Nolly: Helena Bonham Carter and writer Russell T Davies on the making of the ITVX Crossroads drama

Four decades after the shock sacking of star Noele Gordon, ITVX checks into the Crossroads Motel for a three-part series that explores the reasons behind her dramatic departure.

By Rhys Lewis Updated: 7 February 2023 - 4.37pm
ITV Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon in Nolly

Nolly takes us on a journey back to the start of the golden age of soap opera. It’s 1981, and early-evening hit Crossroads is pulling in 15 million viewers three times a week.

At the heart of the show, playing feisty motel owner Meg Richardson, is the equally feisty Noele Gordon.

Suddenly, and at the height of her powers after 17 years behind the Midlands motel's reception desk, Gordon is sacked by the show’s producers. No reason is given, and her departure marks the beginning of a decline in the show’s fortunes and viewing figures.

Noele – Nolly to her friends – moves on to other ventures, but never really knows the truth behind her sudden sacking.

Helena Bonham Carter (The Crown, The King's Speech) takes the lead role of Noele Gordon in Russell T Davies’ three-part ITVX drama about the sacking and its aftermath.

They, along with director Peter Hoar and co-star Augustus Prew, revealed how the series came about and how cast and crew immersed themselves in the slightly wobbly world of 1980s television.

Discover more about how Nolly was made here.

Nolly: All you need to know about the ITVX drama

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A drama 42 years in the making

Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon in Nolly ITV

Writer Russell T Davies had been a fan of Crossroads while growing up and was one of the millions of viewers stunned by Gordon’s sacking.

“I was 18 when it all happened, I’d just got to university and I was supposed to be reading Chaucer but I was reading the Daily Mirror - I was obsessed with it,” he explained, putting the event into the context of the time: “In the late 70s and the early 80s, there was Margaret Thatcher and there was Nolly.”

Time passed, but Davies’ unease at Gordon’s firing refused to go away.

“Then I worked in television, I worked on the soaps and the more I worked in TV that sacking got odder and odder. It was a genuinely odd thing to happen for someone to be brutally and publicly axed like that.

“I always thought there was a story in there. But when I went to ITV and said I wanted to do a series about Noele Gordon they said: ‘Who’s he?’

The programme’s star, Helena Bonham Carter, was equally unaware of Gordon’s story.

“I didn’t know her until I read Russell’s script. She came into my life like a life force straight from page one. I thought ‘why the hell have I not been aware of her!’,” said the actress.

“She's such a sensational woman, quite apart from Crossroads. But then I read about this woman who just fizzed off the page, and it's just a sensational piece of writing.”

It fulfilled a lifelong dream for Davies

Russell T Davies ITV

While Gordon’s sacking stunned millions of TV viewers, Davies experienced a shock Crossroads-related sacking of his own – in 1987 the Midlands soap was axed just as he was about to join its writing team.

“I was 23 and the producer of Crossroads said he was looking for new writers. ‘We can't get anyone to write this, because people think it’s rubbish’, [the producer] actually said in an interview.

"I thought, ‘I can do that, I can write rubbish!’ But I genuinely loved it... and I applied for a job and I visited the set – and I got very, very close. I wrote a trial script for them – and then the programme was axed.

"I literally walked into a newsagent one morning, and every single newspaper said 'Crossroads axed', like another public sacking.

“And so when I, finally, 35 years later, got to write ‘Interior: Crossroads Motel’, it was like revenge!"

Crossroads cast members were happy to share their side of the story

Crossroads cast members check their scripts in ITVX's Nolly ITV

Noele Gordon died in 1986, but with many of her Crossroads co-stars yet to check into the great motel in the sky, Davies was able to get their views on her sacking and what it was like to work with the soap legend.

“I spent a lovely lockdown zooming members of the cast like Miss Diane [played by Susan Hanson], Adam Chance [Tony Adams] and Benny [Paul Henry] and investigating the story,” Davies revealed.

“I began to realise how much she was loved by fellow cast members, and yet treated so badly by the system

“Part of the reason I got interested the story was because in the industry, she's very much spoken of as a diva and a bit of a monster. And yet when I spoke to the cast, the opposite picture came out. And I kind of thought ‘all right, you've given me the public version’ and I scratched and I scratched and I released it was true – they loved her.”

Bethany Antonia as Poppy and Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon ITV

One of the few fictional characters in Nolly is Poppy, a young actress who meets Gordon on her first day on set and is soon taken under her matriarchal wing. While Poppy (played by Bethany Antonia, above) was an invented character, she is based on several young actors who worked on the soap.

