Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon in Nolly. Image: ITVX
Noele Gordon did not fall from grace. She was pushed. But, with his new ITVX drama Nolly, Russell T Davies is here to save her reputation.
One of the biggest television stars of her day courtesy of her role as Meg Mortimer in ITV soap opera Crossroads, Gordon was sacked, unceremoniously, in 1981.
The news sent shockwaves around the country. In the immediate wake of Dallas’s ‘who shot JR?’ storyline, big soap stories were big news. And Noele Gordon’s sudden departure from a show enjoyed three times a week by 15 million fans made the front pages of all the newspapers.
For 17 years Noele Gordon had been the beating heart of ITV’s low-budget soap, set in a Midlands motel. Her sacking broke her heart. She was never given a reason by her bosses. Nolly, as she was affectionately known, became ill the following year, died in 1985, and her name has gradually faded from the public consciousness.
But Davies remembers. Now, with the help of Helena Bonham Carter in the lead role and It’s a Sin director Peter Hoar behind the camera, he is bringing Gordon back for one final bow in Nolly. And he couldn’t be prouder.
“I’d just done It’s a Sin. And one of the great benefits of It’s a Sin being one of those hits is I could write anything I wanted next,” he says.
When Gordon is remembered these days it’s as likely that she will be recalled as ‘a bit of a diva’ as for the screen role she gave everything to. Davies had heard these stories too. But as he talked to the people who really knew Gordon best, a different picture emerged.
“I went into this thinking it could be a laugh to write about a diva,” says Davies. “So I was surprised to find that everyone loved her. Nolly took a lot of research. I spent a whole summer on Zoom talking to all the old Crossroads cast. I initially thought they were putting on a front and these were well-worn anecdotes.
“I chiselled away. At one point I Zoomed Tony Adams [Gordon’s devoted Crossroads co-star, friend, neighbour and regular chauffeur] every day. I sent him a cake. His wife would make him a coffee and we would sit on Zoom, eating cake and having a chat every day. And I began to realise it was true.
“They all loved her. The floor staff said it. The production staff said it. The door staff said it. She was strong, she’d make a stand when something was going wrong and she would say she wanted things done better. But they loved her.”
That’s when Davies knew he was on to something more substantial than the breezy tale of a soap opera star raging against the dying of the light. “It became the story of: why is this woman remembered as a monster? Why is a woman who was powerful and strong remembered as a diva?” says Davies, sitting bolt upright as we talk at BFI Southbank in London, still furious on Gordon’s behalf.
“Why has her name almost vanished apart from these stories? Once I started realising she’d been hard done by [and] had been lied about, that these monstrous stereotypes had been attached to her simply because she was a strong woman, that’s when I knew I had a story. That’s why I wanted to bring her back. So we’ve brought Nolly back for a final bow.”
Davies, as he admits, could have made anything after It’s a Sin. His stock had never been higher, the Channel 4 drama that charted the lives of four young men and their chosen and birth families through the Aids epidemic building on the success of A Very English Scandal and Years and Years.
But he goes back a long way with Noele Gordon. Aged just nine, Gordon was reputed to be the first woman ever to appear on colour television anywhere in the world. A few decades later, she was also one of the first people Russell T Davies ever saw on a colour television.
“Isn’t that weird?” he says. “My mum bought a colour TV and then went out and said: ‘Don’t you dare turn that on.’ She said to me and my sister, ‘If you turn that on it will explode!’
“Of course, the moment she went out, we plugged it in, turned it on and there was Miss Diane arguing with postman Vince, who was drunk, against a yellow wall. First thing I ever saw. So it does genuinely run deep.”
These days, soap operas are a quieter part of the national conversation, the glory days slipping further into the rearview mirror, like Albert Square fading from view as another character leaves in the back of a black cab.
We discuss the 2022 finale of Neighbours. “That brilliant moment where Plain Jane Super-brain put her glasses on and Mike [Guy Pearce] said, ‘You’re beautiful’? That was when you knew you were in the hands of experts.” His enthusiasm for storytelling, in all its forms, remains undimmed.
