Is 'Nolly' Based on a Real Person? Everything to Know About Noele Gordon

Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon, being hectored by the press in Nolly Episode 1

Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon, being hectored by the press in Nolly Episode 1

Quay Street Productions/Masterpiece

Nolly had not yet debuted in the U.K. when Masterpiece announced in January 2023 that it had picked up the three-part series starring Helena Bonham Carter, fresh off her turn as Princess Margaret in The Crown. The debut series from the brand new ITV production studio Quay Street, it was chosen by uber-producer Nicola Shindler (responsible for discovering shows like Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax, and Queer as Folk) as her new company's first work. Written by Russell T. Davies (Doctor Who), the 1980-set series centered around the behind-the-scenes drama at ITV's flagship series Crossroads and its star, Noele Gordon, who gives the show its title, Nolly.

For British audiences who got to watch the show in February 2023, Crossroads was a show that had been on the air within living memory of most (the revival was canceled in 2003). Gordon had been gone longer, having passed away in 1985. But her story and the fate of the show that she starred in were part of the fabric of British pop culture, and well enough remembered that a three-part series focusing on their heyday didn't need a lot of introduction, especially to older audiences.

However, to Americans, who know nothing of British soap operas or a homegrown TV star from the mid-20th century who never broke out of her home country, Nolly's story is entirely unknown. (It's a little like a drama about the collapse of Erin Moran's career after she left Happy Days for Joanie Loves Chachi being aired on ITV.) It very well be fictionalized, and they would never know. So, how much of the series is true?

Con O'Neill as Jack Barton interviews Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon in Nolly

Con O'Neill as Jack Barton interviews Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon in 'Nolly'

Quay Street Productions/Masterpiece

The titular character in Nolly was born Joan Noele Gordon on Christmas Day in 1919 in what was then Essex, but is now part of the London suburban sprawl. Her middle name, Noele, was due to her Christmas birthday, and she began using it as a teen in the mid-1930s once her mother and aunt saw her potential for stardom. Initially, her mother aimed her for the stage, but in 1938, when she was 19, she was hired to do camera tests for the BBC's John Logie Baird's experiments with color transmissions and became the first woman to have her image transmitted by the BBC in color.

With TV still in its infancy, Gordon attended The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and starred in a few stage musicals, including the original London production of Brigadoon. But she never forgot her love of TV. In the 1950s, she left for America to attend NYU to learn TV production, returning to London to join ATV (Associated Television, an early network member of ITV). She helped launch ATV Midlands in 1956, became one of their first presenters, helmed her own chat show, and was the first woman to interview a Prime Minister on TV in 1958. She went on to host one of ITV's first daytime TV talk shows, Lunchbox, and in 1964, when it gave way to the early soap opera Crossroads, she was written in as motel owner Meg Richardson.

Meg Richardson, a savvy businesswoman, turns her Georgian home into the Crossroads Motel when a motorway is built through the town. Her sister, Kitty Jarvis, played by Beryl Johnstone, runs The Shopday Store, and the two sisters' long-running feud is the heart of the show's drama. Meg, a widow, married twice on the show, first becoming Meg Mortimer and then Meg Ryder, but neither husband lasted long. Gordon, as the only one who was permanently contracted, was the only steady cast member on the series for 17 years, becoming a gay icon along the way.

It was national front-page news when Crossroads' producers sacked Gordon unceremoniously in 1981; it was national front-page news. It wasn't a decision that her direct bosses wanted to take, but ATV was at that time being absorbed into Central Independent Television (CIT), the first moves in the 1980s that would eventually see the consolidation of ITV into a single entity that could compete with the BBC. CIT wanted to cancel Crossroads outright but was contractually obligated to continue the series, so they just sacked its most popular star.

At the time, Gordon was shocked, having spent the last three decades on television. She was uncertain if she was able to do anything else. However, the power of television, her status as a household name, and being known in the theater world as an LGBTQ+ icon meant that she quickly found work and soon returned to the stage. Her popularity was so high that TV came calling swiftly to see if she might want to return to presenting. However, that wasn't in the cards, as she became ill less than a year after leaving Crossroads, she became ill. Gordon passed away in 1985 from complications due to cancer.

Nolly premieres on most PBS stations on Sunday, March 17, 2024, at 9 p.m. ET. The first episode will stream on the PBS app and the PBS Masterpiece's Prime Video Channel the same night. The three-episode series will air/stream weekly on all three platforms. PBS Passport members will have access to all episodes on premiere day to binge.

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Helena Bonham Carter stars as Noele Gordon, one of the most famous faces on British TV.
Nolly: show-poster2x3


Ani Bundel has been blogging professionally since 2010. A DC native, Hufflepuff, and Keyboard Khaleesi, she spends all her non-writing time taking pictures of her cats. Regular bylines also found on MSNBC, Paste, Primetimer, and others. 

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