Reg Watson, the man who helped establish ATV Network’s ATV Midlands in 1956 and went on to create Britain’s first “true” soap opera, Crossroads, has been honoured with Australia’s equivalent of the MBE.
Reg worked in the UK between 1955 and 1973 before returning to his native Australia where he continued to devise and produce popular serials including The Young Doctors and Neighbours.
Reg grew up on a sugar farm in Queensland, but a fascination with drama saw Watson in the limelight as a radio actor and later announcer. 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.
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.
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. It is noted that Watson produced at least once every programme ever made at the ATV Alpha studios in Birmingham’s Aston.
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. With Reg producing and Noele hosting the duo had the perfect blend. Their biggest success was Britain’s first live daily daytime chat show and variety series, Lunchbox. The show being the forerunner to the BBC’s long-running Pebble Mill at One – which was also produced in Birmingham.
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.
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.
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 soap would be unique. No other channel aired a serial with so many episodes of drama a week, none were styled in 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 the facts never seemed to get in the way of the critic’s reviews. But to Reg and Lew Grade, critics comments were unimportant, what mattered to them were the millions who enjoyed their kind of programmes…
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 Watson also helped found what has become one of the worlds biggest caring for carers organisation – 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 caring. ATV donated £10,000 to set up the 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, which was 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 inspiration for Prisoner: Cell Block H which evolved around the inmates of Wentworth Detention Centre.
Network 10’s Cell Block H was a foray into a more drama style 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 was even proud to boast their own links to the Albert Memorial Hospital when the original trailers for The Young Doctors boasted “From the creator of Crossroads!”.
It wasn’t all re-workings, an original idea 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.
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 ‘soap opera’ style of glamour, escapism and fun – with a touch of high drama for good measure – Neighbours became a smash-hit daily soap. Well eventually.
Originally pitched to Seven in 1984, the soap was broadcast on Channel Seven in 1985 – Neighbours bombed, the show was quickly axed. 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. He recently 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.
Today Reginald James Watson became a Member of the Order of Australia, an order of chivalry established by Queen Elizabeth II in 1975, “for the purpose of according recognition to Australian citizens and other persons for achievement or for meritorious service”. Before the establishment of the Order, Australian citizens received British honours.
Reg was issued his gong “for service to the media as a pioneer in the creation and production of serial television drama.”
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 and many of his serials continue to air around the world in repeat runs. Neighbours celebrate 25 years on the air in 2010.
Michael Keohan is a radio presenter and has worked for stations including Lite FM and Capital Radio.
He also from 2008-2009 wrote a monthly personal showbiz column for ATV Today.
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