Nolly: Russell T Davies and Helena Bonham Carter on new ITVX show about Crossroads star Noele Gordon
Entering the room, he was met with what felt like the reincarnated characters of the soap Crossroads in which Gordon – better known to her friends as Nolly – starred, causing fond memories to flood back from his adolescence.
“I had to have a little 20 seconds to myself, sitting in a chair and not saying anything, because it was quite strange,” says the Doctor Who writer, 59, who also created 11-time Bafta nominated It’s A Sin.
“It was like feeling the ground rock beneath my feet, because I genuinely love Crossroads.”
Davies says he was “ready for years” to tell the story of Noele Gordon, as he was “obsessed” with the pioneering soap opera in which she played Meg Mortimer from 1964 to 1981.
In Nolly, a three-part drama starring Helena Bonham Carter in the title role, coming to streaming platform ITVX, he has documented the rise and fall of the actress who was controversially sacked at the age of 61 after 19 years on Crossroads. The show also stars Mark Gatiss – who trained at Bretton Hall near Wakefield - as Larry Grayson, and Grimsby-born comedian Lloyd Griffith as Paul Henry.
Likening it to a “story of a Queen losing her crown”, Davies explains: “I think the more I work in television and the more I work with actors, the more mysterious that treatment seems.
“We’ve all seen actors being chucked out of soaps and we’ve all seen people falling from grace, but the very public and ruthless nature of that seemed odder and odder as time went on.”
Davies recalls a “lovely lockdown” spent largely on video calls chatting to the cast of the original soap, investigating the story. It was then, he realised, how much Gordon was “loved by fellow cast members and yet treated so badly by the system”.
“Part of the reason I got interested in the story was, in the industry she’s very much spoken of as… a bit of a monster,” he muses.
“And yet when I went and spoke to the cast, the opposite picture came out. I thought, ‘You’ve given me the public version’, but I scratched and scratched… and I realised it was true… She was adored.
“Of course, there’s the whole MeToo movement, which is brilliant and vital and needed, but actually I think the sexual stories are just scratching the surface of how women are treated.
“They’re not always treated badly because of a sexual story. The whims and tempers of men are vast and that’s what happened to Nolly.”
Davies adds that despite loving Gordon in the soap, which was set in a motel in the Midlands, he had “no idea the breadth of her experience”.
He says: “To me, she was just a soap star. But it turns out she has an extraordinary history.
“She was the first woman in the world to appear on colour television, put there by John Logie Baird himself, the first woman in Britain to interview a prime minister and the first woman to have her own daytime chat show.
“She was properly a trailblazer, and also a theatre star… It makes her sacking all the more shocking.”
But Bafta and Emmy winner Bonham Carter, 56, says she found Gordon to be an “extraordinary woman” who showed “gumption and fierceness” after her sacking.
“I honestly didn’t particularly know Noele Gordon until I read Russell’s script, and 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’?
“She told it how it was, she was really appallingly badly treated and she said exactly what she felt – she wasn’t going to be bullied. Any other person might have crumbled. She didn’t.”
Talking about casting Bonham Carter, Davies says: “My lovely producer Nicola Shindler was very clever. She said, ‘Let’s try Helena Bonham Carter’. And I just thought there wouldn’t be a chance in the world. And then, miracle of miracles… We couldn’t believe we were so lucky.”
Bonham Carter praises Davies as the “champion of the underdog”, adding: “I know he felt that Nolly deserved better treatment than what she’d received in real life. This is a proper send-off.”
Bonham Carter says Nolly just “fizzed off the page” of Davies’s script, adding that it was a “sensational piece of writing”.
“I do think she was in her prime when she was sacked,” she adds.
“I feel like championing her means that I’m championing every woman of a certain age, who might be cut off because we’re deemed too old. It was an era thing, but I do think we’ve still got to get equal pay, and people get bumped off because of age.”
The actress, known for roles in Harry Potter, Fight Club and Sweeney Todd, explained how she cultivates characters inside her in the hope “they pop out when the camera turns on”, and says she wore fake teeth to help her prepare “mentally” for the role.
Now she jokes she could compete on quiz show Mastermind with her knowledge of Gordon. “She’s quite useful because she legitimatises my bossy side,” concludes Bonham Carter. “I’ve loved having her around. I don’t think my family have, because she’s got an engine to her! I hope she carries on, she’ll help me out.”
Nolly launches on ITVX on Thursday February 2.