Compact was the BBC's third adult soap opera following The Grove Family and it's brief replacement, the almost forgotten Starr and Company.
Starr and Company was the Corporation's first attempt at a bi-weekly soaper in emulation of ITV's Emergency-Ward 10. Set in the town of Sullbridge on the South coast the 'action' (if it can be called that) centred on a small family firm making buoys. The series went out on Mondays and Thursdays at 7:30pm (to avoid clashing with EW10) in 1958 but vanished from our screens after 77 episodes. It seems as though the stuffy Beeb were not comfortable with the weekly domestic drama format and it wasn't until 1962 when they were desperate to find a rival to Coronation Street that they decided to give the genre another try.
Script-writer Hazel Adair had previously worked for a well-known woman's magazine and had it in mind that the setting would be right for a TV series with its world of different personalities, situations, intrigues and romances. What's more, she believed that the authenticity of an office background would lend an air of reality for many viewers. However, the idea was put on the shelf until one day she received a call from a friend at the BBC who asked her if she had any ideas up her sleeve? She did, but wasn't sure how to best develop it and so Hazel rang a friend of hers, Peter Ling, who she had known since 1950 and had worked together with at the BBC previously but never as a team. "Peter, I've had the germ of an idea" she told him. "I want to talk it over with you and see if we can produce something." The duo spent a number of weeks working out the format and coming up with a synopsis. When they submitted it to the BBC it was accepted within twenty-four hours.
Compact told the story of a glossy women's magazine, the eponymous Compact, based in fictional Enterprise House in London's Victoria district. The stories revolved round the hassle of getting each issue on to the presses while exploring the personal relationships of the staff and their often vying for position within the company. When we are first introduced to 'Compact' the magazine editor is Joanne Minster (Jean Harvey) who oversees the magazine for its owner Sir Charles Harmon (Newton Blick). But it is not long before the owners son, Ian Harmon (Ronald Allen), arrives from America to take the helm of Harmon Enterprises Incorporated. Like all good magazines Compact had a Features Editor (Augusta 'Gussie' Brown played by actress Frances Bennett), a Fashion Editor (Lois James played by actress Dawn Beret), an Agony Aunt (Alison Morley played by actress Betty Cooper) and notably a photographer, Jeff Armandez played by Horace James who was the first black actor to have a regular role in a soap opera (in 1964).
Some of the characters had their names changed - such as Gussie Brown, as the writers later recalled. "Frances Bennett was originally cast as an interviewer. Since the celebrities were not known at the time the script was written, she was referred to as Mary Brown. By a secretarial error, Frances was listed as Mary Brown in the Radio Times." As soon as Hazel and Peter decided to keep her for the series they realised the name was far too dull for so vivacious a personality. "That name just had to go," remarked Peter. "So we introduced it into the programme. She revealed that her name was Augusta and she merely hid behind the name Mary. Of course, the moment the office found out they insisted on calling her Gussie." In another instance Betty Cooper's character was called Alison Grey until it was discovered that there was a Readers' Digest contributor with the same name. The name change was introduced into the script.
Compact was panned by critics ('worthless', 'empty-headed' and 'hollow' were some of the terms used) but was an immediate hit with the viewing public and from 1964 demand was such that the BBC had to introduce a Sunday omnibus edition. At the same time it started to explore a number of 'daring' storylines such as infidelity, suicide and even, on one occasion, drug supply, but it seems as though the BBC were still uncomfortable with such racy subjects and at the height of its success and after three years and 373 episodes the Corporation unceremoniously dumped it.
During it's run Compact featured a large amount of actors on their way from or to bigger and better things. Australian Bill Kerr had already been part of the hugely successful radio 'Hancock' series. American Shane Rimmer would go onto appear in television's premier soap opera, Coronation Street (as Elsie Tanner's husband) as well as lend his voice to Gerry Anderson's immortal Thunderbirds series (as TB1 pilot Scott Tracy), Carmen Silvera starred as that 'stupid woman' (Edith Artois) in 'Allo 'Allo! and Patrick Troughton was just a couple of years away from being Doctor Who.
Hazel Adair and Peter Ling were invited by Lew Grade to devise a new series for ITV which would run for five nights a week - and they came up with Crossroads.
Published on December 5th, 2018. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.