The staggering true story of Crossroads queen Noele Gordon
When the credits rolled on another episode of Crossing On 4 November 1981 switchboards at ITV began to jam. After the show’s beloved Midlands motel caught fire, hundreds of tearful viewers picked up the phone and asked one question: Would Meg Mortimer, actress Noele “Nolly” Gordon’s alter ego, make it out of the fire alive? Meg, who was last seen using sleeping pills, didn’t look good. The sun claimed in a front-page splash the next day that some fans even called hospitals to inquire about the injuries she may have sustained in the fire.
It was the culmination of nearly five months of outrage and hysteria that had begun in June, when news first broke that Gordon’s much-loved character would be axed from the soap opera. This was not an amicable farewell – it was against Gordon’s own will. Told by TV execs that “all good things must come to an end,” she was shown the door after 17 years Crossing‘Matriarch. More than four decades later, the story of Gordon and her summarily fired from Russell T Davies was brought to life in ITVX’s three-part series nollywith Helena Bonham Carter playing the soap queen.
And what a story. Before making her debut on the famously shaky sets of Crossing In 1964, Gordon’s showbiz career took her from the West End stage to her own talk show. An eight-time TV Times Award winner, she deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as soap icons such as June Brown, Barbara Windsor and Julie Goodyear, but in the years since her death her stunning career has been overlooked.
Born on Christmas Day 1919 and given a festive middle name, Joan Noele Gordon made her stage debut as a toddler at East Ham Palace in London. Nineteen years later, while she was part of a repertory group at a theater in Penge, a young man turned up looking for a girl of “a certain color”. He worked for John Logie Baird, the Scottish inventor and television pioneer who needed someone to act as a model for color transmission experiments.
Chosen because of her “blue eyes, fair skin and very dark hair” which would later turn her red, Gordon would be driven in a Rolls-Royce to nearby Crystal Palace after her evening performance was over. At Baird’s studio, she wore a variety of bright hats, and at one point her face was “painted with broad green vertical stripes” as he and his colleagues explored new technologies. After all, she was the first woman to ever appear on color television. “Baird was adorable, always kind and gentle, and he always gave me the full star treatment,” she later said TV times. “He seemed pretty vague. But he wasn’t vague at all.”
Another big break came when she landed a role in the original West End production of brigade In 1949 she played the fiery milkmaid Meg Brockie, but television remained her defining medium. On the advice of her agent, Lew Grade, and Valentine “Val” Purnell, the married impresario and TV executive with whom she had a 20-year affair, she spent a year studying television production at NYU. While in New York, Gordon spent hours jotting down notes on US programming, noting Americans’ penchant for daily soaps. On her return in 1955, she joined Associated Television, part of the ITV network, to present its very first programme. The weekend show. At the same time, she served as the channel’s Head of Lifestyle, making her ITV’s first female executive.
Gordon’s next challenge was to launch ATV’s Midlands network the following year. In order to fill the schedule at short notice, she was given her own chat show, Tea with Noele Gordon. It became so popular that she put her career on the sidelines as a producer to focus on presenting – not bad for what was intended as a stopgap. series like lunch boxa This morning-style magazine show, and Noele Gordon takes the air followed, the latter documenting her attempts to learn to fly. It seems she managed to do light work with it too. “She’s adaptable and easy to teach,” noted her instructor, Arthur Penzer, in a promotional article for TV times. “On her first flight, she taxied the plane onto and off the runway.”
Also on Gordon’s to-do list on behalf of daytime television? Her training as a firefighter, driving a steam train, driving down a mine… and being the first woman to interview a prime minister on television when she sat down with Harold Macmillan in 1958. Then there was her fishing show, A new look at Noele Gordon (a title that Alan Partridge would certainly be proud of).
It was her role as Meg Mortimer in Crossing, but that would cement her status as the ‘Queen of the Midlands’. Launched in 1964, the ATV soap opera was built around Gordon’s character, who used her late husband’s life insurance to turn their home and surrounding land into a sprawling motel. Filmed on a notoriously low budget, the sets visibly shook and continuity was patchy. One character, Glenda Brownlow, went to the bathroom and was not seen for seven months.
