30 May 2018

Come to the Sabbat or Crossroads in My Life

I can pinpoint the moment I succumbed - at least, I think I can.

When I call the details to mind they seem fantastical: a young couple atop a scooter in various shades of white and gray - the overall fuzzy picture, I mean - are haring off to attend, or more likely prevent, some sort of Satanic ceremony. And as they drive off the bottom right of the screen and the already familiar theme starts to swell, something changes in me.

Until then Crossroads had been background noise while I chatted to my mother, enjoying my liberation from school. But now, as the two young people - the possibly white-helmeted passenger possibly Jill, daughter of the soap's matriarch - disappear not into the middle of next week but the same time tomorrow, and credits crisscross the screen, for the first time I find myself experiencing a strange sensation.

I actively want to watch the next episode.

Perhaps Fate chose me as much as I chose Crossroads. It was broadcast at different times in different ITV regions - in the South it wasn't shown at all for quite some time, and Harold Wilson's wife was involved in the campaign to reinstate it. In Scotland in the early 70s, however, it was shown at 4.35pm or thereabouts, meaning I could just about be home and seated in time for the grating fanfare of the ATV ident.

And so mother and son began to attend to events at the motel with equal curiosity and pleasure. At some point a freshly heated bowl of Heinz Cream of Chicken Soup became part of the ritual, already waiting on the small table in front of the TV when I arrived home, inducement or reward for my continuing commitment. I don't like to think it may have been a cynical attempt to foster a Pavlovian response so that I might learn to associate watching Crossroads with sensations of pleasure; besides, I was already hooked. There is also the possibility it may have been a simple token of maternal love.

I wasn't always the only plus one present although I maintain that my engagement with the soap was more fullhearted, my fidelity more dependable, than those other pretenders; if other bowls jostled mine on that table they have been hurled from memory. I can't recall just how long the soup-for-soap exchange lasted as a regular thing; it may have been only during the earliest years of watching together. But for that time, at least, I was her chosen dream companion.

Because Crossroads was, when I look back on it, a kind of dream - and not just for that mistily conjured cult-busting, or whatever it was. It took place, for a start, in that happy no-time between school and the arrival of my father, when the atmosphere in the house abruptly changed. And for my younger self the programme offered a reassuring fantasy of the future, of what adult life might be like, or that's the way it seems when I recall it now. This came to me forcefully when I was going through a box set recently: Vince, the postman, and Diane were setting up house together and there seemed something touchingly childlike and innocent about their behaviour. I have written elsewhere of Suggs's reaction when he first heard the Kinks' Lola; he didn't really understand the lyrics but drew from them the reassuring message that life would be okay, that somehow he would be able to cope with whatever the future held. I think that I felt something similar, at least in the early years of watching the programme.

I don't specifically remember the Vince and Diane moment first time around but it does seem to sum up the acting in much of the programme: adults behaving as though all too conscious of children in the room, striving to simplify their actions and conceal any emotions deemed too complex or disturbing for the young. Even if transmission times varied, the programme was always on around teatime rather than later in the evenings, and it was made in the knowledge that children would be watching. As a result life as portrayed on the show seemed clear and understandable, within the grasp of younger minds such as mine - greatly aided, as I now see, by the fact that most actors had had experience in weekly rep: performances were often big, and you knew who the bad guys were.

So perhaps there wasn't subtlety in every scene but even though I have acquired a certain amount of knowledge about the wider world of drama in the intervening years I think there is still a lot to commend Crossroads. It was a place, by and large, of kindness and courtesy, with Meg at the centre. It didn't always seem crammed with incident; there was breathing space for trivial but important interactions. Tea could be drunk in real time - there was lot of tea drinking - a Christmas episode might have carols sung in real time, not reducing them to the backdrop for some ratings-grabbing storyline. The overall message I grasped was that, like the young Suggs taking what he could from Ray Davies's song, life would somehow be okay: you could step out into the world and make your own way.

Which is not to imply that we watched in reverential silence. Often there would be a good-humoured, occasionally scathing, running commentary about the implausibility of particular stories, much as Dorothy Hobson describes in her observation of viewers for her 1982 book about Crossroads. "That was a short End of Part One," would be my mother's frequent complaint - though it could also be taken as a compliment to cast and writers about how those first ten or twelve minutes had whizzed by.
And it occurs to me that if aspects of the writing or acting were occasionally risible in a manner plain even to my younger self maybe there was something reassuring about the fact that these were adults making themselves look ridiculous, play-acting for a living, not distant, impossibly perfect beings. Perhaps that was part of the appeal of the programme: I know I have always been drawn to TV comedians for that reason: Peter Glaze, Freddie Davies and others.

In those days before VCRs if you were not in the room at the right time then after transmission the experience was gone beyond recall. There were circumstances which meant I often missed the opportunity to see it in later years, although when Crossroads finally shut its doors in 1988 my mother taped it so we could eventually watch that last episode together. Meg had long gone by then, and the saga was finally brought to a conclusion with Jill driving off, not to halt a Satanic ritual  but to embrace chance with a small "c", having forsaken her husband Adam for a life with a man whose character name I still don't know but whom I immediately recognised as the singer Jeremy Nicholas. I hadn't been following the show for some time but the act of sitting together to watch the curtain fall still seemed an important moment. Was soup provided? I can't recall.

Jill's last words were that "Crossroads" would be "an awfully good name" for another venture, although when the series was revived - in name, at least - many years later Jane Rossington and Tony Adams (Adam Chance) were spectacularly ill-used in what seemed a betrayal of all the goodwill built up over the many years of the original show. I recall attending a BAFTA event around that time in which some writers or producers discussing soaps compared the new Crossroads to Eastenders. The main point seemed inarguable: there was no compelling reason, no attitude, no sense of direction behind the resurrecting of the title. In time it died again, rose again ... but I have no interest in pursuing that trail.

