A mix of interviews with Jack Barton from Central Press Office and The Weekly News.
‘Since he took over the responsibilities of producer he and his team maintained the programme’s popularity and high place in the ratings, but on the one occasion swept the board taking the top four places of the rating chart.
Dedication is the overriding quality Jack brings to the programme. Crossroads is what he lives and breathes. There is no limit to his working day. He exudes confidence and energy which inspires everyone around him’
– Central Press Release, 1984
The man who built Crossroads into TV’s best-known motel admitted that it wasn’t easy to leave the show.
It was like getting a divorce. For seventeen years I had only seen my wife at weekends. She’ll tell you I was not married to her – I was married to Crossroads! The programme had taken over my life.
What would you say being a producer is about? Is it simply planning the future of the series?
I felt I was the father of a family and they, I hope, felt the same way. Cast and crew would come to me if they have any personal or domestic problems and I’d try to sort them out. And like fathers with families, sometimes I have to chastise them.
Jack started in show business at the age of 14 when he joined Bertram Mills’ Circus as a ring boy. But he was soon working on the other side of the footlights. He was offered the job of directing three-year-old Crossroads in 1967. What made you join a series which, by 1967, had certainly become the show critics loved to hate?
I thought it could be done better.
At that time soap opera was a comparatively new thing and there was definitely room for improvement. But it was going out five nights a week and I thought it was a great challenge.
What do you think about people comparing Crossroads to other ‘big budget’ shows?
I think the only difference between us and Dallas, Dynasty and Coronation Street was the time we went out. Because we aired in the early evening slot, we had to be careful we didn’t embarrass anyone. We dealt with romance rather than sex, we rarely used any mild bad language, no one ever smoked on the programme and people only ever had a drink socially.
But the show had tackled more serious issues too?
The affair between David Hunter and Sarah Alexander, in which the smooth, married, motel boss made his one-time mistress pregnant was the sexiest Crossroads has ever been in my time.
So over the years Crossroads has grown up and become more adult. But what shocked viewers most about that wasn’t the fact of the affair itself, but that David had betrayed his wife.
Crossroads did care about the viewers and what innocent eyes might see, it didn’t change after the arrival of Brookside, which tried to be sometimes offensive and often sensational, why?
The viewers care. They get emotionally involved and are terribly loyal. In fact, my years at Crossroads have been worthwhile if only for the way we have been able to help people in return. We helped establish the Crossroads Care Attendant Scheme (Crossroads Care) for the disabled; we introduced a mentally-handicapped child into a TV drama for the first time and we also helped set up a hospital unit for children with kidney disease by featuring the subject on the programme.
Later programmes can be more visual, maybe more immoral, but at 6 O’clock Crossroads was primarily there to entertain bringing a mixture of drama and comedy to teatime audiences. People don’t want to be dealing with heavy drama in the early evening, they want something easy-going, relaxing. It wasn’t devised to upset or offend.
And what about the critics? Crossroads is a programme that has aired in daytime reaching prime time ratings, won many viewer-voted awards, yet continued to be mocked by anyone who wasn’t a regular viewer?
Anyone can pick out a line from the narrative or a singular scene and make it look stupid, however a lot of programmes when footage is taken out of context do not work. People who watched the show night after night would understand the way the format of Crossroads operated; those who dipped in and out of it or saw only a few moments would not.
I think it really was as basic as that. All of us, without exception, have been hurt by the criticism of Crossroads. But whatever anyone feels about the programme, each and every one of us worked desperately hard to bring happiness and entertainment to our regular audience.
The trouble is that the sort of thing the audience love is exactly what the critics slam. I am very proud and happy with my years on the programme.
Not just the critics, the television watchdog also took a dislike to it?
It affected their egos, I think. They couldn’t be proud of Crossroads because of the jokes critics had made. It didn’t matter sixteen million enjoyed it. When they cut us down from five to four episodes they gave the excuse they wanted something more cultural in what had been our fifth slot of the week. Apparently the talent search Opportunity Knocks and, our own [ATV’s] game show, The Golden Shot was deemed more cultured.
People watched it because it’s awful?
Not at all. We used to receive thousands of letters every week from viewers who just wanted to say “thank you” to us for entertaining them. A programme doesn’t run for over two decades with huge audiences by being awful. Car crash television, as they seem to call it these days, will have good ratings for a few weeks at the most; people soon get tired of bad television.
The viewers proudly wrote into the TV Times letters page supporting the programme over many years, they voted for us in practically every television award going and quite a few times we won those awards.
What kind of correspondence did the Crossroads offices receive?
Some send in their CVs asking for work at the motel, we also have in the past had concerned viewers call in to see if one of the characters is coping with a difficult time or to offer advice. Most however just liked to let us know that they loved the programme and had come to see many of the characters as personal friends.
Some don’t get wrapped up in the fiction and write in asking for auditions?
Well to many of our older viewers Crossroads was the most important programme on television. They’re not impressed by more expensive serials or dramas, to be seen in Crossroads meant, to them, the person had ‘made it’.
So, therefore, we used to get a lot of letters from mothers and grandmothers offering their children or grandchildren’s services. Michael Crawford’s mother wrote in suggesting he’d be great in a role. So did Julie Walters and Gemma Craven’s mothers.
What did you think about Crossroads after you departed in 1984?
It really wasn’t Crossroads they finished in 1988, the true Crossroads had ended years before. You can’t make it into a totally new programme, you can’t suddenly say you want to reach a whole new audience and disregard the loyal viewers. Many were housewives and elderly, but are we to say they should not be watching television? We shouldn’t have programmes for that group of people?
You can’t suddenly clear out the majority of the cast, taking away the viewers familiar old friends, and replace them with more youthful characters and still expect the programme to remain popular. It was all smart speeches and pretty pictures, the caring side; the family side had been wiped away.
But you did agree that some long term characters had to leave from time to time, like Meg Mortimer, played from episode one by Noele Gordon?
I agreed with Charles Denton* that she had to go because we no longer could have the programme evolving around one central character. It had to evolve and slowly change and I don’t feel it ever could have with Meg still as the matriarchal figure.
She was hurt, of course, Nolly. She had been a personal friend for years, but she wouldn’t have accepted her character of Meg being cut-down, placed out in the village into retirement or running the post office. Noele was a star and loved being the lead. She would have hated being reduced to playing one of the many supporting characters. So I do really feel rather than the indignity of Nolly going through that, it was best for her to go with a big send-off.
What is your fondest memory of working on Crossroads?
The most fun I had was while filming the leaving of Meg Mortimer. Under a shroud of secrecy, I tried to ensure that the media got no inkling of Meg’s eventual means of dispatch. I even donned a fake moustache to throw reporters off the scent while filming aboard the QE2 in Southampton.
Finally what about that love-hate relationship with the newspapers?
I loved playing cat and mouse with the press. When I was spotted by a group of journalists and they asked me who I was, I said my name was Wolfenden and marched past. It was actually the stage manager’s name and I just plucked it out of the air.
*Charles Denton, ATV Head of Programmes, and Margaret Matheson, ATV Head of Drama, later told us that neither of them had any involvement in deciding Noele should leave.
Jack Barton Interview courtesy of the Central Television Press Office Archive (Jill Sherwin) and The Weekly News Archive Manchester (Ian Towers).