Reg Watson, the man who helped establish ITV’s ATV Midlands in 1956 and went on to create several hit TV serials, has died aged 93.
“I had over sixty years in theatre, radio and television and you must make a determined effort to give it all up and not look back- otherwise you will be the doddering old ‘know all’ who keeps interfering. That’s not my style.” – Reg Watson, speaking to TVTonight in 2015
Reg worked in the UK between 1955 and 1974 before returning to his native Australia where he continued to devise and produce popular serials including The Young Doctors and Neighbours.
‘Everyone at Neighbours is sad to hear of the passing of our creator, Reg Watson. He was a pioneer of drama, prolific in his output and by all accounts a lovely person to work with. His legacy lives on in Ramsay Street to this day.’ – Jason Herbison – Neighbours Executive Producer
Reg spent the evening under the in-vision desk
Reg was born in Maryborough, Queensland, Australia and spent his earliest years living on a sugar farm. He schooled at Flying Fish Point Education Centre and in his later teens moved to Innisfail, and later Brisbane. As a teenager, in Innisfail, he gained his first employment in a jewellery shop; however it was showbiz that Reg had an interest in and from the age of thirteen was one of the performers with Unity theatre, Queensland, progressing later to Brisbane Repertory in the late 1940s and early ’50s. In 1940 he joined one of a number of local radio stations working as an actor, announcer and writer.
He moved to the UK in 1955 switching to the new independent television service in London, ATV. Reg and former West End actress Noele Gordon were sent to America to study the US commercial television format in preparation for ATV’s launch in September of the same year. On ITV’s opening night, a joint co-production between ATV and Rediffusion, Reg spent the evening under the in-vision desk writing up to the minute scripts for the continuity announcers.
“There was a myth I had worked on The Archers for the BBC, that isn’t true, my first job in England was with ATV.” – Reg Watson
Reg, middle back row, with the Lunch Box regulars.
In 1956 ATV London staff were selected to launch a new service for the Midlands region. Presenter Noele Gordon was re-located to Birmingham as Head Of Lifestyle, Ned Sherrin as Head of Factual and Reg Watson completed the line up as Head Of Light Entertainment.
Early success came with children’s series Tingha and Tucker
While all ATV staff were given these fancy titles the station was so young – and cash-strapped – that Noele, Reg and Ned also worked in several other roles. ‘he also helped set up the sales department, wrote scripts for announcers and advised on presentation’ noted Television.au.
It is noted that Reg produced at least once every programme ever made at the ATV Alpha studios in Birmingham’s Aston. On ATV Midlands’ launch night Reg this time wasn’t under the desk but sat at one – having been informed a half-hour slot was missing a programme in the forthcoming week, he devised a chat show and managed to get it on air with only a few days turnaround.
Another early success came with children’s series Tingha and Tucker, following two toy koalas being sent to Reg as a gift by a viewer, he popped them up from the desk during a continuity announcement with Jean Morton and viewers took to them instantly. Lew Grade commissioned a weekly series that gained one of ITV’s biggest fan club’s ever for a children’s series, with ATV having to close it down in 1968 due to the Post Office and ATV Mail Room unable to cope with the workload of mail. The show finally departed in 1970.
“What a legacy Reg Watson leaves. For me, and millions of others, Neighbours impacted our lives. My thoughts and best wishes to his family and friends.” – performer Kylie Minogue
Reg (centre) on the set of ATV darts-based game show Hit the Limit.
Reg formed a great friendship with Noele Gordon and it is their early shows that became some of the most popular on the ATV Network. Together they brought impressive ratings to ATV London and ATV Midlands, as well as several other ITV regions who picked up some of their programming, including their biggest success, Britain’s first live daily daytime chat show and variety series Lunchbox. The production the forerunner to the BBC’s long-running Pebble Mill at One – which was also produced in Birmingham. It also saw several regional adaptions including The One O’clock Show on Tyne Tees in the North East and The One O’clock Club on Scottish Television.
Reg suggested a daily soap opera with Noele Gordon as the star
When 27,000 fans turned up to see Lunchbox and Noele at an outside broadcast in Nottingham in 1959 ATV boss Lew Grade was keen to invest in his star talent, especially as the broadcaster only expected 3,000 to attend that event.
Lew asked Reg for some ideas to build on the format’s success. Reg, recalling what he had seen while studying commercial broadcasting in the USA, suggested a daily soap with Noele Gordon as the lead matriarch.
It wasn’t until after the arrival of Granada Television’s Coronation Street in 1960 that Lew Grade took Reg’s idea seriously. ATV Network already had a twice-weekly saga – Emergency Ward 10 – set in London. But the Midlands was lacking in any form of networked ITV programming with a real local flavour, the regulator needed appeasing that ATV was dedicated to the Midlands and proud to promote the area to the rest of Britain.
“RIP dear Reg Watson… You cast me in Crossroads and were the loveliest producer…” – actress and writer Nadine Hanwell.
Reg brought Crossroads to life in 1964.
In 1964 Reg Watson was initially horrified to learn that Lunchbox was being axed, and even more terrified to learn that ATV was to attempt Britain’s first full-length daily half-hour soap opera – and he had been given the task to make it a success. Lew didn’t want a Corrie copy, he didn’t want a gritty drama. He wanted to build on the entertainment and escapist slant Reg was so good at.
Reg was tasked with creating Britain’s first half-hour daily serial
The Reg Watson Crossroads format [the actual series itself devised by Peter Ling and Hazel Adair] would be one he would use over and over again to create other serial hits, however, in the UK the Midland Motel based saga would be unique. No other channel aired a serial with so many episodes of drama a week, none were imaged, all be it very adapted, from the ‘American soap opera’ format either. This placed the series, set in the fictional village of Kings Oak, as a ground-breaker, with many firsts listed to the soaps credits. 18 million viewers ultimately loved it, it regularly beat Coronation Street in the ratings – and this was despite not being shown in every ITV region at the same time –or on the same day.
Most television critics found soap opera uncouth, more so that it was formed from a format adapted from America. It baffled them that a teatime soap could reach primetime ratings and have such a loyal following. They also didn’t quite get the fact, and some still don’t, that the series was unique in UK broadcasting for its first 20 years – until ironically Grundy soaps from Australia began to be shown in the UK. It couldn’t be compared to one-off lavish dramas or the twice-weekly serials. But compare they did, as director Alan Coleman once observed ‘its like comparing a Rolls Royce to a Morris Minor’. However for Reg and Lew Grade, critics comments were unimportant; what mattered to them were the millions who enjoyed their kind of programmes… Crossroads was voted ITV Programme of the Year in 1966 by viewers.
“I will always remember him as creating such a wonderful working environment when he popped into rehearsals or when we were in the studio. As a young mixed- race actress at a time not long after Enoch Powell had made his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, Reg invited me to join the cast of Crossroads as Meg’s adopted daughter, Melanie. It was a bold choice and my story lines didn’t focus on my colour. When I decided to leave to do more theatre work he was very gracious and understanding. A true gentleman and innovator who will be missed by so many.” – actress Cleo Sylvestre
In 1971 and 1972 a Gallup Poll asked ‘Which is the best programme you have seen this year?’ Coronation Street was at number one, Crossroads peaking at number four. By 1973 Crossroads was number one. The show also won numerous gongs in The Sun TV Awards, The TV Times Awards and was even voted ‘best TV show’ by readers of the upmarket Daily Telegraph newspaper!
Reg helped create the Crossroads Care charity, it still runs 40 years on
Reg Watson also helped establish what has become the UK’s biggest organisation for respite care and at one time, according to the charity itself, one of the largest of its kind anywhere – Crossroads Caring For Carers. A scheme evolving from a storyline in the soap in which a character was left disabled. Reg was shocked to learn families had to ‘fend for themselves’ and care for loved ones with little, or no, help. Watson, along with ATV Network, set the wheels in motion for a scheme, which would help families with their care work and give them a break from daily chores. ATV donated £10,000 to set up the first scheme in Rugby.
Having taken Crossroads to the top of the TV ratings, and over 2100 episodes, producer Reg Watson and the series’ first director, Alan Coleman, were head-hunted by Grundy Television to work in Australia to help establish a new drama department for the production company that had its past mainly rooted in game shows.
Soon more drama hits followed, including The Young Doctors in 1976 – produced to exactly the same format as Crossroads, and just like its UK counterpart was slated by the critics but loved by the audiences. Nine Network’s The Young Doctors’ inspiration coming from ATV’s Emergency Ward 10. It was another UK show which gave Reg his next top of the ratings winner. LWT’s Within These Walls proved the loose inspiration for Prisoner: Cell Block H. The female incarceration saga revolved around the inmates of Wentworth Detention Centre.
“Reg Watson delightful man, with an actor’s sense of humour. As producer of ‘Crossroads’ in ’73, he tried out a graphic device to replace the laborious camera movements of the famous credit sequence. He was thrilled when the first image to appear on the monitor read ‘Craproads'” – actor and writer Christopher Douglas
The Young Doctors proved a viewer hit in Australia and the UK.
