She was TV’s original diva – a woman whose fur coat and tantrums dominated the set of top soap opera Crossroads in the ’70s. Noele Gordon furiously clashed with script writers and producers alike, while co-stars quivered behind the (famously wobbly) walls on set.
So even playing Gordon (aka Nolly) in a new three-part drama affected Crown star Helena Bonham Carter – who so brilliantly portrayed that other fur-coated demon, Princess Margaret.
‘I’ve loved having her around but I don’t think my family have,’ says Bonham Carter.
‘She legitimises my bossy side. She’s such a sensational woman – a professional who expected everyone else to be – a proper company leader who looked after everyone on Crossroads.’
So who exactly was Nolly? A force of nature is what and this portrait from It’s A Sin/Doctor Who legend Russell T Davies is joyful, affectionate and hilarious – while making a few telling points about misogyny and workplace politics. Nolly was sacked in 1981 – her humiliation making headline news.
‘She was in her prime when she was sacked,’ says Bonham Carter. ‘I suspect because they felt threatened by her. She was defined by rejection and public humiliation and any other person might have crumbled. Championing her means that I’m championing every woman of a certain age.’
Things have improved in the industry, she says, but at glacial place.
‘I remember going to America for the first time at 19 or 20 and feeling so deficient, because my legs didn’t go on for six years. I didn’t have the right body and just thought there was no career for me here.
‘For years, there weren’t many parts, which is why I did costume dramas. There are a lot more women making stories now, which is great.’
Gordon would surely have thrived in today’s golden age of TV. She wasn’t ‘just’ a soap star – she was also the first woman in the world to appear on colour television and the first to interview a British prime minister. Small wonder Bonham Carter, for all her experience and accolades, confesses to a touch of imposter syndrome.
‘I was terrified before the read-through and then for the first three weeks of filming – there are so many big scenes in this. You’re greedy as an actor, but this business is terrible for being insecure and fear can bring out the worst in people. The gift of being older is that we’ve been through it. We get scared, but we can schedule the fear.’
‘For years, people told stories about Nolly being a diva, a bitch, a monster,’ adds Davies, who relished the chance to indulge in his passion for soaps and long-standing interest in the so-called ‘Queen of the Midlands’.
‘When I spoke to Crossroads cast members, I realised they loved her and that this was a drama in which a strong woman is seen as a villain: a powerful, unmarried woman without children makes men shiver a bit. I wanted to give her a proper send-off and make a star out of Noele Gordon. Helena does that.’
For Davies, Nolly brought a sense of vindication: in his early 20s, long before he wrote on Coronation Street and Children’s Ward, Davies sent off a trial script to the Crossroads team. He then wandered into a newsagents.
‘Every single tabloid newspaper said “Crossroads Axed”, So when I actually got to write the words “INT: Crossroads reception”, in the script for Nolly, I thought: At last!’
With ratings for soaps in apparently terminal decline, does Nolly celebrate a genre just as it slides into irrelevance? ‘Should I say this?’ Davies muses. ‘I think the end of the soap opera is in sight. We’ve practically seen every story. If the channels had any sense, they would be preparing them for another 20 years but I don’t think they are. They’re running them into the ground for the next ten years, and that’ll be it.’
Nolly is funny, heart-warming, dramatic and ever so slightly camp – if Davies is right, it’s hard to think of anyone better to write the eulogy.
Nolly is available on ITVX from tomorrow
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