Introduction by Jack Barton, speaking in 1984 to Central Press Office, on his view why Crossroads is a success:
“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 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.” – producer Jack Barton
Towards the end of 1969 Crossroads re-located from the Alpha Television Centre in Aston Cross, just outside of Birmingham, to the newly built ATV Centre in the middle of Birmingham City Centre.
As noted previously in the 1960s the television regulator – the ITA – had since ATV Midlands went on air regularly criticised the standard of the studio facilities in the region. From 1956 to 1969 the programmes for the area were produced in a far-from- satisfactory facility. When the television licences were due for renewal by the ITA in 1964, they imposed on ATV the stipulation that a new purpose-built studio centre would be built in the Midlands.
Not long after ATV began building the Paradise Centre on Broad Street and in 1967 ATV were re-awarded their broadcast licence for the Midlands, extended from five-days to seven – ABC Midlands departed the weekend Independent Television airwaves.
“Yes the Alpha Studios had a few problems, they were an old cinema and the roof whenever it rained used to leak. We used to have buckets of water all across the studio floor to catch the rainwater. This wasn’t the best way to work, and potentially dangerous as 240v doesn’t mix well with water, but anyway we all survived” – Crossroads Director Alan Coleman.
For Crossroads the move into central Birmingham saw the programme prepare for colour recording. New sets were introduced ready for the first colour edition airing in early November 1969. Finally, the production was in a purpose-built studio – Studio one ATV Centre – putting it on as far as production facilities went a level pegging with the twice-weekly shows such as Coronation Street at Granada in Manchester and Castle Haven from YTV in Leeds.
“Crossroads was the first programme to use Studio One at the new ATV Centre, and so I carried my female assistant through the doors of the control room to christen the new building rather like a newly married couple.” – Crossroads Director Alan Coleman
The former Aston Cross studios still partly stand today. An office block built by Alpha Studios for ATV and ABC TV to use remains standing, although the former cinema has long since been demolished. Unofficially the studios opened in September 1969, it was the following year when Princess Alexandra came to open the complex officially. The grand opening took place on the 19th March 1970 with the princess visiting all the production areas of the studios as well as a lunch in Studio One.
Crossroads, in Studio Two for the day, also saw the member of the royal family pay the motel a visit as Noele Gordon recalls in her autobiography:
“The Princess asked me what scene we were shooting and I gave her a rough outline of the current plot.. ..’What are you going to do in this scene?’ asked the Royal visitor. ‘Nothing much’ I said. ‘Something awful has just happened to my son and I just have to faint.’ The Princess was most intrigued. ‘You mean actually fall down in a heap?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Show me,’ said the Princess. So I did. I just fell. Just where I was – right at her feet. ‘You make it look very easy,’ said the Princess.
“The studio hands gave me a polite round of applause, and as our local ATV news team were covering the Royal visit, the whole incident appeared in our Midland news bulletin that very evening. But without the soundtrack or any real explanation of what it was all about.. ..a couple of days later I pulled up at my usual garage for some petrol. ‘I saw you on the telly,’ said the attendant. ‘That really was a terrible thing to do. Fancy falling down drunk in front of Royalty.’ I’m sure he really believed I was drunk.”
1971 was Crossroads’ next big moment – reaching 1500 episodes on May 25th – one of the biggest celebrations the series was ever to see was held for this landmark. The whole cast was taken on a UK tour, a special edition of the TV Times marked the occasion and it all culminated in a 24-hour stay in Jersey.
The year also saw the team honoured when Prince Philip requested a visit to see Crossroads in production. The husband of Queen Elizabeth II noting he and several of the royals were fond of the Crossroads Motel. Former PM Harold Wilson also dropped into the studios to see how the motel came to life. Even although Crossroads was still yet to be screened in the North West and Lancashire region (Granada) the series was already regularly hitting the Top Ten in several region’s local ITA ratings. It was just outside the national top twenty for the broadcaster.
