Interview with Russell T Davies

ITVX’s three-part drama Nolly starring Academy Award-nominee Helena Bonham Carter has been written by BAFTA-winning writer Russell T Davies.

Russell at the ITVX launch of Nolly

The man who put life back into Doctor Who has explored the all-powerful reign, and fall from grace, of the inimitable Noele Gordon – TV legend and Queen of ITV, the darling of the establishment, until she was unexpectedly dismissed from Crossroads, ITV’s top rating daytime programme of the seventies, in 1981. Here Russell talks all things Nolly…

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

Nolly is the story of the climactic moment in Noele Gordon’s life when she was sacked from her long-running ITV soap opera Crossroads. She had been the ‘Queen of the Midlands’ and a television star for decades. But in 1981, she was suddenly, ruthlessly and mysteriously sacked overnight. It was done horribly. There was no lunch, there was no dinner, there was no warning. She was very famous, and it was a very public humiliation, and it had always interested me.

What was it about the story that made you want to tell it? What might be revealed that we didn’t know before?

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. I’m also fascinated by the fact that this was a Golden Age of soap opera and in many ways, stories like the sacking of Noele Gordon and the writing out of Meg Mortimer became the template for the great soap stories of the next 20 years, when soaps absolutely ruled the television networks, and life revolved around them to a degree that’s hard to understand these days. It’s also set in 1981, when everything started to change. Business is starting to take over in the entertainment world and rules the roost throughout the 80s. And people suffer as a result.

It’s also the story of a woman in a very masculine industry. Obviously, now we’re fascinated by a lot of ‘MeToo’ stories, and while there’s no sexual element to this story, it shows how men treat women in and out of business. I did uncover the chain of events that led to her sacking, that no one else had ever quite seen. There are no shocks- I think it’s important to say that there are no big revelations. We’re not exposing anything about Nolly’s private life. But what I did uncover was the chain of conversations that led to what happened and it’s quite devastating, I think.

Crossroads itself is a subject of ridicule for being a ‘cheap soap’, but it was massive in its time. Why do you think it was so popular? What made Meg the icon that she was?

I think it’s a very unusual soap opera because it’s based around one person, while most soaps are based around a community. Crossroads really was centred around that motel and the head of the family, and the head of the business, Meg. It’s hard to describe to people now what a star Noele Gordon was. When you talk to people now, everyone remembers watching it with their mum. Everyone remembers sitting down with a plate of chips or a sandwich, having their tea and watching Crossroads. And of course, there were just three channels back then, two channels when it started in the 60s! It was significantly underfunded in comparison to Coronation Street.

Noele Gordon’s autobiography is fascinating the way she keeps sniping at Coronation Street. And she’s got a point, they’re properly paid. Whereas at Crossroads, they had to buy their own clothes! It’s quite astonishing. I used to work at Granada where they made Coronation Street and that company was immensely proud of Coronation Street. But at ATV, Crossroads was treated like a little accident in the back cupboard that just kept rumbling on. And that resulted famously in moments on screen where the sets would wobble and microphones would fall into shot. And that’s the conditions created by ATV, under which they had to make it. So, I love those people for soldiering on and I think there’s a real bravery to them. And I’m glad to pay tribute to them in this.

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

What research did you do in prep for the show? Who did you talk to? What did you read?

I had the most fun I’ve ever had, because I got to speak to the entire cast. I spent endless mornings talking to Benny, talking to Miss Diane, talking to Adam Chance. I even went back to the 60s and I spoke to people who’d been on the show then, including an actress called Wendy Padbury, who also played one of Doctor Who’s companions, Zoe. I spoke to floor managers, I spoke to production managers. There’s a very great woman called Dorothy Hobson, who wrote a book about what happened on Crossroads, who happened to be around ATV as a researcher. By chance, she was in the studios in the weeks that Noele was sacked, which was an astonishing place to be. So she was a great source of information.

What was remarkable was how much Noele was loved. And I kept scratching at that, I kept thinking – ‘Am I being told the publicity version? Am I being told anecdotes that have calcified over 25 years? Over 40 years?’ But no, the more I dug into things, the more I discovered that was the absolute truth – she was adored. She could clearly be tough at work; she clearly was very opinionated. Although no one would have blinked twice if that was a man. And when she did lose her temper at work, she very much aimed it upwards at the bosses, not down at the workers on the floor – which is always a great attribute, I think. But she was properly, properly loved.

