Westwood Park: Lights, Camera, Bacchanal

Blackmail, murder, adultery, cross-dressing—now in its fifth scandal-filled season, Trinidad’s soap opera series Westwood Park has become the surprise hit of Caribbean night-time television. B.C. Pires goes behind the scenes and figures out the secret of Westwood's success

Anilda Pena (Cecelia Salazar) and Susunnah Carter (Wendy-Ann Garcia) conspire at the racetrackAva (Debra Boucaud-Mason, left) with Kenya (Alicia Allahar, right)Cyril (Richard Ragoobarsingh) with Ma Sookoo (Grace Maharaj)Dolly, played by Patty-Ann AliEarth TV’s Giselle Langton, Danielle Dieffenthaller, and Darren Cheewah set up the next shotIsis (Maxine Williams, left) with Sahara (Simone Harris, centre) and Tiffany (Natacha Jones, right)Kenroy (Mark Nottingham, left), Lanie (Dianne Smith, second from left), Quanisha (Asha Edwards) and Laloo (Arnold Goindhan)On location in Barbados: the mysterious Cypher family (played by Alison Hinds, Andrew Pilgrim, and Wendell Smith)The Westwood Park crew on location in BarbadosVashti (Theresa Awai, right) with Mokesh (Rajendra Bajnathsingh)

Dallas, the progenitor of all modern night-time soap operas, changed American culture so dramatically, if you please, that when Larry Hagman, starring as J.R. Ewing, was murdered in a season finale, a TV-show plot twist became the catchphrase for an era: “Who shot J.R.?” It’s unlikely the makers of Westwood Park, Trinidad’s glitzy night-time soap, will ever be overwhelmed by a demand for “The Baroness was a Man!” t-shirts, but with a cross-dressing main character in its first season, and a whole heap of other bacchanal in the three since, Westwood Park is indubitably the most influential Caribbean television show on the air today.

It is also by far and away the most successful. Only three Trinidadian productions before Westwood Park even qualify to be described as series: Calabash Alley and Turn of the Tide, both of which featured gritty rather than glittery characters and storylines, and neither of which went beyond a first season; and No Boundaries, the former TV soap opera light-heavyweight champ, which went up to 48 episodes. The fifth season of Westwood Park, scheduled to premiere on Trinidad and Tobago’s TV6 on 6 April, will end with episode 85. Earth TV, Westwood’s producer, and TV6’s parent group, CCN, the executive producer, have already committed to a sixth season, which will allow the series to be brought to end with the magic number of 100 episodes. Some time after that, hopes Earth TV boss Danielle Dieffenthaller — co-creator, producer, director, editor, storyline developer, and driving force behind Westwood Park — the show may just begin to make money.

That Westwood Park should have been made at all, far less run to five full seasons, is an ongoing triumph in a never-ending battle for funding. To describe Trinidad’s ruling class as philistine would be to give its members an undeservedly exaggerated appreciation of things artistic. (The exceptions to this general rule obviously include the show’s principal sponsors: BWIA West Indies Airways, Angostura, SM Jaleel, and RBTT.) In one of Westwood Park’s many deep ironies, it struggles to break even financially while lavishly depicting a lifestyle of seriously conspicuous consumption. (The series takes its name from two of Port of Spain’s more expensive neighbourhoods, the middle- to upper-middle class nouveau Westmoorings, and the old-money, decidedly posh Goodwood Park. In Los Angeles, the show might have been called Beverlywood Hills.) Most of the important characters are big shots (or caricatures of them); and even some of the small fry are played by middle-class girls who struggle at times to overcome their Convent accents and pronounce “three” as the working-class “chree”.

The first four seasons have aired in 17 Caribbean territories, including Belize, Suriname and Guyana, and on Channel 73, the cable channel Crosswalks, in New York. “But you know,” says Dieffenthaller, laughing, “Caribbean people are not really known for paying for stuff.” Distributing the series in the Caribbean goes towards cheering up the sponsors, not bringing down the overdraft.

As executive producer, CCN coughs up TT$1 million per season for the right to air each episode twice. Most of that is swallowed immediately in costs, even without special star billing or payment. Scriptwriter Mervyn de Goeas earns less than the monthly loan payment on a Hyundai per episode (but, even so, manages to come up with the odd BMW one-liner, such as, “No hello kiss?” “Hmmph. Hello kiss-my-arse!”). The difference between an extra with a speaking role and a walk-on extra is, in Dieffenthaller’s words, the difference between “some” money and a plate of pelau.

