Life and Fate, Radio 4, Daily<br/>Jimmy Young at 90, Radio 2, Tuesday

Branagh's breakfast is a delectable Russian feast
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The Independent Culture

To my shame, I'd never heard of Vasily Grossman until a couple of weeks ago.

I certainly have now. The dramatisation of his epic novel Life and Fate – the 20th century's War and Peace, by all accounts – must have broken all-comers' records for the most heavily publicised radio programme in history. If you watch television at all, the faux-Soviet animated trailer will have bored its way into your brain much like that brilliantined tenor on those terrible car insurance ads.

The good news is that you can believe the hype – and you can understand why the former Radio 4 controller Mark Damazer said he wasn't going to leave the job until he'd got the project under way. "It contains no lies or slanders, only pain, love and truth," says the narrator Nadya, daughter of the hero, and so far that seems like a pretty good summing-up.

Splashed across the week's schedules, filling all the main drama slots, it has that big-number feeling the BBC is so good at establishing. Kenneth Branagh is the hero, the brilliant Jewish physicist Viktor, and he's backed up by, among others, David Tennant, Greta Scacchi and Dame Harriet Walter (and a particular big-up for Ralph Ineson, Finchie from The Office, whose rich Yorkshire burr graces the role of a suspected informer).

I have to confess to a built-in resistance to drama on 4 – all that Acting – and Branagh talking with his mouth full at breakfast had faintly risible echoes for me of David on The Archers, who always seems to be filling his face. So fair dos to cast and production in making suspension of disbelief a lot easier, and definitely more rewarding, than I'd imagined. There aren't many laughs (thinking about it, there aren't any laughs), and at the end of the first bleak, dark episode Nadya tells us, "Things were going to get a whole lot worse", but it's the radio equivalent of a page-turner, and I can recommend a catch-up trip to the iPlayer.

As you might imagine, there wasn't very much in the way of bleakness or darkness in Jimmy Young at 90. I'd been in two minds about reviewing it – the last time I heard him, Raymondo was asking, "What's the recipe today, Jim?" in a Pinky and Perky voice (or an Alvin and the Chipmunks voice for younger readers). But he is an undeniable giant of broadcasting, and his hour-long encounter with Ken Bruce, the equivalent of a fireside chat between friends and a bottle of single malt, slipped by with all the ease of his well-oiled anecdotes.

Quite apart from lasting 40-odd years at the BBC, Sir Jimmy deserves credit for the introduction of current affairs into music radio. His interviews with politicians were ground-breaking, and, he said, caused some consternation among BBC politicos, who sought to minimise his impact by accusing him of playing footsie with his guests (metaphorically, you understand). "I never asked soft questions," he told Bruce. "You catch more flies with sugar than you do with vinegar." I'm not sure Jeremy Paxman would agree, but then, as Sir Jim recalled, there were questions in Parliament when he was forced out at 81. You can't imagine that will happen when Paxo goes.