Crossroads, ten years on…

They said it was badly-acted, under-rehearsed and downright silly. It looked like another duff idea…


ON NOVEMBER 2nd, 1964, the first episode of a new serial was transmitted from ATV Studios in Birmingham. It was seen only in the Midlands area [as well as Northern Ireland and Cumbria], didn’t have a peak hour slot, and was due to last for six-weeks.

The few critics who saw it hated it [this is incorrect the first review by the Birmingham Mail was full of praise] They said it was badly-acted, under-reheased and downright silly.

It looked like another duff idea to be dropped and forgotten as soon as possible. Today, Crossroads is seen across the ITV network four days a week and all four episodes usually make the national TV Top Twenty.

Had it not been for the drama of Elsie Howard’s illness in Coronation Street it may well have taken it over in popularity. It is one of the most amazing success stories in the history of television and it makes Reg Watson one of the happiest Australians in Birmingham.

Reg has produced the show throughout its run of just on nine years and despite the criticism from the press he has always believed in the format and overall quality of Crossroads.

“Obviously I don’t agree with the critics and equally obviously I’m in the majority. We celebrate the 2,000th episode edition this month and you’ve seen the ratings we get – that’s the answer to the critics.”

Reg Watson with Noele Gordon.

Crossroads was born, as so many of ATV’s ideas are, in the mind of the company’s ebullient chief executive Sir Lew Grade.

“He called me to his office one day early in 1964 and told me to produce a Midlands daily serial centred around a widow with two children who runs a motel” said Reg Watson.

“There was no shortage of people who said it couldn’t be done, that a daily TV serial wasn’t physically possible. But I thought that with the right people it was worth a try.”

Reg got his head down with Peter Ling and Hazel Adair two very experienced TV writers, and sketched out a more detailed format.

“The choice of the right actress to play the part of Meg Richardson was critical, it had to be a good actress who was willing to work hard, who was easy to get on with, and preferably well-known – at least to Midland viewers”

Indeed acting talent is not the only criterion when casting Crossroads: the discipline needed in producing four or five episodes a week leaves no time or patience for temperamental geniuses. Competent, reliable, stable people are preferred to actors who are brilliant but erratic.

Furthermore, the part of Meg is central to Crossroads. It is built around one character in a way that Coronation Street isn’t.

“We are very lucky, that Noele Gordon was available. We had worked together on a local daytime show called Lunch Box and I knew she was right for the part in every way, as well as being a big celebrity in the Midlands.”

She is also one of those rare people who seeks to inspire affection in nearly everyone she meets. Most of the people I met at ATV seemed inordinately fond of Nolly.

“Nolly was right on our doorstep, but it wasn’t so easy casting other parts. We contacted dozens of agents, but they didn’t seem keen to send their artists all the way to Birmingham for ‘this serial thing'”

Among the actors who are very glad they made the journey are Roger Tonge and Jane Rossington who play Meg’s children. Also Susan Hanson (Diane), Peter Brookes (Vince), Ann George (Amy) and Elisabeth Croft (Edith), all of whom have been with Crossroads since its earliest days.

Susan Hanson told me: “The serial had been going for about six-weeks when I was offered the part of a North Country waitress, who was only going to be in the show for two-weeks. I enjoyed it, but didn’t see how the part could be developed much., and after the two-weeks I went off to the Bristol Old Vic and thought no more about it.

“Then a year later, towards the end of my engagement at Bristol, I was asked to come back to Crossroads for eight-weeks. I’ve been here ever since.”

The show was an instant hit with viewers and before the original six-week run was up ATV decided to let it run on.

One by one other ITV regions took notice of it and Crossroads spread slowly through the country. At one point, London took it and then dropped it. Thames TV had to bring it back due to public demand.

By early 1972 every region except Granada Television – the Lancashire company – was taking it. Then Granada decided to screen it.

“I would say that it is still a serial about the Midlands – but the Midlands are so cosmopolitan, and a motel is such a cosmopolitan thing, that everybody can relate to it.” says Reg Watson

Crossroads now has four regular writers, each of which develops scripts for particular characters and three regular directors.

Reg reckons there are about fifteen ‘regulars’ in the cast, though anyone who has ever appeared could come back at any time. The crew and cast work a five-day week.

“There is a preliminary run-through of all four episodes on Monday with scripts and on Tuesday most of the cast will have learned their lines and we’ll get down to setting the different scenes – there are usually ten scenes in each episode.

“By Wednesday everybody should be word-perfect and we have the final rehearsals. On Thursday and Friday, we videotape a week’s worth of episodes – two on each day. It’s a hard week’s work for the studio crew, but we try to ease the actors’ load by having each character in no more than three episodes per-week. Sometimes less of course” Reg Watson notes.

Susan Hanson.

From the actors point of view, Susan Hanson says: “Obviously there are times when one gets bored and when that happens I take leave of absence and go and do something else.

“It’s hard work, but I know a lot of actors and actresses who have never had the chance of regular work week in and week out.”

She admits that there will come a time in the distant future when she ‘wants out’ of Crossroads, but isn’t worried about possible typecasting.

“I’m a firm believer in talent speaking for itself. It should come naturally to an actor to diversify: acting is my job and Im confident that I can take any role that comes my way – within my own limits of course.”

Does she believe that Crossroads stretches her acting talent?

“Yes. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been able to extend my scope tremendously through the development of Diane Parker as a character”

Diane began life at the motel as a light relief character and since then has undergone sex before marriage, an illegitimate child, a wedding and desertion by her husband.

Reg Watson recalls: “An example of how times have changed – we were considered very daring to let a character have an illegitimate child a few years ago: we only got away with it because viewers understood the character and sympathised with the situation. In recent weeks we’ve dealt with abortion and rigidity and nobody’s turned a hair!”

“It’s important to let your characters develop with time – and of course to get older. When we started, Meg’s daughter Jill was a giggling teenager. Now she’s Mrs Jill Harvey, very sophisticated and elegant”

It’s easy to pick holes in Crossroads but the undeniable fact is that each episode is enjoyed in something like five million homes, and it probably will still be running when Jill Harvey is a doddering old granny..

Evening Post, written by Albert Watson.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *