Was ITV’s Nolly accurate?

Noele at ATV in the 1950s. /  Noele Gordon Archive

This page is not to criticise or correct the ITV drama Nolly. We decided to create it in order to clear the facts from the dramatic fiction. With any television adaption of real events and people, there is a fair amount of creativity and fictional people, events and dialogue added to enhance the production.

In the main, writer Russell T. Davies – and Quay Street Productions – reflected the life and work of Noele accurately and beautifully. It is a fitting love letter to Noele Gordon and her soap opera.

However, for reference, here is the reality of some scenes from when the drama went into total fiction.

10,000 Fans a Surprise

In the drama, Noele and producer Jack Barton clash over 10,000 fans descending on Birmingham Cathedral and how he doesn’t want to show them in the footage. Noele thinks seeing the crowds can only be a good thing. This is entirely fiction to show the very real clashes Noele and Jack had, but the wedding crowds weren’t one of the disagreements.

In 1974 ATV actively promoted the February recording date of ‘the TV wedding of the decade’ inviting viewers to attend (In print and via ATV Today). ATV wanted to fill the cathedral and grounds with fans – they planned for a large attendance with a police escort for the wedding car and crowd control in place. It was a huge deliberate publicity stunt to show just how popular with the public Crossroads was – and it wasn’t the first time.

Helena Bonham Carter is Noele Gordon in Nolly. ITVX/QSP

Scenes that are now pretty much forgotten (other than surviving photos in a newspaper item), due to the episode-long being wiped, recorded in Nottingham city centre in 1974 saw Noele Gordon, Roger Tonge and Christopher Douglas and 1000s in the crowd as the motel stars drove through the city square in Harriet the vintage car. Why were they there? Storyline wise there was no answer. But for ATV any chance to show Crossroads’ massive draw with the public was great free publicity.

Rehearsal Room Speech

Noele actually revealed her departure from Crossroads in a News of The World, ‘Exclusive interview’. The speech to television reporters for ITN National News (ITV) and ATV Today (Midlands regional news) as well as several radio stations and newspaper journalists wasn’t a revelation, it happened the day after the tabloid had revealed all.

There have been suggestions of ‘lost footage’ which showed Noele being annoyed and forthright like the scene in Nolly, however both ITN’s recording and ATV Today’s footage run with very similar content (with few edits) and in the latter film, Noele is chatty to the press after the interview ends. She was professional, tactful and courteous. The drama depiction is a total transformation to bring the point across that Noele was in many ways the ‘heart’ of ‘ATV‘. However, it has been criticised by some viewers who suggest it portrays Nolly as a bit of a self-indulgent bitch.  Probably not intentionally by the production team, but, in retrospect, it certainly would have been better for another character to say how important Noele was to ATV.

Coronation Street distaste

There are a couple of digs by Noele in the Nolly portrayal at Coronation Street, ITV’s twice-weekly serial of the time. One where at home she rushes to turn off an episode as its about to begin and later gives a ‘discreet’ V sign to the cast at an award ceremony.

In reality, Noele and especially Pat Phoenix got on well. There are newspaper reports from the time noting that they first met at ITV’s 21st-anniversary celebrations and got on so well they became showbiz pals. Both women also on chat shows praised each other’s programmes. Pat sent a poem to be read at Nolly’s memorial service in 1985 dedicated ‘to her friend’.

Noele did make some comparisons to Corrie in her autobiography, but this was more to point out how cheap ATV was and treated Crossroads badly, rather than having a dig at the Granada TV production – that did have correspondence between the show’s two producers with many cast going either up to Weatherfield or down to Kings Oak, these included Johnny Briggs, Stephen Hancock, Veronica Doran and Bryan Mosley.

Swearing and Pamela

While Noele may have used a few choice words in rehearsals, at home and among friends Noele never swore in front of fans – ever. Also, a little dramatic licence was used with the ‘I’ve just past Pamela at the bus stop’ scene which is based on a true story told by Pamela Greenall – who was Ruth in the 1960s and early 70s. In Nolly, it was shown to be Pamela Vazey who joined the cast in 1979. Noele had driven past Pamela waiting for a bus in her Rolls Royce and told Alan Coleman, the director, that she expected Pamela would be a little late.

Ronald Allen and Sue Lloyd

The drama shows Ronnie and Sue being far from the kind and generous people they really were. Noele, Ronnie and Sue were actually great friends and this wasn’t shown in the drama; instead, it was rather the opposite with Sue seen as bitchy and Ronnie indifferent. This however is understandable as the drama requires a mix of nice and not-so-nice personas.