Nolly was a complex woman, what did you learn about her as a person that you were surprised by?

I had no idea of the breadth of her experience. 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.

She was on stage in the original production of Brigadoon for one thousand performances. It’s amazing to learn what a businesswoman she was as well, that she was actually on the staff of ATV as a producer. She didn’t produce Crossroads, but she did help genuinely to create what became daytime television. She went to New York and studied daytime television in America, she went there for a couple of years and became an expert in it in order to bring all that expertise across here. So, a terribly clever woman. It makes her sacking all the more shocking.

I think men found her hard to define. All they had to define her by was business and success and acting. Which is by no means the whole of your life. And I loved uncovering all those different layers to her, and you get to learn a lot about Nolly at work, but also Nolly at home in this.

The show is set in the 1980s, but it feels like there are a lot of resonances with events today. Why do you think that is?

I think the role of women at work hasn’t changed one speck. I think the way she is treated with indifference and even callousness, it still happens. I know we’ve been through stages of many ‘MeToo’ stories with many millions more of those stories to come. But I think that there are greater stories beyond that. It’s like men don’t just treat women badly in terms of sex. Men treat women badly full-stop. I think we’re tapping into something far more prevalent, which is simply contempt in the workplace. It deals with the contempt and indifference that men show to women. This is also true of any workplace…very few of us work on a soap opera, but most of us work in an office with bosses and favourites and enemies and rivalries and arguments and feuds that run on for decades. So I think there’s a lot of resonance in that sense.

Helena Bonham Carter as ‘Meg Richardson’ in Crossroads. ITVX/Quay Street Productions

As one of the country’s preeminent TV writers, how was it writing a show about TV for a change?

I started work in soap operas at Granada Television. I worked on children’s soaps like Children’s Ward. I also loved tapping into the great folk memory for this thing. I think that people who have never seen Crossroads can come along and understand the story, because it’s the story of a queen losing her crown. Whether it’s The Crown on Netflix or Nolly on ITV. But for those who were there, there’s an enormous mythology around these shows.

Nolly is set over 40 years ago; its central character is a woman of a certain age. What do you think  younger viewers might be able to take from the show? What do you think will resonate with them?

I’m aware that it’s a very niche story, but actually, every story is a niche story. The supernatural events in Hawkins in Stranger Things are very niche, no one’s ever been to that town. The Crown is niche, none of us belong to the royal family. Every story is a niche. And so with this, you are literally coming to see a classic story of a very powerful person being brought down, and the mystery of why, and how she survives.

This could happen to any of us, we can all have terrible times. I think everyone surely has had a terrible time at work. Everyone has their personal life exposed or under scrutiny at some point, and these days, the notion of public humiliation is becoming very prevalent for all of us. One wrong word online and you can have a pile-on. Whether you’re a social worker, whether you’re a teacher, whether you’re a teenager in a bedroom. Nolly went through that before the invention of social media, when the public platform was television. Everyone gets piled on online these days, she was the first!

We can’t talk about Nolly and the show without talking about Helena Bonham Carter. How was it working with Helena?

What a joy and what an honour and what a laugh! She’s so delightful. It’s one of those situations where people say ‘shall we send the script to Helena Bonham Carter?’ I just kind of rolled my eyes saying, she won’t want to do this, she’s busy making movies! To get an instant yes from her and an instant connection with the character was amazing. In absolute fairness, she was so determined, like all of us, to do Nolly justice. There’s no one left from Nolly’s family, so there’s no one to protect her legacy. I think that made us extra protective, all of us. To take care with her. To be honest, but kind. That’s what Helena’s brought to it. There’s a ruthless honesty. But she captures the joy of her I think too. She fills it with life. It’s just one of my favourite performances ever. I love it.There’s a brilliant ensemble around Helena as well. Bringing all those real people to life. Tell us a little bit about them.

There was a very strange moment where I went into rehearsals for the first time and I was late. They were already there, they all knew each other and I walked in and there they were, the Crossroads characters! And this was even without the costume and without makeup. There was Benny and Miss Diane and David Hunter and Barbara Hunter. I had to have a little 20 seconds to myself, sitting in a chair and not saying anything because it was quite strange.

It was like feeling the ground rock beneath my feet because I genuinely love Crossroads. It’s very important to say we never came to take the mickey, that there are no scenes of wobbling walls because that’s just silly. That’s a cheap stand-up comedian gag. We wanted to do it properly and show the hard work that went into it. It’s joyous.

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.