The world loves a drama

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 July, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 July, 1999, 12:00am

Notting Hill isn't the only corner of West London that has been discovered by international audiences recently. There are about 35 million people around the world who have never actually been to Westgrove Park, but tune in to the BBC World Service every week just to find out more about the place. There are unlikely to be hoards of tourists turning up there pushing up the rents, though, because Westgrove Park is a fictional West London district invented by BBC writers as the location for its radio soap, Westway.


Westway began in November, 1997, and the show reaches a dramatic zenith this week when its matriarch, 50-something Dr Margaret Sampson, marries her former sweetheart Lloyd Roberts. Everyone is going to be there: Margaret's colleagues at the Westway Medical Centre, the two doctors David and Joy, receptionists Louise and Mel, practice nurse Janet, and Jamshed, practice manager who is Janet's ex-husband and adopted brother.


Westway, named after the Westway Medical Centre where Margaret and her colleagues work, is the usual mix of medical and personal drama: childbirth, terminal illness, funding crises, peas-stuck-up-noses, unhappy marriages, new romances, thwarted careers and illicit affairs.


It is familiar enough stuff to those with access to television. As a radio drama Westway can reach people in parts of the world not yet sated with ER and Chicago Hope.


This week's weepy wedding episode comes hard on the heels of last week's revelation about the health of the bridegroom. Lloyd has had some odd symptoms recently and Margaret's colleague, Dr David Boyce, has finally worked out what is wrong with the bridegroom. This is tough news for loyal fans who have followed the romance.


Westway certainly seems to have gripped the imagination of an incredible range of people. When listeners were asked to write in to say Happy First Birthday to the programme, in exchange for a postcard of the cast, the production office received 4,000 replies.


The cast read some of them, and found the experience quite mind-boggling. 'It was unbelievable, and quite humbling,' says Abi Eniola who plays Dr Joy Onwukwe. 'Their lives are just so removed from ours. We had a letter from a power station in China, and from a jail in the United States.' Sometimes it seems listeners are so involved in the drama of Westway, they forget it is only pretend. It was Dr Onwukwe, rather than actress Eniola, who received a letter recently from a priest in Africa castigating her for prescribing contraception to a 15-year-old patient. He finished by asking how she managed to do her job as a doctor so well with all those BBC people hanging around the surgery recording everything.


Like much of BBC World Service content, Westway has a pedagogical element. Series editor David Hitchison and his writers want listeners to get a realistic view of contemporary British city life. There have been storylines about the second marriages, step parenting, mortgages and refugee policy.


Since the script writers make no concessions to the fact that most listeners are not native speakers of English, the BBC Education Department airs Westway Access, a 15-minute explanation on the idioms, slang and institutions mentioned in the series.


The writing team have also tried hard to tackle tough issues in a way that doesn't allow the audience to dismiss them as the problems of the decadent West. That is why a teenage pregnancy involved a rape victim impregnated by her stepfather, rather than a voluntarily sexually active young woman.


Before the programme was launched, says Hitchison, pilot episodes were played to focus groups in Nigeria and Singapore, including the storyline about the teenage mum. 'Universally, they said 'this happens in our community, but no one ever talks about it. So it's good to talk about it.' ' The pilot groups did demand one major change that the central character be a matriarch.


After a while actress Jillie Meers who plays her, demanded that Margaret get a life of her own. 'I think it is a big subject, middle-aged romance. People are being active for so much longer, in so many different ways these days.' Except that Lloyd is fated not to be active in any way at all for much longer.


This only leaves a few more months for the Westway writers to come up with more excruciating sex scenes: Namita and Jamshed's grappling on the pharmacy floor have been bad enough but listening to someone make love on the radio is more voyeuristic than the most graphic full-frontal.


Westway is broadcast on Radio Six every Tuesday and Thursday at 12.15 pm, repeated on Wednesdays and Fridays at 4.15 pm. There is also an Omnibus on Sundays at 1.30 pm.