“I needed to invent someone to come in as a newcomer. But I spoke to a lot of people who’d been younger actors with Nolly and she’d take them under her wing. She’d discipline them a bit, teach them good studio manners and professionalism,” said Davies.

“They all spoke of her with love. Some of them worked with her in the 60s and still speak there was so much love and affection. They were dying to talk to us!”

Bonham Carter recognised the motherly side of the actress. “Nolly didn't have children. But she really did view all the cast as her children,” she said.

“She couldn’t count – in her autobiography she said ‘We had 10,000 young actors through, first job from rep’ - but she’d teach them everything. They were all her surrogate children. They called her the godmother.

“Jane Rossington [who played Meg’s daughter Jill] too spoke very highly of Nolly. It really was a close relationship, how could it not be – you’re working with these people every single day for 20 years, five days a week.”

The sets were just a little bit wobbly

The Crossroads set and period cameras in Nolly ITV

Nolly is intended as a tribute to Crossroads and its stars rather than a parody – Victoria Wood, who Davies said were she still alive would have written this drama before him, pulled that off perfectly with Acorn Antiques – but director Peter Hoar couldn’t resist a nod to the show’s notoriously flimsy sets.

“There was one moment if you look carefully when I did ask one of the actors to close the door rather vigorously, and the lights do move,” said Hoar, who also directed Davies’ 2021 drama It’s A Sin and Long, Long Time, the acclaimed third episode of HBO series The Last of Us.

“We had a scene where a male executive said, ‘this isn't gonna last, this is cr*p’ or something like that. We cut it for lots of different reasons, but also I didn't want to feel it like that.

“We never intended to rubbish the show because that's not what the people on it ever saw it like, so we treated it with the respect it deserves.”

That respect extended to hiring period cameras to film the Crossroads scenes-within-scenes.

“There’s a company that does it called Golden Age. I wanted to use the images from them and add them into the show.

“Actually what was great is we did that and we looked at them and went ‘They’re better than I thought they were’. They were really quite beautiful to look at, though we did degrade the pictures a bit.”

The costumes were rather too authentic for comfort

Helena Bonham Carter and Augustus Prew in Nolly ITV

The authenticity didn’t end there. Actors wore period costume, right down to the nylon threads and heavy wigs, which got even heavier under the tungsten lighting of the 1970s.

“They were the most flammable costumes I’ve ever worn,” laughed Augustus Prew, who plays Nolly’s co-star, confidant, and moustachioed 70s pin-up, Tony Adams.

“Plus all the hairspray plus the tungsten lights that were literally smoking, I thought one of us is going to go off in a minute!”

The cast had to watch old episodes of the soap to pick up the subtleties – and not-so-subtleties – of Crossroads acting, including long, lingering stares to camera and improvised dialogue to pad vital seconds in case a show was in danger of running under.

“There's a whole sort of Bible of how to act in Crossroads,” said Bonham Carter. “There's a sort of certain pace of slowness, because a lot of the time you're trying to tell the camera person what you’re going to do next.”

Prew enjoyed the play-within-a-play nature of Nolly. “I like that aspect of it, the soap acting, then jumping into a really nuanced character acting and then you've got three people in your head - you've got you and you've got the character who's the actor, then you've got the actor playing the character within the show. So there's sort of this very meta universe you get to sort of play with,” he said.

Bonham Carter agrees: “An ingredient of the characterization which I really loved was the confusion between Meg Morton and Noele Gordon, and they were really both the same person,” she said.

It’s a fitting send-off for a soap legend

Helena Bonham Carter in Nolly ITV

Davies’ aim behind Nolly was to introduce Gordon to new audience while also addressing the still-topical issues behind her sacking and giving her a send-off that her undignified departure and untimely death denied her.

“When I first spoke to Russell, I loved how he said ‘Look, I just feel she was appallingly treated and we need to give her a proper send-off’,” said Bonham Carter.

The truth behind Gordon’s sacking never emerged, but Davies has at least attempted to answer that question in the third and final episode.

“She's more bitter about the fact that for the rest of her life, she gets asked ‘Why did they sack you?’,” said Davies.

“It’s the publicness of the humiliation and the fact she didn't even know why.”

“She was sacked on her prime,” added Bonham Carter. “She couldn't have been better at what she was doing. And I suspect, but I don't want to give too much away, she was sacked because people were threatened by her.

“They might have been annoyed too that she was clever. And she was probably cleverer than most of the people on the show and they resented her power. And the fact she was right most of the time.

“It’s a tribute to those who have gone and to bring those people back who still have a lot to teach us.”

Watch Nolly now on ITVX

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