Good golly Miss Nolly
Noele Gordon was one of UK television’s biggest stars until she was sacked from long-running soap Crossroads. DQ hears from star Helena Bonham Carter, writer Russell T Davies, executive producer Nicola Shindler and director Peter Hoar about retelling her story in three-parter Nolly.
Noele ‘Nolly’ Gordon was once the star of UK television. The first person ever to appear on colour TV in 1928, she was an actor, presenter and a producer who was also the first woman to interview a British prime minister when she sat down with Harold Macmillan on her chatshow Tea With Noele Gordon.
But it was thanks to her long-running role as Meg Mortimer in daily soap opera Crossroads, the owner of the eponymous motel, that she became a national treasure and one of the country’s favourite actors.
Yet today, little is known about the former soap star, ‘The Queen of the Midlands,’ who appeared in the Birmingham-based series for 17 years until she was unceremoniously sacked in 1981. She never found out why.
The fate of Gordon is one that has long been in the thoughts of multi-Bafta-winning writer Russell T Davies, an avowed Crossroads fan who had long wanted to tell the actor’s story. Her sacking is now the subject of a three-part drama, called Nolly, that seeks to reveal the truth, consequences and legacy of that decision and how it affected a woman who could be tough, haughty and imperious, yet was a generous and much-loved colleague to those she shared the Crossroads set with.
“The more I worked in television, the more odd I found her sacking,” says Davies. “Then the more I started to look at her life, it became the most extraordinary life.
“Lockdown came along and I was thinking about writing this – I’d been thinking about writing it for years – and I thought, ‘I could research this now.’ I was also fascinated by the fact she has a reputation since her death of being a diva, a bit of a monster, a bit of a star. But actually the more you spoke to the people who knew her, the more you discovered that wasn’t true.”
The writer describes Nolly – which launches on ITVX tomorrow – as the star’s legacy. It’s a warm, entertaining and very funny show that shines a spotlight on the star, who is shown both as a force of nature and as a sweet, caring and lonely woman left to ponder the world and her place in it when she is dumped from the programme – and the on-screen family – she had devoted her life to.
During his research, Davies spoke with numerous members of the old Crossroads cast – Susan Hanson (Miss Diane), Deke Arlon (Benny) and Tony Adams (Adam Chance), among others – and says everything that happens in Nolly is true, apart from the moment where she learns the reason why she was sacked.
“When I began to realise how much she was loved by her fellow cast members and yet treated so badly by the system, I began to think, ‘There’s a story in this.’ Then we asked Helena Bonham Carter to come along and suddenly we’re there.”
It had been executive producer Nicola Shindler’s idea to approach Bonham Carter about the playing the title role, despite Davies’ belief that “there wouldn’t be a chance in the world” the star would sign up. “And then, miracle of miracles, she said she was interested, which I couldn’t believe. We were so lucky,” he says.
“What impressed us was how much work she wanted to do really early on,” Shindler continues. “Before the contract was agreed, she was asking questions, asking who she could meet, she was asking very specific questions and she wanted to get her physically right. We talked about the wig, teeth, shoes early on because she had a very particular way about her and, without impersonating her, she wanted to inhabit that.”
“Everyone thought the teeth weren’t necessary but they made me feel [in character],” admits Bonham Carter, who didn’t know much about Gordon until she picked up Davies’ script and the legendary soap star entered her life “like a lifeforce, straight from page one,” she says. “She’s such a sensational woman, who fizzed off the page. It’s just a sensational piece of writing, but also she’s an extraordinary person.”
Bonham Carter, a screen star known for roles in the Harry Potter films, Fight Club and The Crown, describes Gordon as a “proper leader” who looked after everyone who worked on Crossroads until she was “sacked in her prime.”
Subsequently, she felt a responsibility to play Gordon in an authentic and honest way, and spent a lot of time researching the real-life Nolly, watching clips on YouTube and speaking to her former castmates. “Like anybody, I’ve got imposter’s syndrome so I want to get it right,” she admits. “But also she was a marvellous person, and the writing’s so good, it’s there on the page. Russell writes how people speak and how people think – you don’t tend to speak in full sentences and commas – so that was a gift.”
Nolly isn’t just about the upheaval on Crossroads, signalled by Gordon’s departure, but a wider change in the television industry that saw more regional accents on screen – characterised here by the introduction of fictional Birmingham actor Poppy Ngomo (Bethany Anthonia), who is thrown into the world of Crossroads. Other key cast members include Augustus Prew as Tony Adams – Nolly’s Crossroads co-star, devoted friend, confidante and her occasional chauffer – and Mark Gatiss as entertainer and Gordon’s close friend Larry Grayson.