Noele and the Jerry Allen Trio on Lunch Box. /Noele Gordon Archive

Rewriting the scripts

The drama has a major scene which has Noele editing the scripts during a rehearsal. All of Crossroads‘ 4510 scripts survive in the archive, and we’ve looked through the first fifteen years (over the past several years) and there isn’t any Noele Gordon meddling. We can’t find any. None. All script edits, where lines have been changed or scenes changed, are initialled by the producer.

All the notes for the production/writing meetings survive too, and again changes are discussed and most often made in this group meeting between the writers, directors and producer – Noele does not attend these meetings ever. Noele’s involvement, and annoyance to Jack Barton, came more with the technical production, things not being to a standard Noele expected on the day of recording etc. Ronald Allen recalled Noele didn’t get her way with plots as she had protested that a scene between Ronald’s character David and one of his many love interests was to take place in ‘Meg’s sitting room’ with a smooch on the sofa. He recalled she wasn’t happy it was to be on ‘her sofa’.

Of course, the scene in Nolly was to highlight Noele’s dedication to the show, and wanting to make it the best it could be.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Stage revival.

In Nolly, a throwaway line is made that Noele could make up a story that she was to star in a revival in the theatre of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? to lessen the public blow of being sacked from Crossroads.

This theatre production was actually a planned venture in 1984 – the Noele Gordon Archive has Noele’s copy of the script of the show that was to star her and the blonde bombshell Diana Dors.

Jack Barton Confrontation

The drama was almost right in why Noele Gordon left Crossroads. It was so close and yet so far.

In Nolly, we see Noele, having found details out about her dismissal three years earlier, confront producer Jack Barton about it at a meeting concerning her two-episode return in 1983 for a wedding storyline. Noele never discovered Jack Barton’s substantial involvement in her removal from the soap.

The drama shows Noele reel off complaints Jack had made to the Head of Programmes at ATV Charles Denton, to which Denton had then decided to sack Noele Gordon. In actual fact, Charles Denton in 1979 had tried to get Crossroads back on five nights a week, but the request was declined by the IBA Television Regulator – which had much more power in those days – and for Charles’ audacious cheek they cut the show to three times a week instead. “Distressingly Popular” the IBA Chairwoman Lady Plowden declared it.

Denton had never meddled in casting before Noele’s departure, and rather telling, he wasn’t asked for approval to bring Noele back in 1983. It was – as it always had been – entirely the decision of the producer.

To cut a long story short, Reg Watson and Noele Gordon had worked as a team, producer and star of the show for a decade on Crossroads and then nine years previous on various ATV programmes for London and the Midlands as well as network ITV programmes. Reg allowed Noele a lot of input into the programmes, and creative ideas. It worked well. But Jack Barton did not work in that format, and when he took over Crossroads he solely wished to make the decisions. This led to many rows and ‘one too many’ in 1981 saw Jack arrange a meeting with Charles Denton where he declared ‘I think it’s time Noele went’. And so on the request of Jack the departure of Noele was arranged.

The axing had nothing to do with ‘age’, ‘men at the top’ or ‘the change to Central TV’. (Head of Drama at ATV was a woman, Margaret Matheson) Russell did get right that it was a strong woman in a man’s world – and a man – just the one – Jack Barton – did not like having Noele interfere in ‘his show’. The drama also was accurate in Nolly’s age playing a problem for her and Larry Grayson to get new programmes on TV – they both had ideas to do a variety-style show together which no station wanted to pick up, with alternative and younger comedy being popular at that time.

Welcomed Back by Jack Barton

In the drama, Jack welcomes back Noele Gordon to Crossroads when she records scenes in Venice. In interviews at the time he makes it quite clear, there is no place for Noele in Crossroads and he’s brought Meg back because a mother would attend the wedding of her daughter. An interview on BBC Radio West Midlands sees Jack in the presence of Noele note how the show is doing fine without her.

Helena performs as Noele in ‘Gypsy’ ITVX/QSP

However to keep the press from revealing Noele’s return he decided that the surprise would be in Venice on Jill and Adam’s honeymoon. Once it was filmed that was it, no more Meg.

Theatre Success?

Thanks to Bob Oakley for some of this information:

The drama shows Noele only performing in Gypsy, (in the UK) and the later disappointment of it not being allowed into the West End. However, there were several successful theatre productions for her in the early 1980s including a West End run with Call Me Madam at the Victoria Palace.

