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Media: An odd road to 'Eldorado': Lesley Udwin on her leap from soapbox to the new soap and, below, Sue Summers canvasses expert views

IF ANYONE had told me that I'd find myself based in Spain in 1992, I might have imagined myself in any number of scenarios: acting in some 'important' issue-based film, or touring a (probably classical) play; acquiring the rights to a book I was planning to produce as a film; or researching some injustice I had learnt about that fuelled my anger and commitment.

The very last thing I'd have envisaged would have been acting in a television soap.

I am, by any standards, the unlikeliest candidate to be invited to play a regular character in a soap; I am not a 'packageable' pretty thing of the ilk that the peculiar world of soaps usually seeks out. Nor am I a 'character actress'. My background is replete with weighty, dramatic roles in the classics and in contemporary plays with a serious socio-political bent (Lady Macbeth; Ibsen; Dostoyevsky; the National Theatre; the Royal Court; BBC 2 . . .). The last film I acted in was a searing critique about the torture of prisoners of conscience in Turkey.

And then there is my other career, as as producer. I helped to develop the BBC's Screen Two production, 'Sitting Targets', based on my real-life struggle, along with a group of female tenants (all the men having fled in fear), against the notorious landlord, Nicholas van Hoogstraten.

And recently I produced Granada's controversial World In Action film 'Who Bombed Birmingham?', about the cover-up that kept the Birmingham Six unjustly imprisoned for 16 years.

Earlier this year life was proceeding along its familiar path - I was developing television and film projects; working with writers; giving advice to beleaguered tenants; raising film finance; helping one of the Birmingham Six write a book about miscarriages of justice. And one day in February my agent called to say there had been an inquiry from the producers of the new BBC pan-European soap: would I be interested in playing one of the pivotal characters in it?

It would mean relocating to Spain for at least a year. I was surprised - no, shocked. When the theoretical inquiry became an offer, I frantically rang round those friends and colleagues whose opinions I respected (the very ones, in retrospect, whom I would have expected to talk me out of accepting the job).

Not one of them advised me to do anything but leap at the offer. The justifications for their unanimous advice ranged from 'soaps are the social realist drama of our day' to 'it will get your face known and your opinions will therefore be more widely heard'. My excitement grew at the prospect of doing this unexpected thing. I fastidiously made lists of pros and cons. Prominent among the pros was the argument that raising my public profile would enable me to say the many things I burn to say to the world.

It would also enable me to build up a little money with which I could buy rights to works and commission writers. I could learn Spanish . . .

On the cons list, only one item persisted: there are very few actors who have managed to shake off the second skin that is the persona of their soap character. Would Lesley Udwin, in the future, be subsumed by the character of the barmaid Joy Slater? The more I have got to know the content of Eldorado, and the breadth of vision of its creators and producers, the more this fear has receded.

Eldorado has not been conceived as any ordinary, formula- based soap; it is adventurous and bold, and complex in its view of the people who inhabit its world. The character I play is multi-faceted, to the point of embracing contradictions in an exhilarating way.

Her motto is: 'To hell with men, who needs 'em?' - yet she longs for one. She is liberated and self-sufficient but at the same time, she is dependent and conventional in her view of relationships; strong yet vulnerable; sometimes raucous, sometimes stylishly controlled.

Like most of my female friends, in fact, she is a real, rich character who can't be glibly delineated. If her persona were to stick to me, it wouldn't be all that dreadful - I like her enormously.

So I set off in April on this adventure, with my car, fax machine, word processor and paperwork for all the projects I am developing in my spare time here.

What friends failed to warn me of was quite how fluid language becomes when you're shooting a soap on the Costa del Sol. Phrases such as 'protecting yourself from the Sun' have taken on a whole new meaning.

The only campaigning I've done here so far has been on behalf of crew members, for bacon butties and Mars Bars in the Spanish on-set restaurant.

I feel alive here, and hot, and optimistic - and hope that those of you who saw the first episode will have smelt the potential that I am confident Eldorado will deliver.

(Photograph omitted)