Warning: contains plot details
Watching Nolly will divide a generation: you’ll either be surprised you haven’t heard of her (even if she was ‘a bit before your time’), or even more surprised you’d somehow forgotten she ever existed.
She certainly seems instantly unforgettable, thanks in part to Helena Bonham Carter’s assured depiction of her full-throttle, take-life-by-the-horns character (infamous red dye job included), but also thanks to Nolly writer Russell T Davies’ very obvious affection for the real Noele Gordon.
Davies respectfully litters the series with references to her many underappreciated achievements in the television industry. If you do know Noele Gordon, you’ll most likely know her as a daytime TV stalwart who propped up the naff-but-beloved British soap Crossroads (even if she couldn’t prop up the show’s infamous wobbly scenery) as motel owner Meg for the best part of two decades.
But the reality, as Nolly shows us, is she’s a bit of an unsung feminist icon in showbiz: she worked with John Logie Baird to become the first woman on colour television in 1938, she was the first woman to interview a Prime Minister (Harold Macmillan in 1958), and she studied television production in New York and returned to become the UK’s first female TV executive. Even as a soap star, she excelled, winning the TV Times’ Best Actress Award six years in a row until they had to invent a new award just for her.
But all these achievements don’t stop her being unceremoniously sacked from Crossroads, a move more shocking than many of the soap’s bizarre cliffhanger endings, and a mystery to everyone including Nolly herself. It makes for an interesting premise to the series – ‘Why was Noele Gordon sacked?’ becomes the show’s own version of soap mysteries like ‘Who shot JR?’ and ‘How is Ian Beale still alive?’ – and the way the cast and crew react is its own humorous soap-like drama, camply sharing the latest rumours with hammy gasps of outrage.
The outrage of Gordon’s Crossroads colleagues is important, too, because despite her amusingly diva-esque qualities in the first episode (steamrolling the rehearsal, amending the script, stage directions and even one of the character’s accents, and having her own chair in the green room that no one else would dream of sitting in), she’s clearly deeply beloved. Her on-screen daughter Jane (Antonia Bernath) permanently calls Nolly ‘mum’, and her co-star and best friend Tony Adams (played with scene-stealing vim and comic timing by The Morning Show’s Augustus Prew) enables her every whim.
Even producer Jack – the brilliant Con O’Neill, a true acting chameleon, which is a good job considering he’s in everything at the moment – puts up with Nolly’s demands with stony-faced stoicism. Maybe that’s because he knows that when she says ‘I am making this show better if I have to haul it out of the grave line by line’, she means it, and has the considerable TV experience to back it up.
Davies’ writing goes slightly heavy-handed on this at times, getting characters to parrot references to her good deeds, and the fact that she knew everyone’s name – ‘even the cleaners, and the girls on reception’ – but the point is made: her sacking is completely unjustifiable.
While reports of Nolly’s on-screen death are greatly exaggerated – there’s a very funny sequence where the cast and crew try to discover how Nolly’ character Meg is being written out, a secret the production team goes to great lengths to keep under wraps – but what about the woman behind this very public scandal? That’s where Davies really comes into his own – as ever, he pulls no punches, showing how isolated and ordinary she is when the spotlight isn’t on her. Away from the headlines and speculation, Noele Gordon was simply treated very badly indeed, and the fact she has no idea why makes this even sadder.
Nowhere is this more heartbreakingly felt than in the utterly compelling scene between her and Larry Grayson (Mark Gatiss), who was one of Noele Gordon’s closest friends. Their tender-hearted, soul-searching backstage exchange is a brutally honest outpouring of fear, resignation at their careers coming to an end, and contemplating what little they’ve got left once they can no longer perform.
It’s a beautiful depiction of the fall of Nolly’s empire, as is the first day of Crossroads rehearsals without her, when one of her former co-stars says: ‘Never mention the Scottish play, never whistle backstage, and never sit in Nolly’s chair. These things remain inviolable.’
But the main thing that makes Noele Gordon’s story remarkable is how she responds to this public destruction. Yes, she has wobbles, there are moments when she breaks down, but on the whole? She simply fights on. When Tony asks her what she’ll do now Crossroads is over, she says: ‘Do you think I’d let those bastards stop me? I’ve got plans’. And, most poignantly of all, when Larry Grayson urges her to ‘Start again, show them, all those men, everyone who ever doubted you’, she replies: ‘Oh, watch me’, paraphrasing the real Noele Gordon’s words on the day she was sacked.
Yes, she endures, against incredible odds, returning to the stage and touring across Asia, but Russell T Davies doesn’t completely canonise her. He makes an excellent, comedic job of memorably displaying her imperfections: when she snaps at an autograph hunter in a restaurant, she makes amends by paying for their meal ‘but not the wine’, and, after arriving at rehearsals in her Rolls, she announces of her colleague: ‘I think Pamela’s going to be late, I drove past her at the bus stop.’
But at the end of the day, Nolly is a Russell T Davies love letter, not only to Noele Gordon – giving her a proper send-off and bringing her rightfully back into the public consciousness – but also to every ‘woman of a certain age’ who is still today being put in her place and ridden roughshod over, who is still called ‘difficult’ when she knows what she wants, ‘bossy’ instead of ‘assertive’. Nolly might be set in the 1980s, but – as the current Act Your Age campaign, which fights against gendered ageism in the TV and film industry, shows – it’s still painfully relevant.
Nolly’s story ends, like her career and her life itself (she died of stomach cancer in 1985, ending a too-little-too-late attempt to bring her back to Crossroads) before her time. At times the series seems rushed, like Davies wanted to pack too much in, and some of the flashbacks highlighting her many achievements feel a bit shoe-horned and sporadic, but it’s still one of his typical masterclasses on not holding back, leaving everything on the page. Including – unlike many screenwriters these days – the big ‘I love you’ moments.
This is why Nolly will stay in viewers’ memories for a long time to come, which is in itself its own kind of justice for the real Noele Gordon. She wasn’t just written out of Crossroads, she was written out of history, cut off before her time and then discarded and forgotten. We can’t help thinking that this three-part drama telling her story, putting Noele Gordon back on our TVs where she belongs, would be exactly what Nolly would have wanted.
Nolly is available to stream on ITVX in the UK.