Alan Coleman: 'Crossroads' director and 'Neighbours' producer who gave Lynda la Plante and Phil Redmond their breaks

 

As director of the first five-days-a-week television soap opera, Crossroads, Alan Coleman was ideally placed to produce the Australian hit show Neighbours. He also helped launch a number of careers in television.

Crossroads, first screened in 1964 by ITV, was the story of two sisters, Meg Richardson (Noele Gordon), the widowed proprietor of a Midlands motel and Kitty Jarvis (Beryl Johnstone), a newsagent in the nearby village of King's Oak. After Johnstone died suddenly in 1969, the motel and its owner became the focal point of the drama.

Coleman worked in rotation with another director, Tim Jones, in the early days of the teatime soap, which was made "as live", with no time for retakes. "We all knew, cast and crew alike, that we were breaking new ground," Coleman told The Soap Show. "We knew we were setting the style for a brand-new type of television drama. Because we were virtually live, the feeling was very much like that of a stage production." The busy schedule was blamed for some of the bloopers, such as wobbly sets, but could not excuse improbable storylines, creaky scripts and poor acting in the serial, which was made by Associated Television (ATV).

Nevertheless, Coleman could have some fun. Once, when he and Jones were tackling a murder storyline and adhering to ITV guidelines banning dead bodies from being seen when children might be watching, the pair decided to play a trick on the soap's producer, Reg Watson. They identified the dead man by his signet ring, with a sinister skull engraved on it, and homed in on it every time he was on screen. On the day of the murder the directors hired Tina, one of the chimpanzees from a PG Tips tea commercial, to wear it for shots of the "dead" man's hand.

In 1972 Coleman became head of children's programmes at ATV. He produced and directed the first two runs of one of its most successful series, The Kids from 47a (1973-74), overseeing writers who would become big names in television drama, including Phil Redmond, who went on to write Grange Hill, and Lynda La Plante, long before her big break with Widows.

Coleman emigrated to Australia in 1974, to help Reg Watson, who had returned to his homeland, set up a drama department at Grundy Television. Coleman's biggest success as creator and producer was The Young Doctors (1976-83), which helped to establish soap operas in Australia and was the first to be sold internationally. Set in the fictional Albert Memorial Hospital, it focused on romances among hospital staff rather than the patients' woes.

From 1992-94 Coleman was executive producer of Grundy's biggest international hit, Neighbours, before directing episodes in 1996 of the rival teen soap, Home and Away. He was also executive producer (1992-94) of the five-days-a-week hospital serial Shortland Street, devised by Grundy and intended as New Zealand's answer to Neighbours. He returned briefly to Britain to direct early episodes (1997-98) of Channel 5's new soap, Family Affairs.

Coleman was born in Birmingham, the son of Arthur, an electrician, and Doris, who performed in amateur dramatics. At Sparkhill College, he acted, and gained a love of photography. While working as a trainee reporter on a local newspaper, he appeared in plays at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. He then joined the RAF as a photographer in Malta but contracted tuberculosis and, after being invalided out, was a radiographer at New Cross General Hospital, London.

In 1960, Coleman wrote to Lew Grade, founder of ATV, saying that his acting, combined with an interest in photography, made him ideal as a trainee camera operator. He was hired, and within two years was a director, working in Birmingham on plays for Armchair Theatre, news and music programmes, and on the chat show Lunchbox, which ran only in the Midlands but made a personality of its host, Noele Gordon. When Harold Macmillan agreed to appear, she became the first woman to interview a prime minister on television. Lunch Box finished in 1964, and its producer, Reg Watson, launched Crossroads.

Coleman went on to direct the 1974 ATV documentary On the Road to Nowhere. Set in the Black Country, it won the award as best sociological film at the San Francisco International TV and Film Festival.

Moving to Australia, Coleman wrote and directed episodes in 1979 of Prisoner. Shown in Britain as Prisoner: Cell Block H, it gained a cult following. Three years later he set up Wyee Productions to make commercials and shoot live concerts. With Grundy, he was also executive producer of the Dutch soap Goede Tijden, Slechte Tijden (Good Times, Bad Times), about families in the fictitious town of Meerdijk, launched in 1990, and the German serial about house-sharers, Unter Uns (Among Us), launched in 1994; both are still running. In recent years he ran his own television drama school on the Central Coast, New South Wales. His autobiography, One Door Shuts, was published in 2009.

ANTHONY HAYWARD

Alan James Coleman, director and producer: born Birmingham 28 December 1936; married 1958 Barbara Malins (two sons, one daughter); died Wyong, New South Wales 10 December 2013.

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