Interview with Helena Bonham Carter

Academy Award-nominated and BAFTA-winning actor Helena Bonham Carter stars as Noele Gordon who was a legend in her own lifetime. Helena has marvellously brought Nolly to life in a three-part drama for ITVX.

Noele Gordon in a private snap with the ‘Lunch Box car’. ATV/Noele Gordon Archive/Paul Greenfield

As flame-haired widow Meg Richardson in the long-running soap opera Crossroads, she was one of the most famous people in Britain in the sixties and seventies. Then in 1981, at the height of the show’s success and the peak of Nolly’s fame, she was axed without ceremony, without warning and with no explanation.

With the boss’s words “all good things must come to an end” ringing in her ears, Noele Gordon found herself thrown out of the show that was her life for over 18 years. Here Helena talks about why she decided to step into the ‘Queen of ITV’s’ shoes…

Please tell us, in a nutshell, what Nolly is about.

It tells the story of the sacking of Noele Gordon, the eponymous heroine of our series whose nickname was ‘Nolly’. She was the lead actress in a hugely popular British soap opera called Crossroads from 1964 to 1981, when she was abruptly and without warning, sacked very brutally and suddenly, and people never really knew why and nor did she. Russell thought she was treated appallingly and wanted to bring her back into people’s minds and give her the send-off she deserved.

Were you aware of Noele Gordon as a person before taking on the role? And did you watch Crossroads?

I was very familiar with Crossroads given my age, I’m 56, but I don’t think we actually watched it regularly. It was just like a permanent wallpaper on in the background as I was growing up. So, I was aware of it, but I wasn’t a follower of the series. I didn’t remember Noele other than a dim memory of a redheaded woman who owned the Motel. Although I didn’t know exactly what a motel was!

Did you do much research in preparing for the role? If you had to describe Nolly now, as a person, how would you? What made her tick?

I’ve got files and files on the woman! She was fantastically multifaceted. She wasn’t easy, she didn’t suffer fools, so I can she might have put people’s backs up. I spent a long time, as I tend to with every part, un-earthing, excavating and going in search of her. Mostly because I’m terrified that I won’t get it right. I read her autobiography, which is a hilarious read! I spoke to all her friends, who were incredibly generous and that was very telling, because they really loved her. Tony Adams and Susan Hanson in particular, and also Liz Stern, who was stage manager. They said she was somebody who had formidable opinions, was a formidable character, but also had a huge heart. She was a dedicated professional – and she ran the ship! She was an incredibly nuanced person and that was fun to play. One particular ingredient that I enjoyed was how she and ‘Meg Mortimer’ got confused and rolled into one.

What I also loved about Nolly, which we have in common, is that we both love singing and singing old show tunes. There’s part of me that would have loved to be like Nolly, an old musical actress, but I’ve not got a great voice, or the legs, frankly. Stephen Sondheim had just died when I was beginning to prep for the show, and I just thought what great confluence it was that I could sing him again via Noele with Gypsy, (although there was a scary moment when we thought we might not get the rights)…. I met him when I had the honour to do a film of Sweeney Todd all those years ago – a highlight of my own life.

I did have an army of people around me to help me find Nolly in physical ways, like Polly Bennett who’s a brilliant movement coach who I first met on The Crown. In fact at first look I thought that she’s got the same armour and uniform in a way as Princess Margaret did with the fur coat and the cigarette in The Crown. Although she wasn’t posh, she had that grandeur. She loved being referred to as the Queen of the Midlands. Neil Swain, my voice coach, helped me with Noele’s huge vocal muscularity. I’m pretty lazy as a speaker and although Noele was originally from West Ham London, she went to Rada aged 15 and spoke RP with a theatrical relish and a persistent upward inflection at the end of lines that she could have possibly picked up in America but which also discouraged people interrupting her! He gave me all these gifts to play with. I’m a total Noele Gordon nerd. If I did Mastermind I’d do Noele Gordon as my specialist subject, whereas this time last year I would barely have known who she was.

Helena as Noele Gordon, ITV/Quay Street Productions

What attracted you to the role?

I love any character that has got many colours to play. I think Russell’s script was a gift frankly…and a gift of a part. It was so clearly written; unlike a lot of screenwriters, he writes idiomatically for the character. She fizzed off the page. The first thing I did was watch her appearance on The Russell Harty Show on YouTube. She comes on and sings ‘Some People’ with such defiance, given that that was the night her last episode aired. The interview has a wow factor. She’s just so un-flinchingly honest. Unflinchingly direct and unembarrassed, incredibly courageous and unafraid. She tells it how it is, and she doesn’t let them get away with the treatment of her. I found her ferocity, her sheer spirit, really inspiring and hilarious too. She’s a powerful woman. For a woman that was forced to retire there was nothing remotely retiring about her as a personality.

If you gave the same attributes to a man: forceful, opinionated, bossy, knew what they wanted, told everyone what to do…Would it have been the same sort of problem? I don’t think so. In a woman, that really marked people off. She was indomitable and unapologetic. I think many of the men who ran the show were terrified of her and threatened by her!Nolly is a powerful woman in a very male dominated world. The show is set in the early 80s, but would  you say that there are resonances with what’s going on in today’s world?  We are making progress, but there’s still chronic ageism, isn’t there? Our appearance is constantly a factor. Why should it be a factor? Just because we haven’t got the bouncy collagen cheeks it doesn’t mean that we’re any less valid. At 61, she was in her prime. And sacked.

