When Russell T Davies first approached ITV executives with the idea to make a drama about Noele Gordon, they replied: “Who’s he?” If you are under the age of 50, you might have the same response. But it doesn’t matter. In Nolly (ITVX), Davies gives us three hours of glorious high camp, which you will enjoy even if you have never heard of Crossroads.
But those of a certain age will remember that Crossroads was a soap opera set in a Midlands motel, and which enjoyed its peak years in the 1970s. If that sounds naff, well, Britain in the 1970s was naff, which is why it chimed with the population and brought in audiences of 15 million per episode. Gordon – known to everyone as Nolly – reigned over the show for 18 years as motel owner Meg Mortimer until she was suddenly sacked in 1981, an event which has faded from our collective memory but which was front page news at the time. Neither she, nor the show’s army of fans, took news of her departure well.
After leaving the show, Gordon appeared on stage in Gypsy but died from cancer in 1985 and has been largely forgotten. Think of an iconic redhead from a British soap of that era and you’ll surely go for Corrie’s Pat Phoenix every time. Nolly is Davies’s bid to rescue Gordon from obscurity. And he has succeeded quite fabulously, aided by the star casting of Helena Bonham Carter.
Of course, Bonham Carter cuts a more glamorous, Princess Margaret-ish figure than Gordon did, even if the latter did wear fur coats and big shades while being driven around Birmingham in a Rolls-Royce. But she’s a great comic actress and a scream in the role, emitting a very Anne Robinson energy. At the heart of the show is her friendship with Tony Adams, aka Crossroads’ dashing accountant Adam Chance. As played by Augustus Prew, Adams is a wonderfully loyal pal and, with a medallion nestling in his chest hair, just the right side of ridiculous. There is a joyous scene, which seems too perfect to be true but apparently really happened, in which Adams races – by boat – to be there for Gordon/Mortimer’s send-off on the QE2.
Nolly rewrites her scripts and directs her own scenes, and says things like: “I’m making this show better if I have to haul it out of the grave line by line.” This irks producer Jack Barton (Happy Valley’s Con O’Neill), who is cast as the villain of the piece. He thinks Gordon is too big for her boots, and the inference here is that sexism was at play – forthrightness was an impressive characteristic in a man, but considered diva behaviour in a woman.
And was Gordon simply a star from a bygone age? She was the first woman to appear on colour television, in test transmissions for John Logie Baird; the dawn of the 1980s was a period of great change in television, and “Who Shot JR?” had just upped the soap opera stakes. As Gordon’s friend Larry Grayson (a weirdly creepy Mark Gatiss) puts it: “That’s us, darling. Two old dinosaurs.”
Crossroads was no Dallas. Davies has a little bit of fun with the Acorn Antiques elements of the show – the ad-libbed phone calls with imaginary motel guests when episodes were under-running, an appearance by Shughie McFee, Ronnie Allen’s mesmerising performance as David Hunter – but ends up leaning away from it. Because, for us to invest in Gordon’s story, we need to take her seriously as a talented actress who was cruelly cast aside at the peak of her powers.
Nolly is funny and touching, and does its job of giving Gordon her due. In truth, it could have finished after two episodes, because the third instalment covers the period post-Crossroads and barely has anything to sustain it (Davies includes a real-life incident in which Gordon was arrested with Fiona Fullerton in a Bangkok sex bar, but that’s less fun that it sounds).
For anyone nostalgic about this era, the show is full of delights. The fashions. The shopping – Gordon and Adams manage to make a trip to look in the windows of Rackhams in Birmingham seem impossibly glamorous. And if Crossroads was a regular part of your viewing schedule – even if you thought it was rubbish – then just hearing Benny say the words “Miss Diane” will evoke a Proustian rush.
It seems bizarre now that this woman we had forgotten all about was once so famous that crowds mobbed the church in which she was filming her fictional Crossroads wedding to Hugh Mortimer. But take yourself to YouTube and watch Gordon’s real-life appearance on The Russell Harty Show after her Crossroads exit. She comes on and belts out Some People from Gypsy. Can she sing? Not really. But she has star quality.
All episodes of Nolly are available to stream now on ITVX