Nolly: Bringing a TV legend to life

Nolly: Bringing a TV legend to life

By Roz Laws,
Wednesday, 1st February 2023
Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon in Nolly (Credit: ITV)
Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon in Nolly (Credit: ITV)
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Russell T Davies tells the RTS how he set out to rescue the reputation of one of the giants of British TV, Noele Gordon, with his tribute Nolly.

ITVX drama Nolly is Russell T Davies’s love letter to a soap that became a national institution. Crossroads, which originally ran from 1964 to 1988, was ridiculed for its cheap production values and slightly wooden acting yet was adored by up to 15 million loyal viewers – and it almost gave Davies his first writing job.

He was unemployed when he applied to work on the drama and was invited to Birmingham to be shown around his first TV set. Davies was asked to write a trial script. Just five days after he submitted it, Crossroads, set in a Midlands motel, was axed.

“This is writing as an act of revenge!” Davies joked to a packed RTS Midlands premiere. Actually, he doesn’t hold a grudge and Nolly is a wonderfully affectionate and funny celebration of the drama, both on- and off-screen, that has fascinated him for 40 years.

He wanted to solve the mystery of why Noele Gordon, played in Nolly by Helena Bonham Carter, was suddenly and brutally sacked in 1981 with no explanation, and how such a famous woman came to be so forgotten.

The Nolly cast playing the Crossroads cast

Gordon was the holder of many television firsts. She was the first woman to be seen on colour TV sets, the host of the first popular ITV chat show (Tea with Noele Gordon), the first woman to interview a British Prime Minister (Harold Macmillan) and the first woman to host the Royal Variety Performance.

More than 10,000 fans turned up to watch her marry and become Mrs Meg Mortimer (the character she played in Crossroads was originally called Meg Richardson) at Birmingham Cathedral, an occasion that is celebrated in the opening scenes of Nolly.

But now the Queen of the Midlands, who died in 1985, has been consigned to history. “Nobody under 40 remembers her,” Davies told the rapt Birmingham audience. “When I was pitching to ITV, someone said ‘Who’s she?’. She just vanished.

“Our producer, Nicola Shindler, said something interesting. I said, ‘But there are names that live on, like Diana Dors’, and she replied, ‘If they’re not a sex symbol, they don’t’. It shows how much men are in control of the legacy.

“I wanted to give Noele the send-off she deserved, because the way she was treated was disgraceful.”

Viewers will find out in the third and final episode why Gordon was sacked, because Davies has discovered the truth.

“It was told to me by someone on a Zoom [call],” revealed Davies. “I was sitting there thinking: ‘Oh, my God, this is a goldmine.’ Those words were true, although, as far as I know, they were never said to Noele.”

The cast is spot on, thanks to casting director Andy Pryor. Director Peter Hoar remembered: “Russell came into rehearsals and said ‘That’s it! That’s them, they’re here – this is so exciting’.”

‘I gave Noele the send-off she deserved, because the way she was treated was disgraceful’

Augustus Prew stars as Tony Adams (who played Adam Chance), Nolly’s co-star and devoted friend. Mark Gatiss plays Larry Grayson.

Grayson also made two cameo appearances in Crossroads, as a flouncing, difficult customer at the Crossroads Motel and as the chauffeur at the wedding of Meg Richardson.

The cast also includes Con O’Neill, Richard Lintern and comedian Lloyd Griffith as Paul Henry, who played the motel handyman, Benny. They all had three names on the set of Nolly, as actors playing actors playing characters.

Birmingham actor Bethany ­Antonia (House of the Dragon) is Poppy Ngomo, who plays Honour, a surprise new member of Noele’s family. She is the only fictional character, although she is based on actor Cleo Sylvestre, who played Melanie Harper, Meg’s adopted daughter in Crossroads.

Antonia told the RTS audience: “Crossroads was before my time, but Mum often talked about it, so I knew how much it meant to people, especially in the Midlands. For research, I watched a lot of Acorn Antiques (Victoria Wood’s send-up of Crossroads, first seen on her BBC As Seen on TV series, co-starring Julie Walters).

Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon in
Nolly (Credit: ITV)

“Cleo Sylvestre was the first black actress to have a regular role in a soap. The way black women are represented in the media isn’t always accurate, so it was important for me to show natural Afro hair. That was very unusual on screen in the 1980s.”

Prew told the event: “We had a week’s rehearsal… a huge amount for TV. And I was lucky enough to spend two hours talking to Tony Adams.” He said Adams, who is 82, “was a never-­ending font of wonderful stories and I wanted to make sure I honoured how special he was.

Crossroads was a bit of a joke and not to be taken seriously but, in hindsight, it was very progressive. It was among the first to feature women as central characters and disabled people. [Meg’s son, Sandy, was a wheelchair user]. At the time, it was never given its due.”

Davies said: “I wrote with Noele Gordon in mind, not Helena Bonham Carter, because you never know who you’re going to get. But she was my first choice and I was gobsmacked to get her. She said she loved every single word of the script.”

Of his writing process, Davies said: “I find dialogue easy, it just rattles out of me. I’ve thought about it for years, so I’m almost skipping when it comes to the writing. 

From L-R: Dorothy Hobson, Augustus Prew, Bethany Antonia,
Russell T Davies, Peter Hoar & NIkki Bedi
(Credit: Vivienne Bailey)

“Graham Norton told me that watching Nolly was like listening to me for three hours. That’s the most incisive criticism of my drama – I think they all sound the same and they all sound like me.

“Don’t be afraid of that. Put yourself into it whether you’re writing for a middle-aged woman or an alien.”

The event was produced by Dorothy Hobson, RTS Midlands Vice-Chair, author and a Crossroads expert consulted by Davies while writing Nolly. She was in the studio when Gordon was fired. At the time, she was researching a PhD in culture studies and had been allowed on set for two months.

Hobson told the RTS: “Russell has captured brilliantly how it was. On that fateful Friday, they recorded the morning’s episodes and, when they came back after lunch, the mood had changed, it was tense and flat. But no one knew what was happening.

“Noele did her scene and still went through with an interview she had agreed to do with me in her dressing room. I asked her what must have been the most painful questions, but she was so professional and didn’t say anything.

“Russell got things right. He made her compassionate and she wasn’t haughty. The relationship between her and Tony was wonderful. And he got right her relationship with the city. Noele was part of Birmingham.”

Nolly is Davies’ 11th collaboration with producer Shindler, and follows such classics as Queer as Folk, Bob & Rose, Years and Years and It’s a Sin. It’s the inaugural drama from her new Quay Street Productions.

‘Everything looks big and bold… Russell [wanted us to shoot] “Crossroads” like “The Crown”’

She says of Nolly: “What has been really impressive is how beautiful it looks. It’s telling the story of a relatively cheap soap opera, but we went the opposite way. Everything looks big and bold and really beautiful. Russell’s note was ‘Crossroads like The Crown’, that’s the style of it.

“Helena Bonham Carter has such a presence and such a strength of character and that’s what Noele ­Gordon had. She had charisma, she had a brilliant sense of humour, and that’s everything that Helena is. Plus Helena could bring all those darker and more emotional moments, because she’s such a strong actress.”

Nolly reunited Davis with It’s a Sin director Peter Hoar, a self-confessed “massive TV nerd”. The biggest laugh of the RTS Q&A came when Davies talked about the benefits of his long-term collaborations.

“Working with the same family of creatives is definitely a choice, because there are some fucking idiots out there.

“When you find someone you trust, who makes dramas to such a high standard, you stick with them. It means I have to work harder and harder to make something as good as it can be before I show it to Nicola, because I would rather die than hand in a script she didn’t like.”

Report by Roz Laws. The Nolly premiere and panel discussion was held at Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham, on 25 January. The producer was Dorothy Hobson. Nolly is streamed on ITVX from 2 February and will broadcast on ITV1 later in the year. Caitlin Danaher contributed to this report.