The early 1970s also saw the programme continue to mix a level of outside broadcast material into the programme with village scenes shot at Tanworth in Arden, the Birmingham Gas Basin canal side, Walford Hall which doubled as the motel and the grounds of the Chateau Impney Hotel just some of the locations used. Further afield locations saw the crews head to Oxford for the aftermath of Diane losing her son Nicky who had been kidnapped by his father Frank.
The production team in 1973 also recorded a number of episode scenes in Cradley Heath as the Harvey family went on a nostalgic trip back to father Wilf’s youth. This also saw scenes inside a foundry to show the industrial Midlands which was fast becoming a thing of the past. These episodes were written by actor Edward Clayton who played Wilf’s son Stan in the show.
The storyline came about after Edward submitted a drama to telly executives about a glass blowing factory. While that was unsuccessful they liked the plot and suggested he adapt it for Crossroads. Crossroads was also afforded something it never had previously had – videotape editing. With the move to the new studios ATV finally had sufficient editing facilities, the serial was occasionally given the use of the service for a ‘polished production finish’ on some of the more important episodes such as the editions involving Harriet the vintage car which had several scenes shot across the Midlands include countryside views from a helicopter backed by pop song Born With A Smile On My Face.
Noele Gordon from 1969 onwards continued to feature in the top ten of the TV Times most popular person on television awards year after year and throughout the 1970s she went on to win many other TV Times awards, best dressed, best character and so on, as well featuring regularly in numerous newspapers viewer-voted TV award listings. Even Crossroads itself won awards for ‘best programme’, from newspapers such as The Mirror, The Sun (four years in a row) and even the Daily Telegraph!
In 1974 the first of many behind-the-scenes shake-ups was about to take place. Reg Watson decided to leave the UK and return to his native home of Australia where he had originally started his career as a radio actor. Noele Gordon tells us more about Reg and his leaving of Crossroads in her autobiography:
“Reg and I worked together for eighteen years at ATV, and when he decided to leave us I was at first shocked and then sad that he had decided to go. He returned home to Australia to work as Head Of Drama at the production company, The Grundy Organization, and I know at the time it was just as big a wrench for him to leave us, as it was for us to see him go.
“I first met Reg at the old Associated Television House in Kingsway, London, when I walked into his office. I knew from his reaction when I entered the room that he had absolutely no idea who I was, but we travelled up to Birmingham together with Ned Sherrin to help launch the Midlands ATV operation. Ned was in charge of all the news and current affairs output while Reg was responsible for the light entertainment.
“Reg joined us with a commercial background, having worked in radio since he was sixteen; he came to England in 1955 at the start of Independent Television. It was he who launched me in Lunch Box, on which I was the hostess. It was really a chat show combined with light entertainment. Reg and I worked on 3,000 editions of Lunchbox and just over 2,000 episodes of Crossroads.
“I knew from that first meeting that we would be able to work well together. We understood each other and spoke the same language. Reg has always been able to give me the confidence and encouragement every performer needs. Reg Watson’s departure affected us all in different ways. Jane Rossington went along with Roger Tonge to tape a little farewell message. This was the idea of one of our scriptwriters, Ian Scrivens. He had arranged for us all to record an individual message and the tape was given to Reg when he left for Australia.
“At the end of Roger and Jane’s message, Roger noticed that Jane’s eyelashes were falling off, tears rolling down her cheeks. Roger didn’t know what to say, to them, for the first ten years, Reg had been like an uncle.”
At first, it was unclear to the Crossroads team who would take over the role of producer. The obvious choice was Alan Coleman, the first regular director on the soap, who had also worked with Noele on Lunch Box. However, in a double-whammy Alan had been lured to Australia, along with Reg, to start up Grundy Television’s Drama Department. He had already left the Crossroads team two years earlier to become Head of Children’s Drama at ATV. With the best man for the job leaving with Reg, the next longest running director was hired for the role – Jack Barton. Another who had been with ATV since its earliest days.
Barton had worked on several Midland ATV productions as well as London programme Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Noele Gordon continues the story:
“Jack also used to direct me during my Lunch Box days and it was during this period that he met the Duke of Bedford who made a guest appearance on the programme. They got on well together and when the Duke offered him an executive post at Woburn Abbey, Jack left us.”