Network 10’s Cell Block H was a foray into a drama production for Reg, rather than the daily saga format he’d enjoyed so much success with previously. Prisoner: Cell Block H along with The Young Doctors later proved to be incredibly popular in the UK – with both shows establishing loyal fan clubs after airing on ITV and the former inmate saga being repeated on Five. ITV were even proud to boast their own links to the Albert Memorial Hospital when the original trailers for The Young Doctors proclaimed; “From the creator of Crossroads!”.
Grundy soaps also proved a hit with UK viewers
An original idea by Reg proved to be Channel Seven’s first big soap success – Sons and Daughters became a primetime rating winner running for just under 1000 episodes. A simple, yet complicated, tale of two twins who are separated as babies. The boy and girl are reunited years later with, in true Reg style, dramatic results. Again it proved popular with ITV audiences in the UK and was also re-run on Five a decade later.
Today, of course, it’s the world-famous Neighbours that Reg Watson is most famous for. Watson credits the Manchester favourite Coronation Street as the basic idea for Ramsay Street, although most of the early ideas came from his own teenage years living in a Brisbane street.
“Many Australian Entertainment careers have a lot to thank for this man. A legend .. Mr Reg Watson.” – actor Jason Donovan
“I was lucky enough to be cast in two of the great shows created by the brilliant Reg Watson [Prisoner and Neighbours] …before the days of the ubiquitous reality boom. I am eternally grateful for his talent and grace… A brilliant man who certainly helped my career and hundreds of other lucky Australian actors” – actress Colette Mann
It may have taken Corrie’s idea of covering the tales of everyday life in a normal street or in Neighbours’ case cul-de-sac, but it wasn’t to use its format. Sticking to his tried and tested ‘daily serial fast turn-around production’ style of glamour, escapism and fun – with a touch of high drama for good measure – Neighbours became a smash-hit daily saga… Well eventually.
Reg has created serials viewers love and critics love to hate
Originally pitched to Seven in 1984, the soap was broadcast by that network for a few months in ’85 – Neighbours failed to lure in enough viewers for Seven execs; the show was quickly axed after just under 200 episodes. Luckily for Reg, and Grundy Television, Network 10 saw potential in the saga and commissioned it for their own channel. With some minor tweaks, the show became a worldwide phenomenon in the 1980s, making household names of Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue.
The series was centred upon three very different Erinsborough families, The Robinsons, Ramsays and Clarkes. For just under a decade Watson kept Neighbours in his vision, before retiring from television. In 2010 he criticised producers for ditching the original theme tune which summed up the cosy, family feel of the show. Neighbours has over the years lost the Reg-factor and for a while, ratings slipped away, however, bosses are determined to get back to the family mix that made it such a hit thirty years ago.
It is clear the Reg-factor, whatever it may be, has worked for decades with memorable serials that viewers love in their millions and television critics love to hate.
“So sad about Reg Watson’s death. What a dynamic producer he was ! He was quite a mentor for me. R.I.P.” – actress Judy Matheson
Neighbours proved to be a perfect blend for family viewing.
In January 2010 Reginald James Watson became a Member of the Order of Australia, an order of chivalry established by Queen Elizabeth II in 1975, Reg was issued his gong “for service to the media as a pioneer in the creation and production of serial television drama.”
Reg Watson a television pioneer, who knew what the public wanted
The shows that Reg Watson devised and produced continue to remain popular; Crossroads, Sons and Daughters and The Young Doctors have all had re-born success on DVD recently – with Prisoner: Cell Block H seeing every classic edition released to buy – and a rebooted new drama titled Wentworth taking the prison saga into the 2010s. Classic serials also continue to air around the world in repeat runs.
Reg died after a short illness aged 93 on October 8th. The news was released to ATV and Fremantle Media on October 12th. His legacy in the world of television however will long live on.
“The Neighbours legacy. Well, I produced the first five day a week serial, Crossroads in the UK. Critics hated it and Lady Plowden, the Chairman of the powerful Independent Broadcasting Authority wanted it off the air because she found it to be “distressingly popular.” That was fifty years ago and today in Britain they are still running repeats of the serial and fans are gathering to celebrate the anniversary. I’d like to think that people will still feel the same way about Neighbours in fifty years’ time.” – Reg Watson, speaking to TVTonight in 2015
Reg Watson and Noele Gordon with a studio audience for Lunch Box.
The Crossroads cast and crew, with Reg (front Middle), on the roof of the rehearsal rooms in 1970.
Reg, Noele Gordon and Lord Lew Grade, celebrate 1500 episodes of Crossroads in 1971.
Two snaps of Reg in his ATV office, 1973.
Reg Watson 1926 – 2019
The news was broken by ATV Network in the UK and TV Tonight in Australia. More on Reg Watson’s death from around the web:
Updated with quotes across 12.10.19.