Wobbly sets and wobbly acting. Two lazy cliches that were so often slung around by journalists and reviewers when talking about two bastions of television schedules from the 1960s to the 1980s: Crossroads and Doctor Who. The two shows very nearly lasted as long as each other, the former running from 1964 to 1988, the latter airing between 1963 and 1989.
British television contemporaries and mainstays which – at their peaks – drew in large audiences, yet would still receive brickbats from the press, almost as if resentful of their huge success, and finding the cheapest of shots to take at them. It would be criticism familiar to writer Russell T. Davies, who – as a lifelong fan of Doctor Who – would be used to seeing the media trying to take down his beloved show at every chance they got. Davies managed to nix any potential attacks about the programme’s perceived cheapness when he revived it in 2005, to huge critical and public acclaim, with a vastly bigger budget and a much more polished look.
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Davies also happened to have his own tangential connection to Crossroads, as he was on the verge of writing for the show shortly before it was axed, so his career could have had a very different beginning. Both these properties were canned on the grounds of having declining viewing figures, although they could have arguably continued for many more years to come, given some TLC from channel executives, rather than being so badly misunderstood and mishandled. Like Doctor Who, Crossroads would have its own second coming, but it was somewhat less well received, gracing the ITV schedules from 2001 until 2003, before being cancelled again.
For its first few seasons, Doctor Who was recorded – much akin to Crossroads for most of its original run – ‘as live’, with limited breaks during recording, and even less scope for any retakes, meaning that fluffs, gaffes and blunders would end up in the finished product which was ultimately transmitted. Both shows had the joint problems of never enough time and never enough money being available, yet in spite of all of the staginess and creakiness which would sometimes end up on screen, there was a certain charm to be found from that, and devoted members of the audience were able to look beyond such impediments.
In fact, those same limitations also arguably added to their appeal. Victoria Wood spoofed both series, and Crossroads in particular was mercilessly – yet also lovingly – lampooned in the legendary Acorn Antiques. One thing that you can say about Victoria Wood and Russell T. Davies is they both share a love of the medium, with an absence of any snobbiness or pretension about television when it comes to their writing, showing a distinct love for TV in spite of – or, perhaps even, because of – any shortcomings. Wood and Davies’ passion shines through in their writing, realising that populism does not have to equate to being lowbrow or inferior.
See how Davies embraced and utilised The Weakest Link and Big Brother when he wrote about a futuristic TV broadcaster in one of his early Doctor Who stories, using their popularity without being either sneering or condescending. It seems a natural progression, then, that Davies would eventually turn his attentions to Crossroads, that other much-maligned TV institution, using one of its real-life dramas as the basis of a new three-part mini-series. Nolly tells the true story of the controversial firing of Crossroads’ lynchpin and matriarch, Noele Gordon, whose sacking after nigh on 18 years started the decline and fall of the fall of the programme.
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Gordon – who was known to her friends and colleagues alike as ‘Nolly’ – was the first woman ever to be seen on colour TV, all thanks to an experiment by John Logie Baird. She was also a pioneer of daytime television, having presented the show Lunchbox during the 1950s, which was a forerunner of This Morning and other programming of that ilk. Gordon was a qualified pilot, and had also been a part of the management at Midlands franchise ATV, before taking up the role of Meg Richardson (later Mortimer), owner of a family-run motel in a small village just outside Birmingham, a part which would make her a national institution.
At its peak, Crossroads aired five nights a week, with around 15 million people tuning in for each episode. Her removal by the management of ATV was a huge scandal, and prompted a massive backlash from loyal viewers. Davies has used this as the basis of Nolly, depicting the machinations of male high-ups who seemed to fear a strong, forthright woman who was unafraid to speak her mind. It happens to be a theme which is, sadly, still all-too relevant today: in a recent interview for her new series Wolf Pack, Sarah Michelle Gellar spoke about how some male crew members failed to take her seriously in both her past and present experiences in the industry, as well as how she had been seen as difficult for speaking out about issues which concerned her.
The timing of Nolly, then, could hardly be any better, as that recent controversy shows just how little things have changed during the last 40 years, with women still being treated with far less respect in the industry than their male counterparts. In a rather unexpected bit of casting, Helena Bonham Carter takes up the mantle of Nolly, doing her utmost to capture the spirit of Gordon, both in her forthrightness and all her vocal mannerisms. With Bonham Carter’s relatively slight physical stature, compared to the real Nolly, it means her presence on screen is delivered more by her attitude, rather than her own visual appearance, but she always makes herself known with gusto, while managing not to tip over into caricature.
While based in truth, with real quotes actually being used in dialogue, Davies’ script does use some artistic licence, taking liberties at points with the invention of both characters and events. However, with a disclaimer to that effect at the start of each episode, you can forgive Davies a certain amount of embellishment, as this is a dramatised retelling of the story, rather than a documentary, and much worse has surely been committed in the name of biopics. Although the recreations of Crossroads are all realised with a certain nod and a wink of an innate campiness, the gravity of the central story starkly contrasts with this, carrying a real weight which makes the betrayal of Nolly feel all the more devastating.
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There are some criticisms which can be levelled against the production, one of which involves Mark Gatiss’ turn as Larry Grayson, one of Gordon’s longstanding friends. Both in looks and delivery, Gatiss’ Grayson seems much more like a League Of Gentlemen character than a wholehearted attempt at an impersonation – or even the vaguest of approximations – of the entertainer. From a purely selfish point of view, it would have been nice to see the story extended by another episode, as the whole drama is so enjoyable, you want to spend more time in Nolly’s company. It also feels as though there should have been more focus on Gordon’s post-Crossroads career, as she attempted to rise, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of the motel fire which provided her character with an exit.
However, for any gaps which may seem to appear, there is a companion documentary on ITVX – The Real Nolly – which goes a long way towards filling them in nicely. For someone once described as “the Queen of the Midlands”, who was part of the television firmament for millions, Noele Gordon does appear to have unfairly slipped from view over the decades. Such a remarkable woman as Nolly deserves recognition, as well as reappraisal, and thankfully this drama helps to do just that. With a 94-disc set from Network Distributing having just been released, covering the extant entirety of Gordon’s run on Crossroads, it seems that Nolly will be checking back in for a lengthy stay, about which we should have absolutely no reservations.
Nolly is currently streaming on ITVX.