Everyone involved gets something more than money out of Westwood Park, though. The dream, shared by cast and crew, is to create a stepping-stone to an industry that will allow the production of serious dramas and genuine feature films. In honest, utilitarian terms, Westwood Park is a hard-knock film school.

They certainly pull regular all-nighters. Locations are begged from vain upper-crust Trinis, or cajoled out of the beleaguered middle-class few who give their all and their living-rooms to support the arts. Despite a surprising generosity (or deep well of vanity), the inconvenience of a shoot means the crew can never count on a location being offered twice; in any event, the budget rarely permits a return trip. So all the scenes in, say, Pierro Guerini’s idyllic Mt Plasir Hotel in Grande Riviere, have to be shot in the same day or weekend. If the skies open and the river comes down, all the cast and crew can do is sit and watch the rain until it stops; and then shoot everything in whatever time is left; and, the moment the rain stops, the deejay at the rumshop up the road starts the booming music for the village street party.

It would be surprising if that sort of strain did not show occasionally, and it does, sometimes in ways more resembling haemorrhage than hiccup. The very notion of Westwood Park, for example, was conceived as and predicated upon the relationship between two families: the Gunn-Monroes, headed by Westwood’s co-creator Bernard Hazell as the evil Herbert Gunn-Monroe, and the Du Soleils. Herbert Gunn-Monroe had to be killed off when Hazell emigrated. Only his illegitimate daughter and the family maid made it to season five.

What is impressive is how much Dieffenthaller and her crew and cast have managed with how little. Yes, there are obvious shortcomings: locking the maid Vashti up in the attic doesn’t turn Westwood Park into Jane Eyre. Yes, the show is done to a formula; but they’re working it well now, and the fifth season has improved geometrically, rather than arithmetically, from the first, when the real interest for the average Trini viewer was in identifying the locations. Yes, cast and crew all still cringe at some points in some episodes; but most of what they make is seamless, and the whole withstands fairly close examination. Westwood Park’s alumni don’t need a good report to know they are greatly improved from last year.

WHO’S WHO IN Westwood Park

A slightly potted guide to some of Westwood Park’s dastardly and dainty denizens.

  • Jonathan Du Soleil (Dennis McComie) Head of the Du Soleil family. You know he’s serious because he’s bald and he could easily have worn Ava’s wig.
  • Ava Du Soleil (Debra Boucaud-Mason) Jonathan’s wife. A social climber with ladders in her stockings but a good heart.
  • Kenya Du Soleil (Alicia Allahar) The baby of the Du Soleil family. She adheres to the TV soap (and real-life) standard that, the prettier the girl, the harder she is to please.
  • Jason Du Soleil (Roland Hagley) Always trying to be the good son, Jason married Sahara when he found out she was pregnant.
  • Sahara Hays (Simone Harris) Jason’s scheming childhood sweetheart, who left him for a music career. Last season she returned to Westwood Park with a son she claimed was his.
  • Tiffany La Tour (Natacha Jones) The required exception to the “beautiful-girls-have-to-be-difficult” rule; or perhaps the benchmark for the “beautiful-girls-have-to-suffer” one. She remains Jason’s one true love.
  • Isis Des Vignes (Maxine Williams) She’s pretty and she knows where to buy a black-market baby? You just know she’s got to be wicked.
  • Cyril Bonaire (Richard Ragoobarsingh) Proves that life in soap operas is always balanced: his wife is a babe; his mother-in-law is a battle-axe. Secretly in love with Tiffany.
  • Wes Du Bois (Learie Joseph) Decent, honest, and hence completely out of his element in Westwood Park. Wes and his family moved to the neighbourhood after winning the lotto.
  • Lanie Du Bois (Dianne Smith) You can tell she’s a colourful character by looking at her dresses. Shares the good life with her husband Wes, their son Kenroy, his friends Laloo and Quanisha, and their uniformed and aproned domestic help, Nursie the cook and Cookie the maid (who sit with the family at the dinner table).
  • Vashti Narine (Theresa Awai) The late Pamela Gunn-Monroe’s devoted maid and heir, formerly terrorised by her long-lost twin Vindra, currently pursued by . . .
  • Mokesh Gupta (Rajendra Bajnathsingh) Not the sharpest tool in the shed, as his name implies — the diminutive “Mook” translates from the Trinidadian roughly as “Jackass”. (About the same as calling an English character Thickas Twoshort-Planks.) The father of Vashti’s twin Vindra’s son, Mokesh was sent to Westwood Park by his common-law wife . . .
  • Dolly (presumably Gupta) (Patty-Ann Ali) Demonstrates her nefarious character by smoking cigarettes evilly and trying to poison Vashti.
  • Susannah Carter (Wendy-Ann Garcia) Pamela Gunn-Monroe’s gold-digging stepmother. She married a man old enough to be her father, then took him on a honeymoon too strenuous for his heart. Ever since Pamela’s suicide she’s been obsessed with getting possession of Vashti’s house.
  • Maya Berry (Princess Donelan) Illegitimate daughter of the late Herbert Gunn-Munroe and his maid Sandra (whom he raped). Proves that pretty girls can be happy in soaps if only they devote their lives to saving the world.

