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Inside the making of ITVX’s Nollie: ‘She turned the page’

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There was a time, in seventies Britain, when Noel Gordon was one of the most famous people in the country. As flame-haired widow Meg Richardson in the legendary soap Crossroads, she was a household name as fellow redhead Margaret Thatcher.

However, in 1981, at the height of the show’s success and her fame, Noli (as she was known) was suddenly sacked without ceremony, warning or explanation. With her boss’ words “all good things must come to an end” ringing in her ears, she was forced to leave the show that had been her life for more than 18 years.

Forty years after her shocking departure, Knollys, which launches on ITVX on 2 February, lifts the lid on the events surrounding the star’s fall from grace. The show is created by Russell T Davies, and Gordon is brought to life by Helena Bonham Carter.

“I didn’t know about Noel Gordon until Russell came around”, says the actor. “I thought: ‘Why haven’t I heard about him?’ She was completely off the page… She was treated very badly – to the point where any other person would have broken down, but she didn’t.

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Gordon was a victim of the sexism of the seventies and eighties, which Bonham Carter says was also pervasive when she started in the industry.

“The first time I went to America, around 19 or 20, I just missed it so much,” she says. “My legs didn’t move for six years, I wasn’t particularly sexual — I didn’t have the right body. So I basically did costume dramas because they were good written parts.

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“Basically a lot of (male) producers had to suck; I will not take names. Now a lot more women are producing which is great.

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The three-part drama follows the life of the soap star and presenter who was, among other things, the first woman in the world to appear on color television and the first woman to interview a British prime minister (in 1958, when she was a reporter interviewed Harold Macmillan).

His unexpected firing made headlines and led to protests from outraged spectators. “I think she was sacked in her prime – she was 61 and she couldn’t have been better at what she was doing,” says Bonham Carter.

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“I suspect she was fired because people felt threatened by her. She was shrewd and probably smarter than most people on the show. They resented her power.

The influence of the soap and Gordon was huge, says Bonham Carter. “She was in everybody’s living room, 15 million (viewers), three times a week. There was nothing else.

Despite initially being unfamiliar with Gordon, after research, Bonham Carter fell in love with his character. “I take things seriously like anyone I’ve got impostor syndrome, so I want to fix things,” she says. “I can mastermind Noel Gordon now. He’s an amazing character.

Russell T Davies, whose hit shows include Doctor Who and It’s a Sin, approached ITV to make a show about Gordon. “The response I got was, ‘Who is that?'”, he says. “People of a certain generation have never even heard of him. She is a woman who has been forgotten a bit, and who has done nothing wrong.

“I was 18 in 1981 and obsessed with Crossroads. During lockdown I started investigating the story – (Noli) was so loved by fellow actors but treated so badly by the system and I thought: ‘There is a story in this'”.

Davis conducted hours-long interviews with former Crossroads cast members including Tony Adams (who played Adam Chance), Susan Hunter (Miss Diane) and Paul Henry (Benny). “In the industry, (Noli) is talked about a lot as a diva, a monster. But when I spoke to the artistes, the opposite picture emerged.

Helena Bonham Carter as Noel Gordon and Augustus Prew as Tony Adams

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“Someone who was a very powerful, successful woman has been talked about afterwards as a bitch. How does it happen on its own, it’s monstrous? She’s tough, and strong, and wayward, but we don’t use those words.” Will not use it on even one person.

He adds, “The MeToo era has been spectacular and important. But really, I think sexist stories are just scratching the surface of how women are treated. The cynicism and anger of men run rampant, and that is what is happening with Noli.

Following her unofficial ouster from Crossroads, Gordon starred in Gypsy, a stage production of the Stephen Sondheim musical. Despite two more episodes of Crossroads in 1983, she never returned to television full-time.

By then, he had contracted cancer and died in 1985. Davies said he hoped the show could be Knollys’ “last bow”, adding, “It’s a way to give him some status again.”

Noli is available on ITVX from 2 February

(translate to tag) Russell T Davies

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