At the peak of her fame, actress Noele Gordon was one of the most recognisable faces on British television.
For nearly two decades, the star of the ITV soap Crossroads delighted millions of viewers with her portrayal of matriarchal businesswoman and motel owner Meg Richardson (later Meg Mortimer). As indomitable off set as she was on it, Noele used to drive around Birmingham, where the series was filmed, in a silver Rolls-Royce with personalised plates, opening new supermarkets and attending meet-and-greet sessions with her army of fans.
At its peak, the show drew an astonishing 22 million viewers.
Not for nothing, then, was Noele — nicknamed Nolly — known as the Queen of the Midlands. Even today, it would be hard to find someone with her incredible range — equally at home on the stage, the chat-show sofa or filming commercials, she even had behind-the-camera experience.
Helena Bonham Carter (pictured) stars as Nolly – Noele Gordon – in a new three-part ITV drama about the star’s life
An exacting role indeed, then, for actress Helena Bonham Carter, who will star in Nolly, a new three-part ITV drama about Noele’s extraordinary life, which starts tonight.
Bonham Carter has already been seen filming in character: sporting a curly, flame-haired wig and fur coat and striding down a 1970s street set, the 56-year-old had the late television icon’s look down to a tee.
But the real challenge — as one of Noele’s former Crossroads co-stars and closest friends told me this week — will be portraying the depth of her despair after her dramatic fall from grace while at the height of her popularity.
In 1981, to national outrage and after 17 years on the show, Noele was suddenly and brutally sacked. She took the news very badly. So bereft was she, that her co-star Tony Adams, who played womanising accountant Adam Chance on the soap, believes the stress contributed to Noele’s death in 1985 from stomach cancer, aged 65, just four years after her character was axed.
‘I’m sure the shock of being sacked was a factor,’ Adams says. ‘She started to get ill so suddenly after that.’
She was mobbed by Crossroads fans wherever she went
Certainly, it’s one of television history’s enduring mysteries: even Noele herself never truly understood why she had been treated ‘in such a cold and humiliating manner’.
Now 82, Adams was once so close to Noele — who was 21 years his senior — that the pair lived opposite each other in Birmingham.
‘Nolly was extraordinary — a remarkable lady in so many ways and was quite simply unique,’ he says.
The pair, he says, were never lovers, just friends. But they saw each other daily and shared a running joke in which he addressed her as ‘Miss Gordon’, while she called him ‘Adams’ and pretended he was her butler.
‘She once said that she wouldn’t want things between us to become sexual because she didn’t want to lose our friendship,’ he says. ‘We loved each other as friends.’
For nearly two decades actor Noele Gordon (pictured) delighted millions with her portrayal of matriarchal businesswoman and motel owner Meg Richardson in Crossroads
Nevertheless, the pair were close enough to enjoy several adventures together. Adams recalls how, while staying at a hotel in his native Anglesey in the late 1970s, Noele asked him to get her some sparkling water from the bar and bring it to her room.
‘I went to the bar and saw a bottle of champagne. I took it to her room and said: “Your sparkling water, Miss Gordon.” She was standing there in her nightdress and dressing gown, and she said: “Adams! Get the Rolls!”’
In the middle of the night, he drove Noele to Penmon Point, a local beauty spot.
‘It was blowing a gale and p***ing down with rain,’ he recalls, ‘but she put on the stereo, opened all the doors and we danced and drank the champagne. That was Nolly.’
While she never married or had children, choosing instead to throw herself into a career which ultimately spanned six decades, ITV’s new drama — penned by the Bafta-winning scriptwriter Russell T. Davies, who created Torchwood and the 2021 hit series It’s A Sin — is likely to feature the two love affairs that shattered Noele’s heart.
The actress was emotionally complex, and led a life away from the cameras as dramatic as any of the storylines she filmed in front of them.
For years, Crossroads was one of the most-watched series in television history. Set in the fictional Birmingham suburb of King’s Oak and filmed live — often at breakneck speed — the soap opera was often mocked for its creaky sets and outlandish storylines.
Best of friends: Noele Gordon (near right) in Venice with co-stars Jane Rossington and Tony Adams
But fans were gripped by Noele’s character, motel owner Meg Richardson: this was a woman who’d faced the explosion of a wartime bomb and an attempted poisoning by a dastardly husband determined to get his hands on a life insurance policy.
Meg went to prison after swerving in her car to avoid a cat and hitting a postman. She also suffered nearconstant romantic heartache.
Off-stage, as well, Noele was let down by the men in her life. Famously liberated for a woman of her generation, her heart was broken twice.
Her first love was an Oxfordeducated young Army officer, Captain John Robertson Dunn Crichton, who proposed to her in 1941. He broke off their engagement six weeks before their wedding because his family objected to him marrying an actress. He went on to become a High Court judge.
Her second love was the married TV impresario Val Parnell, with whom she had a 20-year affair before he left his wife — and Noele — for his secretary.
‘After Val, who was the love of her life, I think she shut down romantically,’ says Tony.
HELENA BONHAM CARTER AS Noele Gordon (Nolly) and AUGUSTUS PREW as Tony Adams in the new ITV drama
Having given up on love, work meant everything. So did Noele fall foul of powerful men in the television industry simply because she, herself, was too strong — and too unconventional — a woman?