“I’m possibly the final viewer,” continues Davies, who can do melodrama with the best of them. “I feel very alone these days. Because there’s not many of us.
“How to save [soaps]? I think radical work is needed that they will never have time for. Like they say if you stopped the London Underground for 24 hours and moved all the trains to the right position, it would run like a dream for ever. It is like that for soaps. There is no time to reassess, to re-tool. You’re trapped on a treadmill and it is terrifying.”
Nolly’s behind-the-scenes depictions of Crossroads, always very much the poorer Midlands cousin to Manchester’s Coronation Street, are a joy. But bar Gordon’s Rolls-Royce and fabulous fur coats, there is very little showbiz glamour on display.
“We have a lot of fun with it on screen,” says Davies. “It’s not like working down a mineshaft, is it? You’re not in danger of your life. You’re not a soldier or a nurse on an emergency ward.”
Davies first visited the set as an aspiring young writer. The eventual demise of Crossroads in 1988 – it returned briefly from 2001-2003 (“oh, we don’t talk about that. The Jane Asher ending? I love Jane Asher, it wasn’t her fault, but fuck me, that was a mess. The last episode where the whole thing turned out to be a dream? Classic Crossroads, everything – and Jill Chance was in the dream? It was one of the most offensive things I’ve ever seen!” is the Davies verdict on this brief comeback) – could have wrecked his career before it had even started.
“I wrote a Crossroads script and sent it off to them with no agent and no experience in writing whatsoever,” he says. “They invited me to the studio. That was a big moment in my life.
“But I can’t tell you how tiny it was. Bear in mind I had nothing to compare it to, even I knew this was cheap and small. The sets were like backdrops. Never mind breaking the fourth wall, they didn’t have walls two or three!
“They gave me a trial script to write, which I wrote on an old-fashioned typewriter and I sent it off. Five days later, the programme was axed.”
A stint at Granada a few years later showed Davies how it should be done. “Coronation Street to this day is the gem of that building and it’s much respected,” he says. “Clearly, that was never the case for Crossroads. They were paid much less, they were treated badly. And they even had to buy their own clothes, which is astonishing.”
This is a big year for Russell T Davies. He’s resuming his role as showrunner on Doctor Who, and juggling not one but two Time Lords as the series celebrates six decades on the screen, with fans equally excited by the return of David Tennant and the start of the Ncuti Gatwa era. “We are not going to talk about Doctor Who stuff today, though,” he grins. “Behave!”
Davies is also going to turn 60.
“Oh God. Thank you for reminding me. I’d rather talk about Doctor Who. I’ll tell you all the secrets. But yes, I am the same age as Doctor Who. It makes me wish Doctor Who was 21, though.”
Davies also reunited with the cast of his 1991 teen science-fiction series Dark Season for an audiobook. Why the excitement? Because among the young cast of that BBC One show was a certain pre-fame Oscar winner.
“Kate Winslet! Kate just leapt at the chance to do it,” says Davies. “I wrote a letter to her agent just saying, please come and do this and have some fun. Bang, there’s her phone number. There she is, dying to do it, where shall we meet?”
Post-lockdowns and post-It’s a Sin – which was not just an incredible piece of television but also changed the conversation about HIV and Aids in the UK – Davies seems to have given himself free rein to enjoy himself and follow his passions.
“It’s a Sin was the most extraordinary success of my life,” he says. “Yet it’s very strange. It’s hard to celebrate because so many people died and all that stigma still exists. Sometimes I think we’d all like to run down the street cheering but we can’t. But we’re very happy with it, very proud of each other.
“Truly, I could go to the grave having made It’s a Sin. In a way, everything after that is gravy. It’s probably going to be the one on my tombstone. I always thought it was going to be Queer as Folk, then suddenly this one comes along. And if it was on my tombstone, I’d be so happy.”
And if Nolly is part of this new abandon, we are here for it. “We could do better things like overthrow the government or save the world,” he says. “But we’ll do this for now!”
Nolly is on ITVX
Read the full interview with Russell T Davies in The Big Issue magazine – on sale from 6 February. The Big Issue magazine exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today. Or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.