Arts: A shot of adrenaline would liven up this Westway trip

The week on radio
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Indy Lifestyle Online
We are, these days, a nation of soapwatchers. Millions of us sit down twice, three times, four or five times weekly to bathe in one or more soaps; the newspapers are full of speculation on storylines and gossip about the private lives of the stars; most people, I would guess, have a soap with which they identify, and which to some extent identifies them: if somebody tells you they watch Brookside regularly, or tries to strike up a conversation about goings-on at Grey Gables, you feel you know something about the sort of person they are, rather as some people think they have a handle on you if they know your star sign.

So it seems entirely proper that the World Service has instituted its own ongoing drama serial, allowing the rest of the world to look at us through a soapy lens.

And what an interesting view of us they are getting. Westway (World Service, Tuesday and Thursday) is set in a health centre in Westgrove Park, west London. The Britain you see represented in the Westway Health Centre is decidedly cosmopolitan; it has an old-fashioned liberal conscience (personified by the senior partner, Dr Margaret Sampson), but is inclined to self-indulgence (Dr Sampson has a habit of nipping outside for a sneaky fag, where the patients can't see her). But this Britain has its clever, modernising, ambitious side (seen in Dr David Boyce, the pushy younger partner), and is perhaps inclined to stand on its dignity a bit too much. It has conflicts (witness the barney between Dr Boyce and prospective new recruit Dr Joy Onwukwe), but these don't prevent people living and working together (Dr Onwukwe gets the job).

All in all, this Britain seems an eccentric, lovable sort of place - possibly a bit too lovable for the drama to cut much mustard. The first two episodes have been a tad anodyne, the minor dramas (Boyce vs Onwukwe, a pregnant teenager going into labour on the practice's doorstep) too evidently contrived. But the casting is good - Jillie Meers' chain-smoking humanist GP is already a very rounded creation - and the roster of writers is impressive, so it ought to go on to better things.

It has to be said, though, that a certain amount of dullness seems to be built into its liberal, well-intentioned, multicultural microcosm of British society. We live in a much more parochial, quirky place than Westway dares to suggest, a point brought home by Conversations with Strangers, a peculiar showcase for Robert Robinson's interviewing talents which was broadcast on Radio 4 on Wednesday evening. The pretext for the programme was, apparently, the idea that strangers will talk frankly to strangers in a way that they won't to their intimates - a feeble excuse for Robinson to engage in lengthy, fairly aimless conversations with a grave-digger, the Duke of Devonshire, a Jamaican schoolteacher who was the Open University's first black graduate, and a female prison officer.

The result was puzzling - there was no indication of how or why Robinson had ended up talking to these people, of what effects he hoped to achieve or points he wanted to make; the fact that the gravedigger worked in the Yorkshire village where Laurence Sterne used to live looked like a nod to the rambling, inconsequential structure. If there was a link, it might have been fear - of death, of strangers, of the sort of life you could have led if things had been only slightly different.

But what made this a gripping, sometimes touching programme was simply the space it allowed to individual points of view. A soap opera, with its deliberate dramas and consciously kaleidoscopic picture of life, could never reveal as much about the experience of living in Britain, the experience of being human, as these four odd, self-contained little stories.

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