“But after four years, Jack decided to return to television and returned to ATV Midlands. In 1970 he became a director on Crossroads, four years later he accepted the job as producer.”
Noele Gordon tells us more about Jack Barton in ‘My Life At Crossroads’ in 1975:
“He has spent all his working life in show business, after running away from school to join a circus. He has worked in the theatre as an actor, singer and dancer. He has produced all types of shows, from Shakespeare to revue.”
Jack Barton took over Crossroads with no initial on-screen changes and carried on the storylines and characters Reg had devised for quite a while after the changeover. One of Reg Watson’s last storylines to be completed was the wedding of Hugh Mortimer to Meg Richardson. Overseen by Jack Barton in March 1975 the recording in Birmingham brought the city centre to a halt, and 1000s of people lined the streets to get a glimpse of the actors.
The series had always been ‘socially aware’ bringing topical storylines to the show from time to time. In 1972 it peaked with the storyline which saw Sandy Richardson injured in a car crash. Researched at Stoke Mandeville Hospital and the Robert Jones & Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital some months previously, along with advice from ATV’s own medical advisor Dr. Richard Hudson-Evans, it led to widespread praise for the portrayal of a person coming to terms with the loss of the use of their legs and more so the storyline evolved to show the daily issues carers faced.
This in turn led to the fictional Caring for Carers scheme which in 1974 became a reality. The scheme, founded by ATV, continues to run to this day. During Jack Barton’s tenure as producer, these social storylines were increased, including the introduction of Benny Hawkins who had learning difficulties. A storyline which saw him taught to read and write lead to a national literacy campaign across the UK.
“As far as Crossroads viewers were concerned the show could do no wrong. By the middle of the decade, the motel soap was out-doing Coronation Street in the ratings with many episodes topping one or both of the Weatherfield saga. Awards and high ratings were its high point of the 1970s. The series may have been far from popular with critics but viewers were watching it, and voting for it at award shows, in their millions.” – Crossroads Fan Club spokesman Scott Curtis.
It is possibly thanks to its high ratings and viewer awards that saw Jack Barton saved from negative press articles across his time in charge of the motel. While later producers such as Phillip Bowman (1985-86) and William Smethurst (1986-88) were seen as ‘axe men’ Barton was rarely labelled as such – this despite axing just as many well-loved characters from the storylines.
There were some minor articles in the late 70s about actors and actresses leaving, but none of the publications spun up the viewers distaste in such moves like they would in the 80s. By 1978 Barton’s Crossroads was beginning to be established; with numerous Reg Watson characters falling into the background or axed entirely.
John Bentley as Hugh Mortimer was sacked by letter, Sally Adcock who played waitress Jane Smith was told she wasn’t needed after a spell on maternity leave. Zeph Gladstone’s hugely popular character Vera Downend was swiftly dropped as was the character of Stan Harvey – actor Edward Clayton – following the performers distaste at some of Barton’s production practices.
Cast recalled how Jack knew how to, ‘keep them in their place’ Heather Chasen noted “Jack Barton, he was quite bossy but he knew exactly how to keep the animals happy, exactly what he wanted, when he wanted it.” while Lynette McMorrough noted he regularly told her she was fat. From 1972 onwards – when Granada, makers of Coronation Street, finally showed Crossroads – the series was never out of the Independent Broadcasting Authority’s Top Twenty and rarely out of the IBA Top Ten programmes.
At points in 1975, 1976 and 1977 the teatime aired soap topped all the television charts, beating everything on BBC One, BBC Two and IBA.
“Amazing that a cheap daytime ‘filler’ of a soap opera, was beating everything on television including The Two Ronnies, Morecambe and Wise and bigger budget series such as General Hospital, Emmerdale Farm and Coronation Street. It was a daytime show which pulled in prime time ratings.” – Crossroads Fan Club spokesperson Scott Curtis.
With the exception of Sir Lew Grade, there were executives at ATV who simply couldn’t understand why people watched Crossroads, and its growing popularity made the soap one of ATV’s flag-ship programmes; much to the dislike of some in the industry. The television regulator, the IBA, found the whole show an embarrassment to Independent Television. The embarrassment streaming from critics who continued to compare a five-days-a-week soap to a twice-weekly serial or even a hour-long saga. The latter all having more production time to create episodes than Crossroads.
