The co-creator of Crossroads and society patron, Peter Ling shares some of his memories with the Crossroads Fan Club.
How did you and Hazel Adair originally come up with the idea for Crossroads?
In 1964 Hazel and I were writing a twice-weekly soap for the BBC, set in the offices of a women’s magazine – Compact – which proved to be very popular, and while that was running, Lew Grade (then the head of ATV) – asked us to go and see him. He was about to launch a new soap from the Birmingham studios, and since we’d had a success with Compact he wanted us to nurse the programme for a few months, to get it up and running.
He’d already bought an outline from a Birmingham journalist [Ivor Jay, who later became script editor on the series] it was to be set in a city centre boarding-house, I believe, but he would only need us for about 6 months – once the project was up and running, we wouldn’t be involved.
Hazel and I exchanged glances and said this didn’t really appeal to us; we would only want to work on the new soap if we devised it ourselves and stayed with it to provide the storylines.
Lew lit another of his gigantic cigars and thought this over for a moment, then said: ‘Today is Friday – go away and come up with an idea of your own, and bring it to me on Monday morning – and if I like the look of it…Well, we shall have to wait and see about that!’
We spent a busy weekend, working on ideas; the boarding house setting didn’t seem very attractive At that time I lived near Brighton and Hazel lived near Dorking, and I suddenly remembered, on one of my cross-country journeys, I’d driven past a signboard advertising the opening of a new ‘Motel’ …I had a rough idea of what Motels were, from various American movies, but this was the first one I’d come across in England.
Hazel warmed to the idea; at least it would be something new and different, and might even have a touch of glamour. So we worked on a rough outline, suggesting that the Motel should be run by a friendly middle-aged widow with a couple of growing children – and we jotted down ideas for possible storylines, involving various guests who would come and go. On Monday morning, we went back to ATV as soon as the office opened, and found Lew already behind his desk – he began work early every day. He lit another cigar and read the whole document in silence, while Hazel and I crossed our fingers. At last, he put the outline down and said simply – ‘OK – you’re on.. we’ll do yours.’
In the beginning, Hazel and I worked together on the storyline and a good many of the scripts, but as Compact was still running, we had to divide our forces in order to keep our sanity – and although we churned out each week’s quota of storylines, we soon collected a small team of writers, who followed our storylines and worked on the scripts, dialogue, stage directions, etc.
How differently did the programme develop from your original idea?
I can’t really answer this question – as you say, original ideas have to be developed, and they take on a new life of their own. They’d soon become very dull if they didn’t!
How would you explain the massive popular appeal of Crossroads?
By comparison with ‘Coronation Street‘, (solidly working-class) and ‘Compact‘ (trying to be upper-middle and sophisticated) ‘Crossroads‘ covered a wider spectrum – the basic family group, the working staff, plus the travelers passing through – it had to appeal to everybody.
In retrospect, do you think it was a mistake to axe Noele Gordon in 1981?
I don’t really want to say too much about this; Nolly was already enormously popular with midland audiences, having hosted for a long time a very successful midday chat-show, ‘Lunchbox’, but she was keen to have a chance to act again; and was delighted when we named her ‘Meg Richardson’ – one of her stage successes had been the musical ‘Brigadoon’ – in which she played ‘Meg Brockie.’
But she had been involved with ATV from its inception and was something of a power in the land. Now she was a leading lady, and she used to lay down the law from time to time; not surprisingly, many directors (and producers) found her difficult to work with. I don’t know what caused the final showdown, but it did not come as a great surprise when we heard that her contract had been terminated.
On the other hand, I have to say that a large number of our audience loved Nolly, and felt that the linchpin of the serial had been lost with her departure.
Crossroads was criticised by some for its allegedly wobbly sets. How would you answer this criticism?
Wobbly sets? Yes, initially. The reason was that the ATV studios in Birmingham were too small to accommodate all the sets Crossroads needed, so in the early days, they hired a disused cinema in Aston and turned it into a makeshift studio.
With time and space at a premium, they could not build permanent sets but had to hire ‘flats’ (made for swift scene-changes in theatres) which, being made of canvas stretched over wooden frames, did tend to wobble and sway a little!
After a while they enlarged the TV studios, making room for permanent sets with no wobble – unfortunately, the legend never died.
The series went into something of a decline in the late 1980s- to what would you attribute this decline?
The last-but-one producer we had – and a great pleasure to work with – was Phillip Bowman, from Australia. He came in, determined to give the serial a new look, and was responsible for more and more location filming, taking the action outside the studio, and giving it a breath of fresh air.
He was followed by the last producer, Bill Smethurst, who invited me to lunch so we could ‘get to know one another’ and at the end of the meal told me he would no longer be needing me to provide the storylines since he would be writing them himself! It was hello and farewell – I’d been sacked! Perhaps it may seem rather obvious if I say that I date the ‘Crossroads‘ decline from that moment?
Do you have any particular favourite storylines?
I don’t have any favourite storylines, but we took a great step forward in the previous years – under the excellent leadership of our long-running producer Jack Barton, who brought in occasional storylines ‘with a purpose’.
For instance, he introduced a young character with ‘learning difficulties’ – not played by an actress but by the girl herself, and at the end of each episode a helpline telephone number was given for viewers who might need information or help in a similar situation.
Since then, this system has been followed by other programmes, but I think I’m right in saying that ‘Crossroads‘ was a forerunner in the field.
The new series of Crossroads (2002) is currently facing the axe due to low viewing figures – how do you think it could be improved?
I’m sorry; don’t ask me about the ‘new’ Crossroads! I watched the first few episodes, but I was disappointed; I feel that a great opportunity to bring the serial up to date for a new generation of viewers has been sadly lost.
What do you think of the current batch of soap operas – which ones do you like?
Shamefaced, I have to confess that I don’t watch any soaps now – except ‘The Bill’ which is almost a soap these days, and I somehow got hooked on to it. But apart from that – nothing!
Do any of the old cast and crew ever meet up for reunions?
I don’t think the old cast ever has reunions, though I’m sure some individuals who became close friends with other cast members still keep in touch.
Looking back is there anything you would have changed about Crossroads?
Is there anything I would have changed? Not really. It was fun while it lasted, and I shall always have happy memories of it.
Interview conducted by Daniel Landsberger, for the Crossroads Fan Club, 2002.