Meg has had more than her fair share of bizarre stories: a husband tried to poison her to take her money, and she even ended up behind bars for pushing the postman off his bike (she had dodged to avoid a cat ). Viewers thought she had finally found happiness when she married Hugh Mortimer (John Bentley), and the couple had their marriage blessed in scenes filmed at Birmingham Cathedral. Fans were able to purchase a special spin-off album featuring a duet between Gordon and Bentley (like a proto-Kylie and Jason) and music from the ceremony to celebrate the wedding. Then, in a gruesome turn of events, Hugh was kidnapped by Australian terrorists and died of a heart attack.
As Bonham Carter’s character puts it nolly, the soap might be “fucking crazy” — but it was also hugely popular, at its peak of 15 million views. But despite impressive numbers, Crossing was an embarrassment for ATV bosses. When Charles Denton was appointed head of programming, he decided to focus on more sophisticated, prestigious dramas (similar to what Gordon has now inspired—an irony she’d probably enjoy). Crossing would have to go – but rather than scrap it outright, he and his colleagues opted to get rid of Meg/Gordon in hopes that audiences would abandon the series in protest. Plus, Nolly’s TV nous meant she was happy to commentate on the production — and have her own way. She could, as we see on Davies show, be considered “difficult”..
Gordon didn’t walk quietly. First, she begged Grade, then head of ATV, to save her job. She then went to the press and told reporters that she was fired so emotionlessly that it was like the executive in question was “reading a weather report.” The audience jumped in her defense and gathered in front of ATV Birmingham with ‘Save our Meg’ and ‘Meg is magic’ placards. Denton was the focus of much of their anger. “I got excrement in the mail,” he said The Independent in 1993. “I never believed this actually happened until it landed on my doorstep.”
But how would Meg get off – and, most importantly for concerned fans, would she keep the soap alive? Media speculation was seriously intense. Producer Jack Barton, played by Con O’Neill in nolly, told ATV News that he had to “dodge reporters who were crawling on their stomachs through cabbage fields trying to get pictures” of Meg’s latest act. To shake them off, five separate endings were recorded. Most were tragic: nolly features the actor who played Gordon’s onscreen daughter, Jane Rossington, played on Davies’ show by Antonia Bernath, attempting to emote during a funeral scene while helicopters hover overhead.
A week after the motel brand aired, fans finally “gave a sigh of relief to discover Meg Mortimer hadn’t died.” The times put it After Rossington’s character, Jill, received a mysterious phone call, she was summoned to Southampton, where she boarded the QE2. Who would she find there but Meg, brightly made up and very much alive? When it comes to high camp soap trades, she deserves a place in the Hall of Fame. “I turned my back on the hotel,” Meg sighs, before describing her plans to leave the Midlands behind forever. When the boat sets sail, she waves regally from the deck, the Queen of Crossing to the last.
Though her high-profile shot certainly hit Gordon hard, she seemed to be handling it in her own idiosyncratic way. In the depths of YouTube is grainy footage from the ATV Christmas party that took place shortly after they left. Gordon comes on stage dressed in black, complete with a mourning veil, and then proceeds to give a bow performance of the song “Say That We’re Sweethearts Again” (lyric sample: “I never knew our romance ended / Until you poisoned mine have groceries”).
She eventually returned to her first love, the stage, appearing in shows such as gypsy and Call me madam; later she made a cameo appearance Crossing when Jill and her new husband Adam Chance (Tony Adams) headed to Venice for their honeymoon. By 1985, producers were hatching plans for a return to the soap — but Gordon, who had been diagnosed with stomach cancer, was too ill and died in April of that year. Crossing would drop out three years later.
Her tombstone honors a woman who “dedicated her life to her career.” Gordon certainly blazed a trail for women, both behind and in front of the camera. “I don’t want to be equal to a man,” she said in an interview. “I think I’m way superior – I always have.” As a soap legend and broadcast pioneer, she rarely gets by despite her successes – maybe Davies’ show is finally changing that.
“Nolly” will be streaming on ITVX from February 2nd