Cleo Sylvestre took part in “Soap Queens” (2001), a tribute to Noele Gordon and other leading ladies of popular soaps at London’s National Film Theatre.
The event was organised by Stephen Bourne who screened an early episode of Crossroads and introduced Cleo to the audience as “Meg Richardson’s ‘forgotten’ daughter.” There followed a lively “chat” which revealed the truth about Cleo’s role in Crossroads in the early 1970s. Here is a full-length interview with Cleo that Stephen is happy to share with the CAS.
Can you describe your first appearance in Crossroads?
I joined the cast in January 1970. At the very end of an episode, I walked into the motel with a suitcase and rung the reception desk bell. The receptionist came out and I said “Can I speak to Mrs Richardson, please?” and she said “Yes. Who shall I say is asking for her?” I replied, “Tell her it’s her daughter.” And then the music came up. What a cliffhanger! This was the first time Meg’s other daughter had been mentioned.
Who was she?
Melanie Harper was Meg’s adopted daughter who, until then, had never been mentioned. Melanie arrived from France, where she had been studying, and viewers just accepted her. It was great. It was wonderful.
Whose idea was it was to introduce Melanie?
I had been appearing on BBC television in some of those gritty, social realist dramas, like Ken Loach’s Up the Junction and Cathy Come Home. In August 1969 I had a great part in the TV play called Some Women and the day after it was shown my agent had a phone call from Reg Watson, who was producing Crossroads. He invited me to Birmingham, took me around the studios, and asked if I’d like to join Crossroads.
Enoch Powell had been making those terrible ‘Rivers of Blood’ speeches, which resulted in a lot of racial tension up and down the country, especially in cities like Birmingham. Reg must have picked up on this, and decided to create one of the first regular black characters in a British soap. Reg asked me questions about my background, and I told him I’d studied French, so that’s how Melanie came to be a student in France before she turned up at the motel.
What happened to Melanie in the series?
She ended up being a receptionist in the motel, and also a chambermaid. I had lots of scenes with Susan Hanson [Diane] and most of them were comical. In fact, we received a lot of letters from viewers saying they loved watching our scenes and asking if we could be given our own comedy series. It was great. It was very happy time for me, even though the pressure was enormous.
We were doing five episodes a week, and sometimes I’d be in all of them. The cast and crew were absolutely smashing, especially Noele Gordon, who was lovely. She was very friendly, and always went out of her way to be helpful.
Can you remember any storylines?
Yes. The cash box kept on disappearing. They couldn’t work out who was taking this money and the finger of suspicion pointed at several characters. Eventually, they discovered it was Melanie taking the cash box – while she was sleepwalking! Then there was another story when Melanie was being blackmailed because she was trying to get her French boyfriend into the country – illegally. The boyfriend didn’t appear and that was why Melanie left, to go back to France, and her boyfriend.
Why did you leave?
One day Reg Watson came up to me and said “Oh, Cleo, we have a storyline for you in December” and this was in June and I suddenly had visions of being locked in Crossroads for the whole of my career. I thought about Reg’s plans. It was very tempting. I loved being in the series. It gave me regular work and a regular income, and it was fun to do, but I was young and I didn’t want to commit myself to soap for a long period, so I left.
If somebody offered me a soap today I’d say “Yes, please. Lovely”, because I’ve done a lot of things since Crossroads, especially theatre, which has always been my first love. I could have stayed in Crossroads but I chose not to.
How do you feel about the criticisms made about Crossroads?
I don’t think the criticisms were justified. The series was ridiculed by some critics but, as far as I am concerned, it did a tremendous amount of good just having an ordinary person in there that happened to be black. I played a character that lots of viewers identified with at a sensitive time for race relations in this country.
Yes, there were times when actors forgot their lines, but we were working under terrific pressure. When I joined they made five episodes a week. The turnaround was very fast. We’d finish one show and then get our bunch of scripts for the next shows, and be off doing it. It was like that in weekly rep.
Crossroads was a telly version of old fashioned weekly rep. And as far as I am concerned, for an actor, it was a great training ground for television, learning the technique of television acting. David Jason hasn’t done too badly out of it!
Did people remember Melanie?
Oh, yes! She obviously stayed with people. When my children were young I’d take them to Sainsbury’s and while I was screaming at them, with no makeup on, saying “You can’t have that!”, a member of the public would come up to me and say, “Excuse me, didn’t you used to be in Crossroads?”
Another time, long after I had left the series, I was walking the kids to school and some workmen on a building site started humming the theme tune as we passed by. It was hysterical. I looked around and shouted “You lot have a good memory!” and they laughed.
When Stephen Bourne contacted Reg Watson and asked for his comments on Cleo he replied;
“Cleo is one of my favourite actresses from my years of producing Crossroads, and if she hadn’t agreed to play the part of Melanie Harper I wouldn’t have gone ahead with it. I knew she would make Melanie a charismatic character (which was essential) and I don’t doubt that people still fondly remember her as Melanie.
I also remember that she brought a lot of laughter to us behind the scenes at the studio. I was sorry she decided to not to continue in the serial. She’s very talented and I’d love to work with her again.” It should be noted that Melanie Harper as a character was added to the serial (as a regular) at a time of great racial tensions in Britain.’
It was a bold move, that none of the other drama serials dared attempt at that controversial time. Cleo was, in 1966, the first black actor to appear in the Granada serial Coronation Street in a minor role as a factory worker. Although it would be many years before they featured a regular ethnic character.
ATV had also introduced varying characters from all kinds of backgrounds and ethnicity including the first regular African character in Emergency Ward 10. Hazel Adair, Crossroads co-creator, a pioneer in giving all walks of life representation in drama also while working on BBC One’s Compact introduced the first major black actress to television. As far as Crossroads goes, Cleo was the first major character in an ITV daytime serial. The soap would also in the early 1970s be the first to introduce an African family to serial.
With thanks to Stephen Bourne for this 2007 interview.