Shooting from the hype: on location with the Westwood posse

It’s always a good idea to take a book to a Westwood Park shoot. Danielle is going to shoot what she has written down on her clipboard, come hell or high water, and both usually do before all the cast members finally turn up. Never has there been a more appropriate place to apply the adage “the speed of the fleet is the speed of the slowest ship”.

Shoots are a lot of fun when everyone arrives, though. Danielle insists that cast members, few of whom were professional actors before joining Westwood Park, use their TV names exclusively on set, to help them get into character, or at least its environs. You can tell someone has really screwed up when he’s addressed by his real name.

Director of photography Richard Lannaman minds the camera, leaving Danielle free to direct, though she takes full charge of the smaller and pick-up shoots. (A pick-up shoot films the parts of several different actors in the same location separately, often on different days, and cuts them all together in the editing suite.)

As if to prove they have a good time despite it all, outtakes are run during the credits at the end of every episode. Cast and crew know doing this shatters in seconds the illusion they’ve striven for weeks to create — but, like the whole series, it’s just too damned popular to stop now.

“Where do you think I got your precious little baby girl from?”

Exterior: JASON and SAHARA’s home — night.

JASON is just coming home when he hears loud voices coming from the apartment. He runs to the door, then recognises the voices. He stops and listens.

Intercut: interior: JASON and SAHARA’s home — night.

SAHARA and ISIS are in the middle of a heated argument.

SAHARA: You intend to do what!?

ISIS: I am going back to Brooklyn — get out of here until things cool down.

SAHARA: Uh-uh! You ain’t going nowhere! You staying right here!

ISIS: Is that what you really expect me to do? Hang around and wait for the police to come knocking on my door? Bitch, you must be crazy!

SAHARA: Isis, just because the police found César’s body, why should you think that they’re going to connect us to his murder?

ISIS: Sahara, they’ve already come to see me . . . asking all kinds of questions about the night that Valerie Rollocks was killed! If they could trace a call I made to her on my cell phone, what makes you think that they won’t trace all the calls that we made to that son of a bitch the day he was killed?

SAHARA: Valerie Rollocks? What the hell does she have to do with you?

ISIS: Where do you think I got your precious little baby girl from? What — you think the stork just dropped her off at my doorstep? Of course I bought her from Miss Val’s home for wayward girls!

SAHARA: You bought my baby from a whorehouse? Are you mad!?

ISIS: What did you think? That I bought her online from Baby Gap? Who else do you think would have a baby to sell?

SAHARA: You could have bought me an Aids baby or a crack baby! How would I have explained that to Jason?

ISIS: I don’t give a flip about you and that fool! Sahara, if you think that I’m just going to stand around and wait to be charged with the murder of your husband, you have another thought coming,hon!

SAHARA: Isis, I swear to God — if you leave this island, I am going to call Interpol and have them on your arse so fast . . .

ISIS: You call Interpol on me? (Laughs) That’s sweet! You’re a bloody bigamist and a murderer — not to mention that the buying and selling of human beings was outlawed with the abolition of slavery! Interpol would be so busy with you, that they wouldn’t even have time for me!

JASON is in such shock, he doesn’t even realise his cell phone is ringing.

Silence.

SAHARA: What the hell is that?

ISIS: Shhh . . .

JASON,
now on automatic, answers his phone.

JASON: Hello?

AVA (voiceover): Jason, thank God! You have to help me!

SAHARA and ISIS stand in the doorway looking at JASON.

AVA (voiceover): Jason?

JASON: Mom?

AVA (voiceover): Jason, I’m in jail!

From Westwood Park’s season four, episode 13