From the late 1960s to the early 1980s Noele Gordon was one of ITV’s biggest stars and their first major soap queen. While it may be hard to believe now, due to Noele’s era of Crossroads never being repeated thanks to ATV wiping 100s of episodes, ITV finally pay their respects to a lady who helped establish the network.
“Before Dynasty’s Alexis Colby, Crossroads’ Meg Mortimer was television’s original tenacious businesswoman. Presiding over her Midlands motel like a high-heeled commander-in-chief, her character was the last word in Seventies glamour. The dramatic life of the actress Noele Gordon who created the soap legend is remembered here” – The Mail On Sunday
“Although her name might not mean much to anyone under the age of 30, there was a time when Noele Gordon was the queen of the telly, reigning supreme over Crossroads Motel. But in 1981, Noele’s character Meg Mortimer was sensationally axed, and though she took it in good grace, it sounded her death knell. She later appeared in a few plays, but was dead by 1985, aged 65 – the shock of leaving the beloved show she had turned into such a success, too much to bear. Here ITV1 celebrates the life of the woman who is probably one of the top 20 British TV icons of all time.” – TV Choice Magazine
“Tonight’s episode pays tribute to the actress best known as Meg Mortimer on iconic ITV soap Crossroads. Friends of the star, including Jane Rossington and Tony Adams, will be providing an insight into Noele’s life on and off the set, revealing she had many things in common with Meg.” – Inside Soap magazine
Noele Gordon was television. She had taken part in early colour and widescreen tests with John Logie Baird and starred in a number of BBC plays and dramas on TV and radio in the 1930s and 40s.
In the 1950s she went to America and studied commercial television, at the suggestion of her agent Lew Grade, and while there made hours of notes on the kind of programmes they produced, and even starred in a couple of shows. Upon her return she made one of many TV firsts as the first female executive at ITV.
As Head of Lifestyle and creative output she was a founding member of ATV London, the station managed by her lover Val Parnell and deputised by her agent Lew Grade. The network hit the air in September 1955 and in February 1956 Noele was on the road again to launch ATV Midlands from Birmingham.
Commuting between the two locations at one point Noele was hosting up to ten programmes a week for ITV, including their very first chat show Tea with Noele Gordon and later the pioneering live daytime magazine series Lunchbox – the forerunner to Pebble Mill at One. There were lots of other highs, quite literally, as she became TV’s original Anneka Rice – the ‘have a go girl’ doing everything from training as a fireman, coal miner, life guard and pilot to name a few.
Noele had started her career as an actress, becoming the toast of the West End – and the first actress to be employed by two west end productions at the same time – which in 1964 she returned to. Leaving presenting behind she was cast as the leading lady in Britain’s first soap. Britain’s first half-hour daily soap no less.
While Coronation Street and the like all refused to call themselves soap, ATV embraced it. Based on ideas producer Reg Watson and Noele Gordon had both seen in America Crossroads, set in an American style motel, became an instant hit with critics and viewers initially.
Despite this, and the show ultimately becoming ITV’s most successful daytime programme ever, it seems a move against ‘Americanisation’ of television lead to a scathing switch from the critics who regularly attempted to get soap opera removed from British TV. Coronation Street, while on the IBA’s ‘dubious quality’ list, escaped such venom as it was not middle class, and very British in setting – it had just as many fluffed lines, wobbly walls and shoddy acting with less of an excuse airing only two episodes a week.
Noele defended her soap with vigour and fact. “Why do 18 million people watch us night after night”. And she defied all their snipes to win television awards with the saga every year between 1968 and 1981. The show was recorded ‘as live’ to tape in one long chunk starting with the opening caption and stopping the tape at the end of part one sting and the same for part two. There was no editing, this however seemed to make the show more popular giving it a ‘theatre show’ feel.
Today Crossroads would be embraced by ITV who would kill to have a daytime series that pulled in primetime ratings. Crossroads for its run was either number 1, 2 or 3 in the ranking of serials. Emmerdale Farm was 4th.
However at the time, ITV, overseen by the IBA hated commercial television. Its boss Lady Plowden firstly requested that it shouldn’t be billed as ‘commercial television’ but ‘independent television’ and then went on later to describe Crossroads as ‘distressingly popular’ as it hit the TV top ten every week.
Former Head of Programmes at ATV Charles Denton told us “They, I think, would have preferred to run BBC Two rather than ITV.” While in the saga Noele returned at intervals to presenting. She was the first woman to present The Royal Variety Performance and hosted other shows such as Summer Royal and her own radio series.
Noele Gordon in 1981 became the first casualty of changes aimed at taking Crossroads off air. Sacked sensationally she gained more press inches in the year in newspapers than the Pope being shot. Her life was never the same, she had given it over to ATV and despite a few theatre successes and television appearances Noele was dead by 1985, ironically the year Central Television – who had taken over Crossroads’ production – wanted to bring her back as Motel owner Meg Mortimer.
The show had never quite been the same and it finally ended in 1988 when the late Andy Allen behind everyone’s back, including a most annoyed MD, axed the soap as it proved to be ‘embarrassing’ for him at dinner parties. He at least gave Emmerdale Farm a lifeline and ultimately the decision lead to Central all-but closing down, it no longer makes any networked programming. Noele would be very sad about that fact. She, although born in London’s East End to Scottish parents, was a strong supporter of the Midlands media and promoter of the area.
“Noele Gordon became the UK’s first soap queen when she played Crossroads’ Meg Mortimer for almost 20 years. She won a batch of Best Actress awards, including several from TV Times. Noele lived for her role as Meg and her personal life suffered because of it.” – TV Times magazine
“Millions of viewers checked into the Crossroads motel in the 70s and 80s to follow the life of hotel owner Meg Mortimer played by Noele Gordon. Close friends pay tribute to a real life matriarch with natural star quality whose real character had much in common with her fictional soap role. With Insight into her life on and off the Crossroads set. Behind the glamour and stardom she was unlucky in love and lived for her job and role on Crossroads – which made it even more devastating when she was fired from the series.” – ITV
The Unforgettable Noele Gordon, Tonight on ITV1 at 7.30pm