Also, the reason Gypsy didn’t move to the West End, despite a deal to host it at The Adelphi Theatre, was down to the rights owners signing a deal for a big-screen version that was to star Barbara Streisand. A movie version wasn’t made until 1993, with Bette Midler, so the block was ultimately a pointless exercise. Negotiations were around the same time in 1982 happening for a Broadway revival, but that didn’t happen until 1989.

However, having said all this, as a result of Gypsy closing it did give most of the cast a chance to tour in The Boyfriend in the Middle and Far East (as briefly shown in the drama). This enabled Noele to revisit Bahrain and seek out the house she once visited twenty years before, in her Lunch Box days, that her Aunt and Uncle once owned.

Noele’s Grand Return

Noele Gordon was due to return to Crossroads, she had been sent scripts in 1984, but this happened after Jack Barton was fired from the show and Philip Bowman was brought in to revive its flagging image and fortunes.

Interestingly he didn’t have to get any permission from Central or its bosses to restore Noele as a semi-regular. (The new contract allowed Noele to come and go. With her revived theatre career proving a hit with audiences she didn’t want to commit full-time again.) Sadly, Nolly became too ill to return and her comeback never happened.

The end of Noele’s life

Thanks to John Kavyo for some of this information:

For dramatic reasons, the end of Nolly’s life in ‘Nolly’ was skewed to make it look like Tony Adams was her main friend in those days. In reality, Noele’s old friend, Edna Lancashire, nursed her in Ross-on-Wye until Noele was just too ill.

Noele’s dear friend and neighbour – Paul Greenfield (curator of her archive) also cared for her. Tony was in touch with Noele and visiting her, of course, but he had moved out of the house next door to Noele sometime earlier and Paul had moved into it. Noele also had her own housekeeper and chauffeur Ken Felton.


It’s noted in the dialogue the motel has only 16 chalets, it has nearer 30 in the real programme (Starting with six in 1964 and expanding across the years notably in 1967, 1973 and 1976.)

Dialogue also suggests that a lot of viewers have no idea what a motel is, ‘they think it’s a spelling mistake’. This isn’t particularly true; there were 100s of Motels in the UK from the 1940s onwards – Travelodge started in the UK as a motel chain – and before Crossroads launched there was possibly the most famous motel in the world on the big screen, The Bates Motel of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Motels became rather unfashionable in the late 1970s and were always seen as less glamorous than their stateside counterparts, later becoming victim to a seedy image both here and in America. Crossroads eventually changed to a hotel later in the storyline to reflect this.

Helena Bonham Carter as ‘Meg Richardson’ in Crossroads. ITVX/QSP

A lot of the information in the drama came from the book ‘My Life at Crossroads‘ which was released in 1975. Unfortunately, the production didn’t appear to realise that due to Noele’s heavy work commitments to Crossroads and also a stint with Larry Grayson in Grayson’s Scandals at the London Palliadium not one word of the book was penned by Noele.

She did several interviews recorded on audio to provide details of her personal life and early years but most of the book was made from ATV production notes and other related documents, including the ‘Crossroads Bible‘ that had been created in 1969 noting the main cast and character details, location information etc. This included an erroneous figure that 45 million people watched the soap a week. Whoever added the episode figures together to get that number certainly wasn’t Nolly – she might not have been great at maths but even she knew it was the same 11 million viewers watching each night at that point.

Unfortunately, it ended up in her book, and now has ended up in the drama – although it is a funny scene, so maybe the lack of research fact-checking can be forgiven here.

It’s said that Noele Gordon was ‘forgotten’ in the PR on Nolly. It would be argued deliberately so for many years by ITV – under previous management – since Granada and Carlton merged some twenty years ago. Buried along with Crossroads – one of their most successful programmes. Before this, and up until the late 1990s Noele and Crossroads were often part of anniversary programmes and occasional reflections on series such as The TV Themes of ITV (HTV), TV Weekly (TVS) and Clive James On… (Carlton). It should be noted that in 2012 ITV remembered Noele in an out-of-character moment, for that era, and gave Noele half an hour of prime time with the Unforgettable Noele Gordon documentary.

The other reason Noele has slipped from the spotlight is due to Crossroads being unable to be repeated because too many episodes, certainly, the better Reg Watson years, have been wiped/lost. The programme only has a full run from November 1981 – after Meg has departed the motel – which means Noele’s era isn’t easy to rescreen. UK Gold did re-run Crossroads itself from 1996-2001 with episodes from 1982 onwards.

One Comment

  • Wombat

    They also mentioned it only having 16 chalets, yet the set had over 20 keys in the recreation of the foyer!

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