Born Joan Noel Gordon at 139 Clements Road, East Ham, London, on December 25th 1919 she became a groundbreaking television personality.
“Noele Gordon was a fascinating, complex, brilliant and gutsy woman – none of which I knew before I read Russell T Davies’ script. I’m so thrilled to help tell Nolly’s long overdue and largely forgotten story. Russell’s screenplay is a work of brilliance and I hope I’ll do him and Nolly justice. I can’t wait to start.” – Helena Bonham Carter
Forty years after Noele Gordon’s shock sacking from ITV daytime soap Crossroads, the network have commissioned Nolly, a three-episode-drama starring Academy Award-nominated and BAFTA-winning actor Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon and written by BAFTA-winning writer Russell T Davies. The series will be produced by Quay Street Productions, the first drama under Nicola Shindler’s new production banner with ITV Studios.
Noele (or Nolly to her friends) was a legend in her own lifetime. As flame-haired widow Meg Richardson in the long-running soap opera Crossroads, she was one of the most famous people in Britain. Then in 1981, at the height of the show’s success and the peak of Nolly’s fame, she was axed without ceremony, without warning and with no explanation. With the boss’s words “all good things must come to an end” ringing in her ears, Noele Gordon found herself thrown out of the show that was her life for over 18 years.
“One of my very first jobs in TV was a trial script for Crossroads, and I’ve wanted to write the story of behind the scenes on that show for 40 years. At last, the truth can be told!” – Russell T Davies
Nolly brings the true Noele Gordon once more into the spotlight. The Queen of the Midlands, a star who could be tough, haughty and imperious, grandly sweeping into rehearsals from her Rolls Royce, but also a hard-working actress who was fiercely loyal and loved by cast and crew alike. And at last, the biggest question of all can be answered – why was she sacked? Nolly reveals the truth, the consequences, and the legacy of that terrible day.
The drama is a bold exploration of how the establishment turns on women who refuse to play by the rules, the women it cannot understand and the women it fears. And it is a love letter to a legend of television, and to the madcap soap she starred in, Nolly is an outrageously fun and wildly entertaining ride through Noele Gordon’s most tumultuous years, and a sharp, affectionate and heart-breaking portrait of an ATV icon.
“Russell’s scripts are magnificent and a great tribute to Noele Gordon, but also to our national love of soaps and a celebration of the incredible women they create. Helena Bonham Carter is going to be amazing as Nolly and we can’t wait for her to step into those shoes.” – ITV by Head of Drama, Polly Hill.
The Life and Times of Noele Gordon:
Aged two she started to attend a dancing school and six months later made her stage debut at the long-demolished East Ham Palace singing ‘Dear Little Jammy Face’. When Noele was a teenager the family moved to 201 Woodford Avenue, Gants Hill, Ilford, Essex. In 1929, aged 9, she won the top prize in a singing contest at The Ilford Convent where she studied until she was 15.
In 1934 Noel attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art – RADA – performing everything from Shakespeare to playing Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion. This lead into her first major professional work, aged 18, in the musical Black Velvet. For a time she worked in repertory theatre productions touring the UK – starring alongside newcomers such as Roger Moore. She also worked alongside John Mills in the comedy Aren’t Men Beasts?
In 1937 she had her first official work for television when she was hired to star in the BBC’s first major live drama produced at Alexandra Palace. As an Irish maid in Ah! Wilderness! she found her first television role a little too hot to handle. Studio lighting back then was much more intense than theatre lamps – due to the cameras needing a lot more light in order to transmit decent pictures. Under the heat of the lights the prop tray she was using as the maid heated up and burned her fingers. However, working on live TV dramas for the BBC lead to further work at the corporation in numerous BBC Radio drama productions. Noel’s London base at this time was 45 Cumberland Mansions, Bryanston Square, London, W1.
A year later TV pioneer John Logie Baird hired Noel to take part in his colour television experiments. She became the first woman to be transmitted in colour from a camera to television sets later that year. She also worked with Baird at the Tottenham Court Road Cinema when he undertook some ‘widescreen television’ tests on their big screen.
