colliery, where he had worked all his life, was closed down.
Chick described how, in the bowels of the earth, amid the thunderous machinery, conversations were conducted through mime. Now he was left with tinnitus, which was akin to a telephone ringing in his head day and night. It's unlikely that Chick wanted see his grandchildren going down mines. But in the thick pauses that punctuated his reflections on his roots, you could sense a tussle between his pride in Lindsay's achievements and his sadness at his family's absorption into the ranks of the middle class.
The aim of The Listening Project, an ongoing venture launched by BBC Radio and the British Library, is to capture snippets of conversation between family members and friends, and to store them away for posterity. It's essentially a Blue Peter time capsule in audio form, and it's precisely the kind of thing at which radio excels.
Here it has done itself proud. There was no discernible agenda, beyond recording people in what was hoped would be moments of openness and honesty. What we heard may not have been entirely free-flowing – some hefty editing had boiled down 40 minutes of conversation to just three minutes – but these oral histories contained all the intimacy, nuance and emotional tension that is crucial, yet frequently absent, in fictional drama.
That the participants were compelled to talk about the more unhappy periods of their lives gave us a sense of sitting in on a series of self-administered therapy sessions. In Humberside longstanding chums Michael and Jill recalled the deaths of family members on the Hull triple trawler disaster and the friendship that was cemented by their experience, while in Berkshire, Sasha talked over her fears with her young son, Paddy. who has a congenital heart defect.
In contrast, there was an air of Creature Comforts about the Irish couple Alison and Willie's reflections on their marriage and the challenges of growing old, as a grandfather clock ticked in the background. They seemed only partially aware of being recorded, so wrapped up were they in each other: "You always tell me I'm wonderful," said Alison, fondly. "Well you are wonderful," replied Willie. They were, they said, keenly aware that their lives would change, and not necessarily for the better, but in their eyes even the prospect of declining health seemed like a romantic adventure.
Tales of ordinary people, told in their own words, also shaped "Fathers and Sons", in which veterans of the Falklands conflict talked of seeing their sons go off to war. What they had to say wasn't always easy to hear. The former paratrooper Phill Adkins, who as a 17-year-old had taken part in a fierce battle at Mount Longdon, said the day he discovered that his son Dean was going to Afghanistan was the hardest of his life – this coming from a man who had fought hand-to-hand with a bayonet. As in The Listening Project, his was a voice rarely heard telling a story that is usually left untold. Miraculously, both he and his son were still around to tell it.