Alan Coleman was the first-ever director on Crossroads – following Reg Watson both producing and directing the first week.
He has since become a serial legend – working on many other classic serials both here in the UK and abroad. Working closely with Reg Watson in the early years of Crossroads lead to Grundy Television offering both creatives senior positions at their newly formed drama department in Australia.
Hits such as The Young Doctors, Sons and Daughters, Prisoner: Cell Block H and Neighbours followed. Here Alan Coleman shares his memories of his time at ATV:
‘I wrote to Lew Grade [then head of ATV programming] and suggested that if I combined my talents as an actor and photographer this surely made me an ideal candidate for consideration as a trainee camera person with his company, Associated Television.’
This self-confident approach paid off. The letter led to an interview with the Production Controller at ATV, and thus began Alan’s career in television. It’s a story Alan uses today when teaching young actors during the many acting workshops he has held in the UK and Australia.
‘I tell them that in order to succeed, you have to overcome the biggest hurdle and that is getting to the interview,’… ‘You have to make the company want to talk to you. Make them want to find out what makes you tick.”I was in the right place at the right time. When Mr Grade decided to appoint trainee directors from the studio floor, I was lucky enough to be chosen from hundreds of applicants for the job. I worked as a trainee on many various shows, light entertainment, documentaries and chat shows. You name it, I did it.’
This apprenticeship was enough to convince Lew Grade that Alan’s strengths lay in drama, and in particular, a new daily programme ATV was planning called Crossroads.
The idea of a five nights a week drama on British television had come from Reg Watson, later the founding father of many Australian TV hits, including Neighbours. Originally entitled The Midland Road, the show was also a vehicle for ATV executive and star presenter Noele Gordon.
The show would follow the lives of widowed Meg Richardson [Noele Gordon], her children and the family of her sister Kitty Jarvis.
Fabulous – in a word. Fabulous and scary in two words, is how Alan recalls directing Britain’s first five nights a week serial.
‘We all knew, cast and crew alike, that we were breaking new ground. We knew we were setting the style for a brand new type of television drama.”You notice I never use the term soap’… ‘That term belongs to the American style of daily drama and we decided, up front, that our style would be tighter, faster and contain stories that would be more identifiable with the viewer.
In the show’s early days it was filmed “as live”, with scenes recorded in chronological order and little manoeuvre for editing out mistakes. Because we were virtually live the feeling was very much like that of a stage production.
As a former actor, it was an atmosphere that appealed to him, and Alan believes his early days spent on the stage made him a much better director.
‘I may be old fashioned, but I firmly believe that in order to direct, you have to have been directed. You have to know what it’s like to take direction. Noele Gordon did in fact make this comment to me one day during a particularly difficult human conflict story.
The pressure of producing a show that was filmed as almost live led to many “hairy moments”, as Alan describes them.
‘In those days we had to tune exactly to the second, as each network in the country would leave our feed at an exact time in order to run their own commercials in the break. We did have a bit of leeway. We ran the end credits live and if we were running over, we would either cut the captions short or run them faster. If we were under time the end titles would run for ever! On one occasion, we were way over time and, whilst still directing the current scenes and calling shots, I was also giving directions to our Floor Manager to pass on a new shorter final scene to the actors involved, in order to bring us out on time.’
Another occasion Alan remembers well illustrates the unflappable professionalism of Crossroads’ leading lady, Noele Gordon.
‘It was the final scene in an episode where a local councillor had to pass on the news to Meg Richardson that the council had voted on a proposed new motorway that would run right through the motel. Unfortunately, the actor playing the councillor had a total mental block as he entered Reception and just stood there looking blankly at Meg.
Noele Gordon immediately proceeded to take over the scene. As I remember it went something like this..’
MEG: Councillor, I suppose you have come to tell me of the Council’s decision at the meeting tonight?
COUNCILLOR: Er…. Yes….
COUNCILLOR: And…. Er..
MEG: And I suppose you’re going to tell me that the decision is that the motorway is going ahead and that the motel will have to close?
MEG: Thank you Councillor, you may report back to the Council and tell them that I will fight them to the bitter end on this matter.’
And, once again, Noele Gordon saved the day!’
He was to learn a lot from the veteran television presenter and actress.
‘Whenever we had a new actor joining the series, whether it be for a short weekly story or a long on-going storyline, Noele would do her homework, find out what the actor had done, who they were,’ he reveals. ‘Then she would make sure that she was there, in the green room, to greet the new actor with the words: “Hi – I’m Noele Gordon, I play Meg in the series. It’s so nice to meet you. Welcome to Crossroads, we really look forward to working with you.”
And if she had seen recent work from the new actor she would comment on it. She taught me that actors need to be noticed – so very important for a new actor joining a long-running series.’
Alan also remembers that there was a great sense of rivalry between who he called “two of the more famous actors” and their characters:
‘Each was convinced that their character was the more popular and successful. Out of this was born a storyline in the show where both of the ladies entered a competition to be the face on the packaging of a new brand of biscuits. We encouraged public support for each character and the outcome ultimately decided who indeed was the more successful character. This story gave us a strong story, good public reaction and extremely good publicity.”
The actresses in question were Ann George who played Amy Turtle and Elisabeth Croft who played Edith Tatum. The competition saw Ann as Granny Grimble and Elisabeth as The Duchess.