As Noele Gordon (she changed her name in the 1940s) she became a star of London’s theatre world – In 1941 she made her West End debut in Let’s Face It with Bobby Howes. Her biggest success of that era was the musical Brigadoon in which she starred in nearly 1000 performances across its two-year run. Composer of the Brigadoon songs, Frederick Loewe, upon seeing Noele’s performance, jokingly offered to marry her – so impressed with how she Interpreted his words. The critical reviews for Noele were pleasing and positive at this time too.
There were many other stage shows, including Big Ben, The Lisbon Story, Rain, Suspect and pantomime Humpty Dumpty at the prestigious London Palladium. A theatre first for Noele came when she was the first actress to star concurrently in two West End shows. While taking over from Julie Wilson in the starring role of You Bet Your Life with Arthur Askey she also remained understudy in Call Me Madam to Billie Wort.
During the Second World War Noele continued to work in theatre productions and also as part of ENSA – Entertainments National Service Association – which entertained troops with variety shows in the UK and abroad. Others involved with ENSA include singer Vera Lynn, singer/songwriter Ivor Novello and comedian/magician Tommy Cooper to name only a few. Founded in 1939 by impresario Basil Dean and the British Government the idea of ENSA was to provide the Navy, Army and Air Force with entertainment. The scheme became Combined Services Entertainment which continues to run to this day.
In 1945 Noele made the first of two feature films. She had a minor part, as a neighbour Mrs Wilson, in 29 Acacia Avenue for Columbia Pictures. In 1946 British National Pictures made a movie version of The Lisbon Story – which was produced at the Neptune Studios in Borehamwood (which became ATV Elstree in the sixties). This film saw her in a much bigger part as Panache. A copy can be viewed at the BFI. (Noele, below middle, in The Lisbon Story)
In 1949 she starred in her first Royal Variety Performance with the cast of Brigadoon who performed a segment of the musical for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
By the 1950s Noele was on the books of The Grade Agency. Knowing of her previous brush with TV production Lew Grade – who was planning to launch a new ITV regional television company – sent Noele to America in 1953 to study and observe their commercial services. She studied TV production for a year at New York University and also made hours upon hours of notes on the kind of programmes the USA networks were broadcasting – including their hour-long daily soaps.
In 1955 Lew’s service, Associated Television, was given two ITV licences, one for London weekends and the other for the weekday Midlands. Noele became the first female television executive in the UK when she was hired to oversee the lifestyle output, a role she would also oversee in the Midlands.
When ATV London hit the air in September 1955 Noele was part of the very first programme ‘The Weekend Show‘ which fell under her lifestyle remit.
As well as being boss she also directed some of these programmes and even appeared on-screen as one of the experts on women’s issues. While at ATV London she also hosted a live fashion show from Oxford Street and became the host of ITV’s first chat show Tea with Noele Gordon.
In 1956 Noele began working for ATV Midlands in her role as Head of Lifestyle and Women’s Output, other Midland management included Reg Watson as Head of Entertainment, Ned Sherrin as Head of Factual and News and general Programme Controller Philip Dorté. It was noted at one point Noele was presenting up to ten programmes across ATV London and ATV Midlands per week!
For the Midlands region she presented an ‘ad Mag’ called Fancy That?, became the first female sports presenter when reporting and hosting Midland Sport and later hosted her own fishy-sport show, A New Angle, on Noele Gordon which was about angling. Somewhat considered the ‘have-a-go-girl’ (the original Anneka Rice if you like) she also fronted her own series Noele Gordon Takes The Air which saw her learning to fly a plane – which she succeeded to do.
In 1957 ATV launched the first weekday daily live lunchtime variety, chat and music show – Lunchbox. (Later revived by the BBC as Pebble Mill at One). Lunchbox was a huge success for Noele and the company. Numerous times the Friday outside broadcast proved to be more successful than expected. In Nottingham, an expected 3,000 audience turned into 27,000!
