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Cleo Sylvestre and Bethany Antonia hit back at ‘woke’ criticism of Nolly drama

Cleo Sylvestre as Melanie and Susan Hanson as Diane in a Crossroads promo from ATV in 1970


Cleo Sylvestre and Bethany Antonia hit back at ‘woke’ criticism of Nolly drama

Viewers of the daily soap opera have also criticised a newspaper article saying it lacked any research.

The one thing the Nolly drama starring Helena Bonham Carter has highlighted is some of the forgotten facts about the ATV soap which was often knocked for low-production values because it aired five episodes a week and was – oddly – compared to the twice-weekly counterparts and of course came out worse off. And while for years newspaper critics have focussed on that side of the show – especially since it came off air – the achievements of the saga (which even won awards) have slipped away remaining only in the memories of the die-hard loyal viewers. And with up to 18 million people watching each episode at its peak, that’s a lot of memories.

The selective recollection of the soap was seen earlier this week when journalist Chloe Govan proclaimed in The Daily Express “Nolly viewers have slammed the ITV show, starring Helena Bonham-Carter, and branded it “woke” after complaining that a “fictitious” character had been introduced to the story.”

Chloe and her ‘horrified at the wokeness of Nolly’ article went on to note some viewers had branded “the latest storyline “woke” and detached from reality, one fan tweeted: “Give it a swerve, they’ve woked it up as usual and made a fictitious black person the brains behind Crossroads!!! Load of old tripe!!” A second viewer asked incredulously: “Am I going mad? Meg Mortimer never had a black adopted daughter called Poppy did she? This is c**p.”

Sadly it seems the few tweets were made by people who had no idea of what Crossroads had actually aired in the nearly 24 years it was on air from 1964 to 1988 and Chloe hadn’t bothered to check to make sure what she was reporting was true – or maybe she didn’t care as the Express love a good ‘woke bashing’ article. Had she checked with the Crossroads Fan Club website all the details would have been easy to find. And if that was too much of an effort even the Royal Television Society noted the background of the characters.

Crossroads had several characters from varying backgrounds and ethnicities from the sixties to the eighties – it was the first UK serial to have a black family – The James’ in 1974. Just because Emmerdale and Coronation Street took decades to become more inclusive with their key characters doesn’t mean all sagas were that behind the times. Emergency Ward 10 (ATV, 1957-67) had the first regular black actress in a leading role in the UK and Crossroads introduced the character that the complaints made about Nolly are based on in 1970.

Noele Gordon (as Meg) and Cleo Sylvestre (as Melanie) in Crossroads 1970

It was Cleo Sylvestre MBE and her character of Melanie Harper – the adopted daughter of Meg – who was adapted into being Poppy in the Russell T Davies penned three-part drama. Melanie arrived in 1970 and stayed for two years. She formed an on-screen partnership with Diane Lawton (Susan Hanson) and their ‘double act’ became a viewer favourite – so much so fans of the soap wrote in suggesting the pair get a spin-off series.

Speaking to the Crossroads Fan Club in an interview conducted with Stephen Bourne, Cleo recalled: “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.”

Melanie arrived from France where she’d been studying. Cleo recalled, “Viewers just accepted her. It was great. It was wonderful.” adding, “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.”

ITVX drama Nolly with Bethany Antonia as Poppy Ngomo/Honour, Augustus Prew as Adam Chance/Tony Adams and Helena Bonham Carter as Meg Mortimer/Noele Gordon

Crossroads which won ITV Programme of the Year in 1966 and 1967 and was voted The Sun’s Viewers Programme of the Year for three years running from 1973 onwards, was a daytime soap that managed to pull in primetime ratings, however, due to its low production values its achievements are often cast aside for quick easy remarks about the iffy sets or the acting; The programme was recorded live to tape, so there was no editing. The critical attacks the show took Cleo thinks are unfair.

“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.

“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!”

On social media, speaking about the ‘woke’ criticism actor Bethany Antonia who portrayed Poppy in Nolly noted, Poppy (who I play) is fictional. But she’s very much inspired by Melanie Harper, who was in fact Meg Richardson’s adopted daughter in the show. Played by the wonderful Cleo Sylvestre from 1970 to 1972, and one of the first black British female regulars on British Television.”

Cleo thanked Bethany for highlighting the details behind Poppy sharing, Thanks Bethany Antonia for putting the record straight. Indeed, I did play Meg’s adopted daughter, A bold decision not long after Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech.”

The Daily Express item also goes on to note some had complained nothing was recorded in Birmingham by Quay Street Productions for the drama, this is something Noele Gordon would have been sad about. She promoted and supported production in the Midlands for the decades she worked there.

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