Recreating Crossroads within a TV show was just one of the challenges facing Shindler and director Peter Hoar, who together with Davies ensured Nolly doubled as a reunion of the team behind It’s a Sin. Actor Omari Douglas, who played Roscoe in the acclaimed series, also makes a cameo in Nolly.
“I couldn’t resist working with these two again because it was such a pleasure,” says Hoar. “It’s a Sin was a moment and I couldn’t resist the idea [of Nolly]. I did a tiny piece of TV recreation in It’s a Sin, a Doctor Who moment, and I was skipping around all day because I’m a big Doctor Who fan. The idea of then putting an entire studio together to recreate a moment in history was just too much. I loved every second.”
Nolly marks the 11th collaboration between Davies and Shindler, who have also worked together on titles such as Years & Years, Queer as Folk and Bob & Rose. Davies had mentioned the idea behind Nolly a few years ago, but then picked it up again straight after It’s a Sin, when he handed Shindler a copy of Gordon’s autobiography, appropriately titled My Life at Crossroads.
“It wasn’t a story I knew well but I knew Crossroads and was brought up in a house that watched soaps constantly, so I knew it’s importance, but I didn’t know the extraordinary life she’d led before,” the exec says. “Then, to see how she was brutally treated, it’s just something that needs to be told. But it’s a hugely entertaining story; it’s funny and warm and I think people will watch it for that even if they don’t know the soap. Being Russell, he will always find the poignancy and the sometimes tragedy in those stories, but it’s also incredibly entertaining.”
Distributed by ITV Studios, Nolly is also the first project from Shindler’s fledgling Quay Street Productions, and the series carries all the hallmarks of the kind of work she likes to produce. “It’s bold, it’s funny, it’s entertaining and it makes you cry – it’s all the things I absolutely love,” she says. “But also it’s a really good story. It’s a page turner. There’s no thriller, there’s no dead bodies, but you desperately want to know what happens and why. So it’s everything I want to do.”
Her work is made much easier by Davies, as by the time he delivers a script, “it’s often the sixth or seventh draft because he’s already worked out the problems,” Shindler says of working with the writer.
Hoar adds: “Recently I had other things sent to me and it makes you realise how good I have it with Russell. He has given you the eighth draft because he’s done all that work.”
With credits including Vera, Daredevil, The Last Kingdom and The Umbrella Academy, Hoar has a proven versatility behind the camera – a skill demonstrated in his decision to shoot an episode of HBO’s dystopian The Last of Us in between It’s a Sin and Nolly. He also started his career in soaps, working on teen drama Hollyoaks, and says Nolly is a tribute to the hard-working cast and crew he worked with during his time on the show.
But bringing the world of Nolly to the screen required a huge amount of building work, led by designer Ben Smith (Ridley Road, The Last Kingdom) at Manchester’s Space Studios, to create sets ranging from Gordon’s lavish apartment to the sets and backrooms at the Crossroads studios.
Three authentic 1980s cameras were also used on the Crossroads set, but they served the dual purpose of looking good and also filming some of the footage that appears in Nolly, when scenes are shown of Gordon and her co-stars filming the soap.
The biggest challenge on the series was recreating the QE2 ocean liner for Gordon’s final scene in Crossroads. In fact, it was shot at an empty dock in Liverpool, while the only part of the ship that existed in real life was the deck Gordon stands on.
“The Crossroads studio was always going to be a build because it doesn’t exist,” Hoar says. “Then we had to add a number of layers to it – lighting, for one thing. The way they were constructed was totally different, and one of the reasons why the set wobbled was it was taken down every week for 20 years. They would take all the sets down, put [gameshow] The Golden Shot in for the weekend and then take that down and put Crossroads in – every week for 20 years. No wonder it wobbled.”
The wobbly sets are just one of the reasons why Crossroads has become a common punchline in British television history, alongside its paper-thin budget and disappearing characters. Yet it drew 15 million three times a week as viewers became hooked on events at the Crossroads motel. Now Davies and Bonham Carter have combined to give its much-loved star a final farewell.
“She was in her prime when she was sacked and I feel like championing her means I’m championing every woman of a certain age who might be just cut off because we’re deemed too old,” says Bonham Carter.
“I do think for a woman who’s been slightly forgotten, this is a chance to remember her,” Davies adds. “It’s one last bow for her. I hope we’ve made Nolly to give Noele Gordon some status again, to reintroduce her to the public and say, ‘Well done Nolly.’”