Her ‘have-a-go’ image was certainly used to its fullest with Lunchbox. Over the years for this programme, Noele went Skin-Diving, became a fire-fighter, went out with a sea rescue team, trained as an Army soldier, rode a camel and horse. Drove a racing car and steam train, performed with the Chipperfield Circus – including bear and lion training – , went mountain climbing, became a coal miner and sweet factory worker- to name a few. With her success Noele was able to afford a large house in the country, she moved into Weir End in Ross on Wye, Herefordshire, in 1963.
As a reporter for ATV News in 1958 she became the first woman to interview a Prime Minister – Harold Macmillan. She fronted ATV’s first and 5th-anniversary shows, interviewing stars such as Matt Monro, Rolf Harris, Joe Loss, Arthur Askey, Morecambe and Wise, Ken Dodd, Bob Monkhouse and many more who had previously starred on Lunchbox.
In 1962 she was celebrated as one of the ‘Women of the Year’ such was her popularity with ITV viewers. She was also by this point kept busy with fan mail thanks to The Noele Gordon Fan Club being founded by keen Lunchbox viewers.
In 1964 Lunchbox was moved to a teatime slot and was re-branded as Hi-T. Between 1955 and 1964 Noele also hosted many other ATV series including Midland Profile; a one-to-one chat show with stars of the day, Midland Scene; which took a look around the region at its everyday people and places as well as Midland Farming for the local rural communities. In the summer of 1964 Noele made a guest appearance as herself on the medical saga Emergency Ward 10 – the storyline allowing for this was a hospital open day and garden party.
August 1964 saw Noele told that Hi-T was to be axed. It was to be replaced with a faster-paced version of the American soap opera format she’d seen years earlier. Cut to 25-minutes rather than an hour Crossroads was to be the UK’s first full-length daily serial. From November 1964 to November 1981 Noele appeared as Meg Richardson/Mortimer the owner of the Crossroads Motel in the fictional village of Kings Oak.
As Meg she once again became a groundbreaker. She became the nations most favourite female television star – winning more awards than any other between 1968 and 1981. She was the first celebrity placed in the TV Times Hall of Fame and even was honoured with her own fashion range in a department store. In 1975 Crossroads popularity reached a peak when Noele’s character of Meg married Hugh (John Bentley) and brought Birmingham city centre to a stand still when 1000s of the shows viewers turned up to see the couple. Throughout the 1970s Crossroads, a daytime soap, topped the TV ratings often not only for ITV but also beating BBC productions too.
In 1973 Noele sold Weir End Lodge in Ross-On-Wye in order to be closer to the ATV studios. She built a luxury apartment at 12 Handsworth Wood Road, Birmingham. In February of the same year she was the subject of a This Is Your Life show for Thames Television.
1974 was the year she returned to the London Palladium to star alongside close friend Larry Grayson in his variety show and later in the year she took to the stage in her second Royal Variety Performance. This time Noele was the host of the show – the first female host of the Royal Variety event. Again performing in front of the former Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother.
In 1976 Noele recorded an album for EMI, Noele Gordon Sings, at the Abbey Road Studios in London.
After Crossroads she was offered a job at TV-am and worked on several programmes for the breakfast station. She made a short return to Crossroads in 1983, but her scheduled return in 1985 was never to be. In the 1980s she also returned to the theatre in shows such as Gypsy, The Boyfriend and a revival of Call Me Madam. She also in 1983 toured in her own ‘one woman show’.
Noele died from Cancer on April 14th 1985. ITN reported that her funeral was for ‘The Queen Of British Soaps’. She was buried in St Mary’s Church Ross-On-Wye near Hereford where 1000s of fans turned out and packed the grounds to say ‘goodbye’.
In late 1985 a memorial service for Noele was held at Birmingham Cathedral. Guests included Susan Hanson, Jean Bayless, Jane Rossington, Tony Adams, Ronald Allen, Sue Lloyd and many of the other Crossroads cast as well as many of her friends.
“I couldn’t be prouder or more excited that the first drama we will be filming for Quay Street Productions is this beautiful script by Russell T Davies. And that Helena Bonham Carter will star as such an iconic British woman is dream casting.” – Nicola Shindler executive producer, Nolly
Nolly will go into production in 2022 and is executive produced by Nicola Shindler and Russell T Davies.