Nolly: The Queen of the West Midlands

February 2, 2023

Words by Scene columnist, Tales of the Second City 

This month sees ITVX release Nolly by Russell T Davies, a three-part drama about Noele Gordon, diva of daytime television and motel matriarch of Crossroads – long running and much derived Birmingham-based soap opera.

I wangled an invite to the premiere, after the heads-up from a man in the pub.

I was at a festive catch-up with a brilliant bunch of Brummie creatives at the Hare and Hounds in Kings Heath. A maverick writer and theatre producer (whom I’ve always affectionately regarded as the ‘Del Boy’ of Birmingham’s arts scene) supped his pint, pinkie raised, and declared with mock-grandeur, “I’ll be hobnobbin’ with Russell T Davies and the cast of Nolly at mac (Midlands Arts Centre) later this month.”

My interest was piqued.

Russell T Davies is the most in demand TV writer in the UK, renowned for acclaimed gay themed dramas… but a series about local legend Noele Gordon could be the gayest thing he has ever written.

I messaged a contact at the arts centre asking if there was any chance of a couple of tickets to the premiere. I was told ‘No’, as they were in high demand… but I could have one.

“Back in the ’70s, Noele Gordon was one of the most famous women in the country, her and Margaret Thatcher,” Russell T Davies claimed, “but now she has all but vanished. Talk to anyone under the age of 40 and they’ve never heard of her!”

Noele Gordon

So forgotten is the actress that when Davies pitched the drama to ITV, one executive asked, “Who’s he?”.

This was a woman who had dominated that very channel for decades, pioneered daytime television in the UK and stared in Crossroads for 17 years, until being unceremoniously axed from the show in 1981.

Crossroads ran from 1964 to 1988, at its peak drawing audiences of 15 million viewers (admittedly, there wasn’t much competition with only three TV channels at the time).

The soap was notorious for poor production values, acting as wooden as the sets and on-screen blunders.

An actor who guested on Crossroads in the late ’60s, told me how episodes were recorded ‘as live’, meaning, while filmed ahead of broadcast, no cuts were permitted. During a studio session, one of the huge lights broke loose and crashed to the floor, visibly startling all on set. The director just signalled to the cast to keep calm and carry on.

“Joe Public never clocks a damned thing,” as stated on Victoria Wood’s hilarious Crossroads parody, Acorn Antiques.

When one veteran Welsh actress was offered a stint on the soap, her first response was, “Oh please God, don’t tell me my career has sunk so low that come this!”.

Even long-term star of the show, Tony Adams, quipped, “I never considered myself an actor… that’s why I did Crossroads.”

Despite its shortcomings, the show became a much-loved institution and Noele Gordon its undisputed Queen.

My maverick mate from the Hare and Hounds met Nolly when he was helping organise a Scout fair in a field on the outskirts of the Birmingham. Deciding it needed star quality, he acquired Noele’s direct line to ask if she would be available to open the event.

She agreed, insisting she could only spare 20 minutes.

Arriving at the muddy location in her chauffeur driver Rolls (Number plate NG 10), the car would not fit through the gates. The driver dutifully fetched something from the boot and moments later his passenger stepped from the vehicle decked out in full-length fur coat and wellington boots.

The ‘Queen of the Midlands’ delivered an opening address to the enthusiastic crowd… then squelched through the mud for over two hours, hooking ducks, winning coconuts and operating the tombola.

I had barely found a spot to loiter at the reception for the mac premiere when a friendly stranger asked if he could join me. We were soon joined by his friend, who was a local actress and cast member of the drama, followed by her agent.

We were deep in boisterous banter, when Mr. Maverick appeared at my shoulder, “You shouldn’t be in ‘ere,” he told me. “This is the private VIP area. The hoi polloi like us should be waitin’ in the cinema.”

“I’m on the VIP list,” I replied, “they ticked my name off on the way in.”

“Oh,” he gawped, a tad crestfallen, “they only let me in to fetch you out.”

“Stay,” I implored, “they’ll never notice.”

“No, the woman on the desk was very clear I could only pop in for a moment,” he insisted, “besides she’s watchin’ me.”

“That’s a shame,” I said, taking a sip of my complimentary Prosecco and reaching for a passing canape.

A shadow of guilt crossed my brow as I watched him slink away, in long brown coat and clutching his bag, like Eric Morecambe.

“I’m only here because of a heads up from him,” I confessed to my new friends. “Now, where do I get a top up for this drink?”

The opening episode we were treated to at the premiere was brilliant, full of heart, wit, sparkling dialogue and moments of glorious camp, particularly when re-creating starch scenes from the soap (in authentic 4:3 aspect ratio).

Helena Bonham Carter excels as the leading lady. I loved the depiction of Nolly’s ‘master/servant’ relationship with co-star Tony Adams (she the master, he the servant… “Come along Adams”), played by Augustus Prew (who sounds like he should be working for JK Rowling’s Ministry of Magic).

Noele Gordon acquired her favoured valet – a city centre flat – directly opposite her own, so they could chat on the phone of an evening, whilst gazing at each other across the street. Apparently, Lucille Ball had previously purchased him an apartment in her block in New York. He clearly had a rapport with auburn woman of a certain age.

The only aspect of the production that jarred with this local Brummie, was that the external locations were not filmed in Birmingham. In the opening scenes, Noele exits Birmingham Cathedral and emerges onto the steps of… God knows where (and that definitely wasn’t the ‘back of Rackhams’ of ill repute).

At the end of the event, I approached Russell T Davies, shook his hand, and told him how much I adored the episode; “I was most looking forward to the Q & A this evening, but would have happily just sat and watched all three episodes back-to-back.”

I was telling colleagues in Wolverhampton about the drama and recommending they watch, when one piped up, “I ‘ad her Rolls for my weddin’.”

“I’m sorry, what?!”

“This silver Rolls arrived to pick up me and my dad and it ‘ad a funny number plate.”

“NG ten?”

“That’s the one. They told us it used to belong to her… what’s-her-name… Noele thingy. They bought it after she died.”

Somewhere in the Black Country is a company that rents out Nolly’s pride and joy for special occasions. The cast and crew should have hired it for the premiere.

Noele Gordon lived for short time in Cleveland Tower, one of the twin ‘Dorothy’ Towers that stand as sentinels over Birmingham’s gay village and house a good percentage the city’s queers. I like to imagine her spectral figure stood at the window of her old flat, watching the antics below. You can guarantee many of those tower’s residents will be watching the story of this not-so-forgotten icon on ITVX this month… and they’ll love it!

Russell T Davies stated he wanted to finally give Nolly the recognition she so deserved. Well, he has certainly done that.

Now, if you will excuse me, I’m off to find out what ITVX actually is and how to access it, so I can binge watch all three episodes with a bottle of wine.