I used to be in a soap on the BBC World Service called Westway. I played a lesbian, Australian gym-instructor called Billie. Me and my girlfriend had a baby. In fact (after I walked out on her, fled to Oz and then returned remorseful, wanting her back and having come to terms with my future as a co-parent) we had a baby at the funeral of her ex-husband. Yes – at the funeral of her ex-husband.
When asked who my character was in this soap I would often say she was a gym-instructor. A pre-Raphaelite gym-instructor if pushed, because according to the writers, she was. I am many things but one of those is not pre-Raphaelite. Furthermore when I began the contract I couldn’t have been further from gym-instructor because I was seven-months pregnant. Lesbian I would avoid because it seemed wrong to emphasise her sexuality as her especially defining feature, and I don’t like to admit to Australian except under contract. So for me, if Billie had an adjective it implied ginger tresses and a faraway look. Which was never in the script.
It didn’t pay many of the bills and there was little kudos involved but it was a good project. Westway was openly instructive. The neatly diverse set of characters set up small businesses, coped with foreign ideologies, learned about each other’s differences and, because it was largely set in a GP’s surgery, shared news also about their diseases and psychiatric conditions. This might sound cack-handed but it was not. It was simple and direct and compassionate and useful. I was proud to be part of it.
The pin-board in our green room was peppered with letters of thanks from listeners around the world. They had strong opinions about the behaviour of some of the characters and they were also grateful that Westway was there for them each week. Their letters had a completely different tone to the fan letters I was used to seeing. There was an investment, there was some implication of a federation between the drama and its listeners, they were not service-users or licence-payers, they were people on the other end of a conversation. I especially remember hearing from a BBC journalist who had been in the refugee camps in Darfur. He returned and made a point of telling the producers that every week when Westway was broadcast, groups of refugees all over the camp would huddle around wind-up radios to listen.
That was it: a GP’s surgery in West London. Under a flyover. Busy with the comings and goings of all sorts of urban types: lost and slick, assertive and traumatised. All the World. Chirruping out from inside a wind-up radio in a dusty, hungry refugee camp in a part of the Sudan no-one would want to live.
And then it was axed. Axed is the word we use and I think it’s germane here because it did seem sudden and violent and utterly unreasonable.
The difficulty with a programme like Westway and dramas on the World service is that they go out in the small hours here in the UK. Although Westway had an audience of tens of millions they were mostly abroad and mostly voiceless. They were not on the end of a wind-up email address or internet connection. The foreign pleas to continue the service, though many, were not many enough and not influential enough and so in spite of the foot-stamping which would have looked like self-interested job-protecting from us, the cast, Westway went.
Gordon House, a former World Service Drama Producer describes here how when World Service listeners are asked which programmes they particularly remember they will cite dramas and documentaries. Not the news.
The World Service is now planning to axe the meagre rest of the small number of dramas they annually produce as of early next year. Here is a petition.
Please sign because although you may not tune into the World Service (if you are English) – many do and many of those are used to their half of a global conversation being, when it comes to the crunch, the unheard, listen-only half. In recent years especially, many World Service dramas are by untried writers from abroad as well as English, collaborations with people and worlds far from ours. It is about looking out and understanding something outside of ourselves, it is about people across the world looking out.
It is something we do well, it doesn’t cost us much at all and I want us to keep doing it.