Once upon a Westward 

1 September 2001 tbs.pm/1695

Once upon a time, there was a very special television company. A company that was not ashamed to be one of the smaller members of the ITV network. A company that served its region above and beyond the call of duty. A company that not only reflected its region but ultimately became an integral part of it. A company that was loved and adored by those who had roots in the region it served.

Sited in the heart of Plymouth, on the busy Derry’s Cross, were the studios of Westward Television. Right from the start, Westward knew that in order for the station to be at one with the region, it had to go out and reach the locals. Westward’s continuity announcers were continually on the road when they were not on screen – opening fetes, agricultural shows, WI meetings and charitable events. They signed autographs, drank tea and built up a well of affection that still remains to this day.

This was not freelancers topping up their salaries with personal appearances, something so notable in the eighties, but salaried members of the Westward staff carrying out a shrewd company policy of connecting with the region. Another important connection with the region was the mascot, the rabbit Gus Honeybun. This rather rotund, slightly naughty rabbit would share the continuity studio with the duty announcer to read birthday greetings twice a day and was adored by children throughout the region.

Westward would send Gus out to hospitals and children’s homes accompanied by one of the continuity announcers and younger children would be too overwhelmed to speak. These same children would send sweets to Gus by the sackful, leading announcer Judi Spiers to claim on-screen that chocolate buttons were his favourite, as she rather enjoyed them herself.

To the viewer at home Westward gave the impression of being a happy place. Most people stayed there for years, with both the news and continuity teams remaining stable. You were never far away from friendly and familiar faces on Westward, and they all seemed to be having fun.

Gus Honeybun could be hilarious with Judi Spiers. Ian Stirling’s conspiratorial humour after the soaps was a delight to behold and ahead of its time. Westward always seemed proud rather than jealous if staff went on to ‘better things’ – in the late seventies and early eighties it often reminisced warmly on-screen about its alumni.

Despite their limited resources, Westward also appeared to know the value of covering news in their entire region. Unlike HTV West, who could only cover news on the extremities of their region if it could be driven to Bristol and processed for broadcast on the same day, Westward knew that even if it was a day late people still expected to see news from their town. If the viewing public didn’t see their own area on a regular basis they would fail to see the value of a regional company, and white Westward Volvos containing a news film crew could be seen regularly throughout the area covering stories wherever and whenever they happened. Westward were the first to introduce a regional news programme after the ITN News at Ten. This allowed them to show stories from farther afield on the day they happened.

Westward managed to avoid another trap of regionalism and avoided any noticeable bias towards particular areas of the region. Against HTV West’s saturation news coverage of Bristol, Westward seemed to cover their entire region with an even hand.

In an interesting and early example of the use of a brand across different media, Westward produced a printed magazine of local interest stories for their region, which often contained tie-ins to regional programmes.

No region is homogenous, and Westward tried to talk simultaneously to the different members of its audience. Everyone from Devon country squires, to pensioners retiring from the urban sprawl of London, to large transient populations of holidaymakers and servicemen.

Westward Diary, the local news programme, included features from the architect David Young surveying local buildings; Agora, a fortune telling gypsy predicting the future; naturalist Jon Miller talking about tarantulas; or fisherman Ted Tuckerman explaining where the best catches were to be had. If Westward thought that enough local people were interested in something it would show it. Peter Cadbury imploring viewers to “tell us what you want” on Westward’s first day was sincere.

Whatever the genre of programming, Westward tried to provide something regionally made, including the quiz show “Treasure Hunt”, the “Miss Westward” competition, the cookery show “Freeze!” and the documentary series “Walking Westward”.

The economics of television in the seventies meant that Westward didn’t make as much regional television as it could but what it did make was of excellent quality – up to the standard that any of the major regions could achieve.

All that is left of Westward today is an archive of programmes held by the TSW Television Trust at Exeter University. The Derry’s Cross studios are now home to a firm of solicitors. Television in the south-west is provided by an impersonal company based in a unit on an industrial estate on the edge of Plymouth which doesn’t even use its own name, let alone its own personality. Presentation comes pre-recorded on Minidisc from Cardiff. The regional programming for the southwest is now made by independents. Gus Honeybun is confined to a theme park in Cornwall. The failure of any of Westward’s successors to make an impression is marked by people over thirty across the region still asking “what’s on Westward?”. In-vision continuity announcing has been consigned to history. The regional news is presented by anonymous freelancers.

The galleon is gathering dust on top of Peter Cadbury’s TV in Berkshire.

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