Axed: soap with more followers than 'Coronation Street'

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The Independent Online

For eight years, radio listeners around the world have been gripped by tales of life and love in a west London medical centre. The plot has just thickened.

For eight years, radio listeners around the world have been gripped by tales of life and love in a west London medical centre. The plot has just thickened.

From October, the BBC's World Service is axing Westway, its popular twice-weekly radio soap opera, claiming that it "just doesn't fit in" with a revamped schedule.

It is difficult to estimate how many people listen to the serial, which has a loyal fan base from Uganda to Jamaica and Iran to Alaska. The actors' union Equity believes that between 15 million and 20 million people tune in. The BBC's marketing department cites a much more conservative 1.7 million. In comparison, Coronation Street attracts an average of 13 million viewers, and 2.16 million people a week listen to The Archers on Radio 4.

The decision to discontinue the radio serial from October has infuriated Equity, which believes it flies in the face of the commitment by the BBC director general, Mark Thompson, to greater diversity.

Westway won the Commission for Racial Equality's award for Race in the Media in 2001 and recent plot lines have included a Muslim girl bullied at school for wearing a headscarf, an immigrant doctor who discovers she is HIV positive and the problems between Africans and Caribbeans living in London.

Paul Bazeley, who plays the Westway Health Centre practice manager, Jamsheed Dastoor, said: "Westway covers so many issues that might be taboo in countries where people are listening. It's trying to present a view of modern city life that's honest and not idealised. It's also a diverse company of actors, with Nigerians, Asians and West Indians. Surely this is what public service broadcasting is all about?"

Glen Barnham, Equity's national organiser for BBC television and radio, said: "We're shocked by the decision and we have written to Mark Thompson asking him to look at it again. He has been talking in terms of more popular drama and more diversity at the BBC. As far as diversity goes, Westway is far ahead of any other programme at the BBC, covering issues like asylum-seekers, Aids and same-sex relationships."

A World Service spokeswoman said the serial was being dropped to make way for a new-look schedule for the English language service, which will focus on factual programmes during the week and arts at the weekend, including a new strand of world drama starting in 2006.

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