From the Westway to the world...no more

It is loved by 34 million across the globe, so why axe the World Service's soap Westway, asks scriptwriter Jonathan Myerson
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The Independent Online

Seven writers, two producers and a researcher, all locked in a room in the Aldwych, all yelling at each other. Everyone has a different idea, everyone wants to tell the story their own brilliant way. In the middle, the story editor, head in hands, trying to control the frenzy and somehow end up with eight episodes of Westway.

Seven writers, two producers and a researcher, all locked in a room in the Aldwych, all yelling at each other. Everyone has a different idea, everyone wants to tell the story their own brilliant way. In the middle, the story editor, head in hands, trying to control the frenzy and somehow end up with eight episodes of Westway.

You've probably never heard of it. But it's the most popular soap on the planet. It plays to an audience of approximately 34 million, twice weekly. Read this and weep, Corrie. On your knees, Dallas.

Westway is the World Service's soap, beloved of listeners all over the world, and the myopic management-speak morons who now run the channel have just cancelled it. When, occasionally, a Brit tells me that they listen to it, I recommend temazepam - it goes out at 2.30am in the UK. But around the world, we know that it's caught by truckers driving through Arkansas, timber-mill workers in Lintong, and medical students in Cairo. And these are just the ones who have been moved to write in.

Eight hundred episodes over seven years have encouraged Patrick from Benin to propose "a motion to change the name of my street to West Way, with due permission from you guys", while Thomas owns "a printing business in Auckland, New Zealand. I stop the press when Westway comes on". And Adan in Nairobi believes that "there are other forms of addiction apart from hard drugs! Westway, of course! African spirits are with you always!"

So, while on Monday of last week the BBC announced that so much more money was going to be spent on programmes, on Wednesday they quietly terminated the programme that has become a mainstay of the English Service. Why? The controller says that he wants the World Service to be a purely news/information station during the week. No room in his brave new world for anything as frivolous as a continuing human drama.

So, news continues its relentless, scorched-earth march through the BBC. With Gradgrind at the helm, more and more hours are given over to the simple (and inevitably repetitive) recycling of instant, as-they-happen facts. No time or need for reflection - just make sure you get to the soundbite quicker than the other channel.

But what use are facts if you can never stop and reflect on them? Gradgrind learnt the hard way that there are other truths, truths that do not emanate from press releases or ballot boxes, or even explosions. A programme such as Westway responds in a uniquely relevant and tangible way to the drift and flow of world events.

After 9/11, we found a story with which to explore (through our characters) the daily friction between Islam and the West. London is the world's most multicultural city, and our characters can and do represent almost every race and religion, and it was through them, through their stories, that we explored that most vital truth of all - the one that's created by fiction.

But in today's news-sacrosanct BBC, it takes daring and vision to see and admit to the importance of this - a vision that station controllers no longer seem to possess. As well as its enviable reputation for accuracy, the World Service's other USP has been its willingness to portray Britain how it is, the British how they are. So, while our governments become ever more spin-cunning, Westway evens the balance.

The show is set in a fictional Hammersmith - beside the flyover - and doesn't hesitate to show every side of British society, good and, more frequently (because it makes better drama), bad. We've run the normal soap gamut of adultery and suicide and sexual ambivalence, but we've also covered slow death from Aids of a Russian who didn't qualify for treatment, and the shock of Muslim parents when their daughter wanted to wear a hijab. We've also covered a racial killing (with no hope of catching the perpetrators). And six months after that, we hit the widow with the aftershock: she would receive minimal compensation because the victim had been convicted of benefit fraud. This came directly from fact - our ruthless researcher never allows us to stray.

Perhaps best of all, we get to show non-Whites, non-Brits who are less than perfect. Currently, we've got a blind Singaporean physiotherapist whom you really wouldn't want to meet down a dark alley; and you'd rather starve to death than eat the food cooked by our Nigerian café-owner. Television serials simply daren't do this - guidelines force writers to tread ever more carefully, always balancing bad with good. But Westway, with hours and hours at its disposal, gets the benefit of epic perspective.

I'm not saying that any of this is more important than news, but it is a crucial counterbalance. The decisions taken by governments or terrorists only start to mean something when you see the results played out in daily lives. Since the beginning of time, the biggest events in our lives have been retold and understood through story, in drama, by actors and tellers. It is at their peril that the controllers give this up.

Until October, 'Westway' is on the BBC World Service at 2.30am on Saturday and Thursday, and at various times on BBC Radio 7

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