For readers of my vintage who want to relive the experience of watching the original Crossroads during those long-ago teatimes I can recommend the 45th Anniversary box set - assuming you can find a copy. Compilations of cherrypicked episodes are also available, and presumably youtube has its fair share, though I haven't checked how many. But soaps depend on the cumulative effect of watching episodes in sequence, and having already watched about half of the box set's comprehensive collection of surviving shows from the Noele Gordon era I can confirm that it's far more satisfying to see the storylines gradually building and to relive again that eagerness to see how a cliffhanging ending will turn out - which is, of course, what got me hooked in the first place.

Those with greater self-control may wish to leave twenty four hours between the viewing of each episode for the full effect but the programmes are decidedly moreish: performing onstage may be, as the late Ken Dodd said, like having all your birthdays at once, but viewing the shows on this box in rapid succession is like fastforwarding through your adolescence.

There are sizeable gaps which occasionally curtail that dizzying pleasure - sometimes we leap over years or, by the mid-seventies, more usually months - but there are also large slabs of episodes in sequence. The absence of some can even have, as an accidental byproduct, a sort of accelerated effect on the drama: we suddenly jump, for example, from Jill's seduction by brother-in-law Anthony Mortimer (very Pre-Raphaelite Wronged Woman body language in the immediate aftermath) to visible signs of her pregnancy, several months on. And the sense of constraint I referred to earlier can have its advantages: when the husband of Meg's best friend Tish is having an affair, or suspected of doing so, Tish only discusses with him the possibility of his "having a lunch" with someone. The line is primarily intended to save the innocent ears of kiddiwink viewers but never before has such a phrase been so heavily weighted with subtext.

On the down side, although we see a fair amount of the dodgy-but-loveable barman Bill Warren (David Valla), a kind of ineffectual Bilko, and the wonderfully daffy waitress Avis Tennyson ("no relation"), played by Helen Dorward, the caddish Bill's wooing of Avis and the longrunning saga of the "Avis-is-marrying-Bill" fund has not survived. And one particularly touching moment I remember from its original transmission has gone: Stan's (Edward Clayton) response to the death of his dad Wilf (Morris Parsons) seemed to be imbued with a sense of the actor mourning a colleague.

But so much is preserved on the discs which is hugely enjoyable and moving. When Noele Gordon clearly gets it into her head that a big emotional scene is coming up that can make for embarassing viewing; on the other hand, I have just witnessed a perfectly judged scene between Jim Baines (John Forgeham) and Sharon Metcalf (Carolyn Jones) where he first explodes at her for interfering in his business (his wife's agrophobia) and then softens when she blurts out: "You are my business!"

And in a storyline about Vera (Zeph Gladstone) becoming acqainted with the son she gave away there is a really touching scene where the woman who adopted him forms an unlikely alliance with Vera once they realise they will both be losing him to the twin attractions of university and a new girlfriend. Elsewhere, there is a great little scene with Morris Parsons and Jack Woolgar (Carney) striking sparks off each other, and I'd forgotten what an effective, if idiosyncratic, actor Roger Tonge was; he and Woolgar are often used as sounding boards for the problems of other characters.

In fairness to Noele Gordon, she is very good at the longsuffering comic foil bit, a la Barbara Knox in Corrie, reacting to the stupidities of those around her, as in a far-fetched but delightfully farcical storyline of a man hiding out for several days in her bedroom, trying both to avoid the attentions of detective Don Bullman and to weasel his way into her affections: "Don't call me 'Mrs M!'"

The above is the merest sampling of what is on offer. For those who may be new to Crossroads, or resistant to it, then the advice that soaps do not yield up their satisfactions immediately probably isn't much encouragement to explore further. My nostalgiac connection may render all claims suspect but all I can say is that these do not appear to be programmes made with contempt for their audience, nor actors who appear to be slumming it. Jack Barton said that the team strove their utmost to bring "happiness and entertainment" to the audience; and, as Claire Falconbridge once said in a documentary, instead of criticising the acting it would be more appropriate to praise the actors for achieving results with such a punishing schedule.

And that palpable warmth which emanated from so many of the performers could not, surely, be faked: a recent obituary of Elizabeth Croft (Miss Tatum) mentioned that Peter Brookes (Vince Parker) kept in touch with her for decades after he left the programme: "It was perhaps this quality at the heart of Crossroads that explained its popularity with viewers."

In the mid eighties Jonathan Miller came to give a talk at our university and I seem to recall a bit of sniffiness about soaps. In the course of what he was saying, however, he also hit on a truth which could be seen as poignant as well as occasion for the laughter or wry smile towards which he seemed to be directing us. He said something about the real drama in soaps being the aging of the actors trapped in these longrunning vehicles, or possibly he observed that only the child actors gave obvious signs of aging.

If I laughed or smiled wryly along with the others, as I'm pretty sure I did, I now feel a little ashamed. Because when I look back my overwhelming feeling is of gratitude and admiration for those actors who gave us such happiness and diversion over the years, much as comedians on children's TV did. And her Pavlovian experiments have long been concluded, but I believe I am also speaking for the provider of chicken soup. Characters in longrunning soaps become family members of a sort; we have shared the drama of time passing.


I feel the above sort of slows to a halt rather than being really finished so may return to this subject in a later post.

Below, for absolutely no reason I can think of, are the opening and closing verses of a poem by Alison Smith entitled What Happens, from the 1987 anthology Original Prints Volume II.
Together we watch Dynasty.
It's where we find an easy line
of contact,where at least we find
each other, easy, company.


I phone five hundred miles away,
your youngest, and all we can say
is Were you watching Dynasty?
You tell me all that happened.

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