Reg spent his early years living on a sugar farm in Queensland but it was his teenage years in Brisbane that saw Reg start to take an interest in drama production. Aged sixteen he started working for local radio in various roles, but notably as an actor and announcer.
He moved to the UK in 1955 working first for BBC Radio on such shows as serial The Archers, before switching to the new independent television service in London, ATV. Reg spent a short while in America making notes on how the commercial networks produced progamming in the states in preparation for the UK launch of advert-funded broadcasting. He made notes on many formats, including their hour-long daily soap operas - something that would change his career forever.
The ATV Years
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. It is noted that Watson produced at least once every programme ever made at the ATV Alpha studios in Birmingham. These ranged from farming documentaries to game shows and teenage music programming.
Reg formed a great friendship with former West End actress Noele Gordon and it is their early shows that became some of the most popular on the ATV Network. 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 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 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 which Reg had also worked on for a short time. 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 Coronation Street clone, he didn't want a gritty drama. He wanted to build on the entertainment and escapist slant Reg was an expert of.
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 (albeit tweaked by Reg into his own style). 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 on a USA format. 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 critics reviews. But to Reg and Lew Grade, critics comments were unimportant, what mattered to them were the millions who enjoyed their kind of programmes...
The show was voted programme of the year in 1967 and 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 the worlds biggest caring 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.
The Grundy Television Years
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 [devised by Alan Coleman] 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' gave Reg his next ratings winner. Set in the fictional Albert Memorial Hospital the show revolved around the staff and their lives, from personal disasters to love and hate. The medical proceedures and patients were secondary to the storylines - the viewers loved it. LWT's Within These Walls proved to be the inspiration for Prisoner: Cell Block H which evolved around the inmates of Wentworth Detention Centre. This programme started out as a one-off short series drama in 1979, but ended up proving to be an unexpected hit.
Network 10's Cell Block H moved into a new style drama for Grundy. The twice weekly, 45-minute episodes, were a mixture of 'soap opera' and 'drama serial'. Something quite common today, but rather unique at the time.
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. The life of the Wentworth inmates has been repeated a couple of times in UK, most recently on Channel 5 and ITV were in the 1980s 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!".
An original idea proved to be Channel Seven's first big soap success - Sons and Daughters became a primetime ratings winner running for just under 1000 episodes. The story of two twins who are separated as babies. The boy and girl are re-united years later with, in true Reg style, dramatic results. Again it proved popular with ITV audiences in the UK and was also another classic Grundy series to be re-run on Channel 5 a decade later. Other less well known serials over seen by Reg during the 1970s and 80s include Punishment (the male version of Prisoner), teenage aimed soap The Restless Years which followed the lives of recent school leavers and Starting Out which wasset in a university and centered around those living in the uni accomodation.
For the past two decades it has been of course 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.
Reg first suggested the Neighbours outline to Seven Network in 1984 after some debate the format was finally taken on by that network in 1985, where Neighbours bombed. The show was, after just under 200 episodes, 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 world-wide phenomenon in the 1980s, making household names of Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue.
The series was based around 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. The show itself, certainly in the UK, is deemed more a teenage saga thesedays than the original family aimed format.
However the Reg-factor, whatever it is, has worked for decades with memorable serials that viewers love in their millions and television critics love to hate.
In 2010 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, Prisoner Cell Block H and The Young Doctors have all had successful sales on DVD and many of his serials continue to air around the world in repeat runs. Neighbours also celebrated 25 years on air in 2010.