Certainly, by the time Crossroads was launched by ATV in 1964, with Noele cast in the lead role, she was already a household name.
Joan Noele Gordon was the daughter of Scottish merchant navy engineer James Gordon and his wife, Johanna. She got her festive middle name due to her birth in East London on Christmas Day 1919. Johanna was a frustrated actress, and she was determined that Noele would have the career she had missed out on. Sent for dance lessons aged two, Noele attended RADA and became a successful stage and musical actress.
Convinced TV was the future, Noele went to New York to study production techniques. Her return to the UK coincided with the launch of ITV, and she joined one of its franchises, ATV, as a trainee director.
When the channel launched in 1956, she appeared as a presenter on a chat-show style programme called Tea With Noele Gordon. Similar shows followed, including Lunch Box and Hi T, programmes which saw her learning to fly and to dive, riding an elephant and entering a cage of lions.
Bonham Carter has already been seen filming in character: sporting a curly, flame-haired wig and fur coat and striding down a 1970s street set, the 56-year-old had the late television icon’s look down to a tee
Her experiences in front of a live camera made her an obvious choice when ATV decided to launch Crossroads — the first ever daily serial on British screens. Soon, Noele was receiving sackfuls of fan mail and was mobbed in the streets wherever she went.
Royal Family members, including Prince Philip, the Queen Mother and Princess Alexandra all visited the Crossroads set.
One of Noele’s biggest fans was Mary Wilson, the wife of Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who contributed a foreword to the actress’s 1975 autobiography.
‘I’m sure many women see Noele Gordon in the character of Meg Richardson as the type of woman they themselves would like to be,’ she wrote. ‘Understanding, sensible, able to cope with any situation.’
But by 1980 there were signs that all was not well. Behind the scenes, it was said that Crossroads was disliked by the Independent Broadcasting Authority because they thought it was poor quality.
IBA chairman Dame Bridget Plowden described the series as ‘disturbingly popular’.
Noele’s character, Meg, was also seen by some as being too middleclass and out-of-date. Her storylines were gradually reduced.
‘I never expected to be fired in such a cold manner’
In the summer of 1980, the series was pruned back from five to three days a week.
Hot-headed Noele responded by going to the newspapers, telling them she was ‘bloody furious’ and insisting: ‘The high-flying people who run television have no idea how the fans really feel about Crossroads.’
She started a ‘Help Noele Save Crossroads’ campaign. ‘The ATV bosses think they can do what they like with us. Well they can’t,’ she stormed.
With Noele standing in the way of the changes TV chiefs wanted to make, it was only a matter of time before the axe fell on her character. ‘The top brass didn’t like Crossroads,’ says Tony Adams. ‘They wanted to get it off the screens, but Noele was the show. I think they thought that if she went, that would be it.’
Announcing her sacking in June 1981, ATV director of programmes Charles Denton said that he wanted to ‘push the serial into new waters, and in those new waters there’s no place for Meg’. He added that it was time for Noele to ‘gracefully bow out’.
Producer Jack Barton said that Noele’s character had become too dominant. ‘No one person is bigger than the programme,’ he explained. ‘There are also another 12 actors on the series, and they all have their own following, too.’
Noele was devastated by the decision to force her out, later blaming it on ‘a new broom, sweeping clean’.
‘I never expected to be fired in such a cold and humiliating manner,’ she said. ‘It’s no understatement when I say I’m heartbroken to be leaving.
Nolly’s best friend Tony Adams was on hand earlier this year to give Bonham Carter some advice about playing Noele via a Zoom call
‘It was the way it was done which made me so upset and angry. After all those years with ATV, nobody would even talk to me about it. I was depressed. There were days when I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning.’
In true indomitable fashion, she picked herself up and returned to the theatre: ‘I was brought up to believe that you have to fight your own battles,’ she said.
However, her departure saw Crossroads’ ratings plummet. Noele had the last laugh in 1983 when, two years after her departure, she was asked to return to the soap for three episodes, popping up in her on-screen daughter’s Venice honeymoon.
Crossroads came to an end in 1988, and was briefly and unsuccessfully revived in 2001 before it was axed for good in 2003.
Noele was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1984 and underwent several operations, returning to the stage to appear in The Boy Friend until she was physically unable to stand.
Tony Adams, who visited the actress in her final weeks, says that even though she was scared, she kept her feelings about dying to herself.
‘t wasn’t her style to show emotion,’ he says. ‘She just got the job done. She was the most emotional, unemotional person I’ve ever known. I was full of admiration for her. She was the most extraordinary woman.’
Adams also features in ITV’s new series Nolly, and is portrayed by Kick-Ass 2 star Augustus Prew. The 35-year-old actor has been seen on set with Helena Bonham Carter, kneeling down and kissing her hand.
Adams was on hand earlier this year to give Bonham Carter some advice about playing Noele via a Zoom call.
He recalls how he watched and listened as the actress spoke: ‘I said: “You’ve got her. I can see it — you’ve got her.”’
‘Helena is a great actress and I could see a real likeness to Nolly in her manner. It’s wonderful to see Nolly resurrected after so many years.’
- Nolly will be available to stream from today on ITVX.
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