Nolly is also a bit of a MeToo story, but without the sex. It’s men in offices in suits deciding on what women should be doing, what they should be like, as Nolly says in the show… In light of Roe versus Wade, it is extraordinary how backwards some parts of the world are going or choosing to go. Maybe they’re terrified of the consequences of giving women too much power or just having an equal playing field… There’s a scene where Nolly rails against ‘those men’ that really encapsulates a lot of the anger that women feel as strongly today as then. If you think about it, she was sacked professionally and emotionally, (her lover Val Parnell dumped her after 20 years when she was 41). I think she had a huge problem with the way she had been treated by men.

One of my favourite parts of the whole piece is what she says about the single women – “the silent army of women with no name”. If you’re a woman, and you don’t have a husband, or you don’t have children, basically, if you’re not defined by a man, then society doesn’t know who you are, and you’re immediately regarded as in some way having failed.

The other side to the series Nolly is, it’s really good fun. How was it for you treading both sides of drama and comedy?

It’s hilarious and unbelievable. As Russell said, everything that happens in the show is all true, which is completely bonkers! Such as when they’re all trying to find out how she’s going be killed off is completely farcical and absurd, but it’s absolutely true! No one told the cast anything, let alone Noele and then finally she’s sent off the QE2…The absurdity of the storylines was hilarious. The comedy is in the writing, it was like a brilliant map on the page; we just had to follow it, with the guidance of Peter. The key to why it was such a happy shoot is that Nicola, Peter and Russell worked together on It’s A Sin, so a trust had already been established. They are a brilliant Triumvirate.

I did every so often throw in a Nolly-style ‘shut the fuck up!’… When the whole “Crossroads” cast was on it was sometimes like a cocktail party without the alcohol, and I needed a bit of quiet to concentrate. It’s quite useful, Nolly popped out every so often. I’m sorry -‘It’s Nolly’ I would say. I got away with being right bossy at times

Helena at the press launch of Nolly for ITVX

The drama is set almost 40 years ago, but do you think there’s anything that will particularly attract younger audiences? What do you think those who may never have seen Crossroads might be able to get from watching the show?

It’s still about lots of things that happen now. It’s a story of betrayal. You don’t need to have been familiar with the show for it to resonate with you thematically. I think for the older audiences, they’ll love to be reminded of these characters that they had huge affection for and hopefully watching it will create a nostalgic bubble of happy in them. It looks beautiful as well. People have a notion of Crossroads being cheap and tacky, but this series is anything but…

It’s beautiful. Our reaction when we actually walked on the Crossroads motel set was total enchantment. You know, I did think ‘Ugh, beige Crossroads’ and everyone does say ‘Ugh, you’re re-doing Crossroads?!’ But then when we actually came to do the Crossroads scenes, it was like walking into playschool. It was all really bright colours and such fun, and it just brought the inner child out. Russell was so excited too. We all launched ourselves to the reception and grabbed the phone. There’s something so immediately enchanting about it. As you say, it’s nostalgia and stepping back into a time that’s gone. Rose-tinted spectacles, not beige-tinted!

Russell’s talked about the show being his love letter to television. What do you think makes TV such a special medium for people?

I think it is sometimes how people experience the world, through that little box. It is a magic box and you can travel anywhere and everywhere, back in time and forward in time like Doctor Who himself! It is a magical place and a magical thing to have. TV can be accessible to everyone and you can go anywhere on it. It’s an “empathy box” and it’s a connector for people too, as the loneliness of people in the world is escalating. There’s a beautiful relationship at the heart of the show between Nolly and Tony [Adams] and it’s quite unusual. You don’t often see that sort of relationship on TV?I think it’s very original. They were a huge support to each other and were there for each other, but it was a completely individual, unique relationship. He speaks with such love for her, but he doesn’t whitewash her. He was her co-star, tenant, driver, you name it! He had such fun with her and yes, among other things, it is a of love story between them.

And how was it working with Augustus Prew who plays Tony?

Augie is one of the world’s wonders really, with his energy and immediacy. He’s an amazingly vivid, proper Duracell Bunny type of a person. Hilarious and brilliant. Sometimes I had to tell him to shut up because he did talk a lot and he is very excitable, but we had real fun together. He’s perceptive and vulnerable and great company. A lot of the things we were doing were crazy. I mean, that first week or the second week, it was as absurd as Crossroads. We were filming in Bolton which was standing in for Thailand at two o’clock in the morning. Bolton was Bangkok! When three hours earlier round a different corner Bolton was also pretending to be Birmingham.

Is this the first time you’ve worked with Russell? And how was it working with him on the project?

It was a total dream come true. I’ve been a long-time admirer of his and I can’t tell you how indebted you feel when you’re an actor and you get a beautiful piece of writing. I was so chuffed that they thought of me. It was like the best Christmas present ever. And when I met him, I thought “Oh my god, you are like Father Christmas! You’re huge!” I mean, absolutely huge. I would often reach out to him on text and he’d send me great replies (which I don’t think were fake cheerleading…). Our texts, we should just make that into a radio play, ha! We have a whole love affair on my WhatsApp.

What do you hope audiences will take away from the series?

I suppose what Russell wanted was to reintroduce people to this phenomenon. I think Russell, Peter and Nicola did that with It’s A Sin; they really championed the underdog and that whole generation of people who vanished because of AIDS. He’s a champion of the underdog and the people that were forgotten. I know he felt that Nolly deserved better treatment than what she’d received in real life. This is a proper send off. So, for me, personally, I hope it inspires the Nolly within all of us – somebody who won’t go quietly and won’t brook any mistreatment. Hopefully it’ll make people laugh and also make them cry. At the end of the day, I hope it takes people out of the greyness of their day.

Nolly is available now on ITVX and the STV Player. There is also a documentary The Real Nolly, looking at the life of Noele Gordon.