Prolific television scriptwriter who was co-creator of the long-running soap opera 'Crossroads'
Wednesday 27 September 2006
Peter George Derek Ling, television scriptwriter and novelist: born Croydon, Surrey 27 May 1926; married 1954 Sheilah Ward (died 1997; one son, three daughters); died Hastings, East Sussex 14 September 2006.
Six years after the television producer Reg Watson started badgering his boss at the Midlands ITV company ATV to let him produce a soap opera in the vein of the American daytime serials, Lew Grade finally gave in. As a result, the writers Peter Ling and Hazel Adair - who had already devised Compact, the BBC serial set in the offices of a glossy women's magazine - came up with The Midland Road, following the everyday lives of staff and guests at a motel in the fictional village of King's Oak, near Birmingham, run by its widowed owner with her son and daughter.
The idea for the story's setting came from Ling, who recalled driving past a board advertising the opening of a "motel" - an American phenomenon that was new to Britain - and Grade welcomed it, although Watson disliked the programme's title and changed it. What was most remarkable about the resulting Crossroads in the history of soaps is that it was so derided by the critics for its rickety sets and even more jittery acting but equally loved by millions of viewers - up to 20 million at its peak.
The affection held for the serial had much to do with the warmth of its pivotal figure, the motel's owner, Meg Richardson, played by Noele Gordon, who had previously taken part in the television pioneer John Logie Baird's first colour experiment and acted in stage musicals, before studying television in the United States and returning to Britain as a presenter of magazine programmes and the chat show Lunch Box for ATV.
But television critics were unrelenting in their attacks on the soap, which began with five afternoon episodes each week and was also the butt of comedians' jokes, as well as a late-1970s Radio Rentals advertising campaign for that company's new video recorders claiming that the machines could "take 16 episodes of Crossroads - if you can!". But Peter Ling always defended his baby. "They were recorded as if they were going out live and went out without any form of editing," he said:
If something like the scenery fell down, the only thing you could do was go back to the beginning and start the whole episode again. Because of that, lots of things that later on would have been edited out actually went out on screen, and this is why people always talked about actors forgetting their lines and so on.
Crossroads was first broadcast on 2 November 1964 but not screened in every ITV region until eight years later. When the London area dropped it in 1968, the Prime Minister's wife, Mary Wilson, was among the most vociferous campaigners for its reinstatement, with the result that it was brought back after six months.
The programme's fans saw the 1970s as its golden era, with Meg Richardson surrounded by characters such as her son Sandy (Roger Tonge) and daughter Jill (Jane Rossington), the motel manager David Hunter (Ronald Allen), gossiping cleaner Amy Turtle (Ann George), waitress Diane Parker (Susan Hanson) and her postman husband Vince (Peter Brookes), hairdresser Vera Downend (Zeph Gladstone) and odd-job man Benny Hawkins (Paul Henry).
But the serial never escaped criticism. The number of weekly episodes was cut to four in 1967, when there was a move to new studios and Reg Watson wanted to upgrade the sets, and a further reduction to three came 12 years later on the insistence of the Independent Broadcasting Authority - then the regulator for commercial television - which slammed the programme's standards.
Attempts by various producers to axe the serial were unsuccessful because it was fiercely protected by Lew Grade, but the replacement of ATV by Central Independent Television heralded a new era. So dominant was Noele Gordon that Central's director of programmes, Charles Denton, decided that the only way to rid the programme of its reputation with the critics and chart new waters was to axe her, which he did in 1981. However, subsequent attempts to revamp the soap failed and Crossroads finally reached a dead end in 1988 - a year after Ling was sacked as a storyline writer by its final producer, William Smethurst.
Recent revivals, in 2001 and 2003, equally failed, perhaps unable to recreate the affection in which the original characters were held. Ling discovered this once when he was in a Hastings amusement arcade while on holiday. "The woman giving change for the machines said, 'Excuse me, are you Peter Ling?'," he recalled:
When I confirmed I was, she replied, "I've been watching Crossroads ever since it began." She was a spinster, all her family had died and she lived alone. She added, "At the end of the day, I go home, make myself a cup of tea and some supper, switch on the set and watch Crossroads - the characters have become my family. I live through them, really."
Born in Croydon, Surrey, in 1926, Peter Ling was a keen writer whose first article was published in Good Housekeeping when he was 13. Although he was a Bevin Boy during the Second World War, ill-health made him unsuitable for work down the mines, so he had a job in the Army Pay Corps but contracted tuberculosis just before he was due to be demobbed.
While in a sanatorium, Ling started writing both radio scripts, encouraged by the actor Jon Pertwee, and the non-illustrated Eagle comic serial The Three J's, about boys in a boarding school. Influenced by the theatrical world in which his concert party magician father worked, he also wrote his first novel, Voices Offstage: an armchair revue (1947).
He then moved into television to script the BBC's fortnightly children's variety magazine Whirligig (1950), where he met the actress and writer Sheilah Ward, whom he married in 1954. He also wrote the children's sitcom Happy Holidays (starring Hattie Jacques and John Le Mesurier, 1954).
When ITV was launched the following year, Ling became script editor of children's programmes for the London weekday contractor Associated-Rediffusion, responsible for shows such as Small Time, which started that year, and the sketch show Rumpus Point (1955).
He also wrote episodes of the crime series Murder Bag (1957-59) and Crime Sheet (1959), which introduced Detective Superintendent Lockhart in the forerunners to No Hiding Place (for which Ling did not write), and Jango (1961), starring Robert Urquhart as the amiable but scruffy private detective described as a cross between Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot and G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown.
Then followed Ling's first soap creation, Compact (1962-65). The idea came to Hazel Adair when she delivered a feature to Woman's Own magazine and, once the BBC accepted it, she drafted in Ling to help her to devise the serial. It featured Jean Harvey as the bouffant-haired editor, Joanne Minster, who was replaced after six months by Ronald Allen - later to play David Hunter in Crossroads - as Ian Harmon.
Ling and Adair created Crossroads while Compact was still running, then Champion House (1967-68), a BBC drama series about a family-run textile firm, as well as both contributing scripts to The Pathfinders (1972-73), a series about the Second World War RAF aircrews who flew in advance of bombing raids.
Alone, Ling wrote episodes of popular series such as The Avengers (1961, 1963) and Dixon of Dock Green (1966), as well as the Doctor Who story " The Mind Robber" (incorporating literary and historical characters such as Gulliver, Rapunzel, Cyrano de Bergerac, Sir Lancelot and D'Artagnan, 1968), and storylined the children's adventure series Sexton Blake (1967-71).
After leaving Crossroads, Ling increasingly wrote for radio, having been a regular scriptwriter for the popular BBC Radio 2 serial Waggoners' Walk (1969-80), set among townies in Hampstead who were, for a while, more popular than the country folk featured in The Archers. He returned to the subject of crime to write adaptations of various Sherlock Holmes stories (1992-94) and The Gideon Fell Mysteries (1997).
Ling's later novels included his "Docklands Saga", High Water (1991), Flood Water (1992) and Storm Water (1993), and, under the pseudonym Petra Leigh, the bodice-rippers Garnet (1978), Coral (1979) and Rosewood (1979).
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