“We know our limitations, we’d love to have the time to put things right, but if we had the time to put things right we wouldn’t be able to make a soap opera” – Noele Gordon, speaking to ATV in 1978
1976 saw under the IBA guidelines Lew Grade, who had just turned 75, retire from ATV. Now with Crossroads’ only major defender gone, it was only a matter of time before the plans were put in place to get rid of the show at the Independent Broadcasting Authority. Headed by Lady Plowden the television regulator compiled a list of programmes they found of ‘dubious quality’. Coronation Street, Opportunity Knocks, Stars on Sunday and Crossroads were just some of them on their hit list.
ATV executive Charles Denton recalled a meeting with the ITV company bosses and the IBA board members which saw the topic turn to Crossroads, with much disgust chairwoman Plowden went on to described the show as ‘distressingly popular’.
“ATV unashamedly was a show business company, the Independent Television network needed a showbiz company, but the authority wanted a sort of BBC Two I think. Maybe I’m being hard on them but they never showed much sympathy, certainly, Lady Plowden who was chairman of the television authority at the time, the IBA, she didn’t understand mass-market television.
“Lady Plowden was a sweet woman, but she was much better suited to be head of an Oxford convention than the head of the IBA… Distressingly popular was a direct quote at the IBA and they said it quite seriously.” – Charles Denton, Midland Programme Controller, 1976-1984
Also at the meeting for London Weekend Television, the company who had taken over from ATV London at weekends in the capital, was Michael Grade.
“It was a funny time, Crossroads was extraordinarily popular with ITV’s mass audience in those days. Very successful, completely harmless – but the IBA.. ..were rather sniffy about it and in those days it was rather a predacean bunch of the great and the good. And they were rather embarrassed as they couldn’t really be proud of Crossroads at dinner parties and so on.
“And they didn’t like the fact that IBA’s top ten every week was dominated by episodes of Crossroads and they tried to either get its episodes reduced per week or get it cancelled. This is the regulator, who is supposed to be looking after the interests of the public, and when they were pressed as to why they wanted it axed, the IBA Chairman said to a gathering of Independent Television Chiefs that ‘the authority finds it distressingly popular.’ What an age that was!” – Michael Grade – London Weekend Director of Programmes, 1976-1982
The IBA ‘hit list’ of programming they noted as ‘dubious quality’ – yet pulled in millions of viewers and won endless television awards – saw by the end of the decade two killed off as the ‘quality axe’ swung. Stars on Sunday and Opportunity Knocks were taken off air for good. Soap and serial, however, is harder to remove as it never takes production breaks.
Crossroads, airing four editions a week – but producing five, was in 1979 part of a series of audience research schemes. The feedback given to the television regulator was that the programme was popular with many age groups and many of the older audience preferred the series when it aired Monday to Friday.
The IBA ignored all the findings and instead ordered the series to be cut to three airings a week. This had no effect on Crossroads as ATV continued to record ‘as live’ and made five a week. The fewer airings, however, did give the programme a six-week summer studio break every year from 1980 onwards – this ultimately would also help end the series later on.
The cut to three episodes caused more outrage with viewers. The IBA, ATV and other regional stations noted disgruntled fans getting in touch to register their distaste with the cutting back further of their favourite teatime saga. Crossroads viewers proved it was far from ‘background television’ as Grampian TV in Scotland noted they had 1000s of calls or letters any time they moved Crossroads’ slot in the schedules, Thames Television in London found themselves once more at the receiving end of complaints when they moved it out of its later airing time to an earlier slot and ATV was inundated with annoyed fans when it was moved from 6.30 pm to 6 pm.
Noele Gordon recalled in her autobiography about just how loyal the Crossroads fans were, and why she thinks the show, at that point in 1975, was so popular:
“Every week we would get letters asking for details of the furniture and furnishings used in Meg’s sitting-room. They also wanted the same wallpaper, as well as to know where they could get the various ornaments, pictures and light fittings. ‘We want our sitting-room to be just like Meg’s,’ they’d tell me in the letters.
