Noelle Gordon, buried in St Mary’s Church in Ross-on-Wye, is the protagonist in the highly anticipated new ITV drama, Nolly. Leading actress, Helena Bonham Carter, gives a wonderful depiction of the actress’s colourful career, focusing on events after her mysterious sacking from the popular soap opera, Crossroads, which caused uproar amongst fellow actors and fans at the time.
Joan Noel Gordon was born on Christmas Day in 1919 (hence the middle name which she was more familiarly known by), and carved out a career on stage and in television for over 50 years, most famously known for her role as character Meg Mortimer in the long running English soap, based at the fictional Midlands motel, Crossroads.
Born in Essex to Scottish parents, merchant navy seaman, James Gordon OBE, and mother Joan, Noel started dancing and acting lessons at the age of 2 years old. The family moved to Ilford when Noel was a teenager and she quickly gained in confidence, entering singing competitions and appearing on the public stage. At the age of 15, Noel was accepted into RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), where she studied and performed in Shakespeare plays as well as playing Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion. This lead to her first professional appearance in a 1940’s musical adaptation of Black Velvet.
Noel worked on many live theatre productions alongside fledgling actors such as Roger Moore and John Mills and as her confidence grew, she found herself hired by the BBC in 1937 to appear in her first major live TV drama, Ah! Wilderness!, where she played an Irish maid, a role she had already mastered in a previous theatre production. Firmly anchored at the BBC, she was hired to perform in many subsequent BBC Radio dramas and she changed her name from Noel to Noele, following a suggestion from friend and theatre producer, George Black, to distinguish her from male actors of the same name.
In 1938, Noele became the first woman to be transmitted in colour on television and three years later in 1941, she made her debut appearance on the West End stage, in Let’s Face It with co-star, Bobby Howes. In the same year, she also performed in several high profile musicals such as Brigadoon (clocking up over 1,000 performances in a two year period), Big Ben, Rain and Suspect.
The following decades were particularly busy for Noele both in the UK and overseas – she was sent to study TV production acting techniques at New York University and immersed herself in the culture there. In 1956, she relocated to Birmingham in the West Midlands, and worked between the then ATV Midlands channel and ATV London, where she became the first female sports presenter and hosted her own shows including Lunchbox and Talk of the Town, a glitzy Saturday night entertainment show.
Nolly, as she fondly became known, had a tumultuous love life, receiving several marriage proposals as well as having a very public 20 year affair with married CEO of ATV, Val Purnell. Despite being the ‘love of her life’, the relationship ended in tears after he unceremoniously left her for another younger actress in 1963. The next seventeen years, from 1964 to 1981, saw Nolly appear as character Meg Richardson in one of the best loved original UK soaps, Crossroads, attracting around 15 million viewers, three times a week.
In ITV’s new drama released this month, Nolly, written by Russell T Davies, Helena Bonham Carter gives a wonderful portrayal of the vibrant, strong, confident and talented actress, who was mysteriously and shockingly sacked from her TV role in 1981. The three part drama explores the events after her unforeseen removal from the series.
For many years in the 1960s and early 1970s, Noele lived in a large white-washed country house in Weir End, near Ross-on-Wye beside the A40 road to Monmouth.
Sadly, in 1982, Noele was diagnosed with stomach cancer, for which she underwent two major operations. Despite her diagnosis, however, the actress continued to work, and in August 1983 she returned briefly to Crossroads before retiring to her home in Birmingham, where she died in 1985. Her gravestone can be found in St Mary’s Parish Church in Ross-on-Wye just on the left hand side of the path that runs alongside The Prospect.