“Crossroads was popular because viewers’ tastes changed over the years, and we changed with them. There was quite an outcry when we first had a story about an unmarried mother, a girl who came to work for me as a waitress and had a child by a merchant seaman. Crossroads after Reg Watson left became ‘more adult.’ In later years we had two other stories where illegitimate children were born, with no protests at all.
“Viewers in later years expected more realistic plots and situations, so we started to deal with more contemporary life, however, we were always aware that Crossroads was a family show, and the dialogue was adapted to those viewers.”
The 1970s era of Crossroads was popular, as Noele says because it was a family show. It aimed to appeal to everyone of every age who may be tuning in at teatime. Unlike many soaps of later years, the Crossroads producers were always conscious of who might be watching at 6:30 pm at night; Maybe this is why the programme was knocked by those who only saw small sections of episodes because it didn’t go into great graphic detail, it may, to the ‘casual viewer’ seem tame. It simply, more often than not, suggested what had happened: so that those old enough would understand, but the plot wouldn’t have a negative effect on youngsters.
And while it was aware not to overly offend viewers the series at times did screen taboo language for teatimes such as “bitch” and “bastard” and occasionally screened, certainly in the Reg Watson years, scenes which may be uncomfortable to some viewers.
By the mid-1970s Crossroads had dealt with alcoholism, witchcraft, vandalism, drunk driving, women in prison, rape, assault, prostitution, abortion, miscarriage, terminal illness, false accusations of rape, murder and the physically handicapped to name only a few; most of these situations were handled and presented in a way that was acceptable to family viewing.
The occasions where things were more graphic often gained complaints from the IBA who ordered ATV to ‘tone it down’. Notably, a scene involving a suicide where a male killed himself by throwing himself in front of a train and also a murder in a chalet which was highly altered to appease the IBA. It’s also fair to note that in the 1970s the IBA ruled the airwaves with a rod of iron and Crossroads was often not allowed by the regulator to go as far as the writers may have liked.
People who may tune in for only a few minutes might view this as ‘amateurish’ or not very realistic, but for those who watched the whole show, night after night they were involved with the characters, so much so many would ring the police if Benny was for example wrongly accused of murder or telephone the hospitals to see if Glenda Brownlow was recovering following being raped and dumped in a motorway siding.
1978 also saw Crossroads reach another landmark, its 3000th episode. Again there were celebrations on-screen with a special edition of local news show ATV Today, chatting to the cast, and a celebratory party at the Chateau Impney Hotel. ATV also marked the episode landmark with a half-hour special called ‘Nolly’ which saw Noele Gordon meet fans and critics of the programme.
Throughout 1979 the serial continued with its successful formula, however, a technicians strike saw the series taken off-air for three months. The show returned in time to celebrate its 15th anniversary, which saw Noele Gordon once more doing the interview rounds. In a speech, recorded by ATV, at the 15th-anniversary party she noted:
“Of course we have our critics, one lady in a national newspaper once called us ‘amateur’, well if amateur is used in its proper sense, which means ‘for the love of’ then we are very proud to be ‘amateurs’.
“Despite rumours that we would never open, and when we did we could never survive, we’ve done so and we must be the only catering establishment in the world which entertains sixteen million guests a night.” – Noele Gordon, 1979
Despite the continued success with viewers, the series was fast becoming out-of-date to the ATV executives and critics – with its ageing production values – such as ‘as live’ and a look which hadn’t been updated since 1969.
Next the 1980s…
|Page credits: written in parts by Mike Garrett, Douglas Lambert and Tom Dearnley Davidson.
Quotes: Noele Gordon from her autobiography, My Life At Crossroads by Star Books, ATV interview footage from 1978/1979, Charles Denton to ATV in 2011, Michael Grade on BBC Radio 2 in 2006 and Alan Coleman to ATV in 2010. Photographs courtesy of Reg Watson, Central Press Office, Carlton Archive, John Jameson Davis, Peter Kingsman and the Noele Gordon archive. Wedding footage still from ATV Today news programme. Press cuttings courtesy of Reg Watson.