The colourful story of how forgotten Crossroads star Noele Gordon became a gay icon

Noele Gordon

As Helena Bonham Carter steps into the shoes of British soap star Noele Gordon in Russell T Davies’ new ITVX series Nolly, we look back at the life and legacy of the trailblazing gay icon.

At one time a household name with a large dedicated fanbase, you’d be hard pressed these days to find many who recognise the name Noele Gordon.

Davies’ new series fictionalises the rise and fall of the forgotten British soap star who charmed UK audiences as Meg Richardson (later Mortimer) over the course of almost two decades and almost 1,000 episodes of ITV soap Crossroads.

And “almost” is perhaps the best word to describe her career, which was ruthlessly ended after ITV decided to axe her from the show in 1981 – although she made a short-lived return shortly before she died.

Gordon became synonymous with Crossroads, and it seemed unfathomable to have one without the other. Her character was the matriarch of the series and a treasured extended family for millions around the country.

While the new drama explores how Gordon rose to be a legend in her own lifetime, there is still a lot more to be uncovered about this once-beloved and now forgotten national treasure – especially her relationship with the LGBTQ+ community.

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Who is Nolly‘s Noele Gordon and how did she become a gay icon?

Born in 1919, Gordon began her career on the stage and starred in the West End musical extravaganza Brigadoon in 1949. However, she soon left to spread her wings on the big and small screen.

The TV personality was the first woman the ever appear on colour TV, and was also the first woman to interview a British prime minister on air (Harold Macmillan). She also helped launch ATV Midlands which became home to hit series Crossroads.

While the nation affectionally dubbed her with nicknames such as Nolly and The Queen of the Midlands, Gordon was also showing herself to be a fierce ally of the LGBTQ+ community.

The soap legend was famously close to English comedian Larry Grayson, whose sexuality as a gay man was only revealed in unpublished memoirs after his death.

The two were often romantically linked in the tabloids, and even encouraged the rumours when Grayson made a guest appearance on This Is Your Life where they both joked about getting married.

Helena Bonham Carter (L) as Nolly and Mark Gatiss (R) as Larry Grayson. (ITV)
Helena Bonham Carter as Nolly and Mark Gatiss as Larry Grayson. (ITV)

“I suppose it was naughty of us both to have joked about getting married in the first place,” Gordon reflected afterwards, “but it all seemed innocent enough at the time.  Neither of us realised so many people would take it seriously.”

Grayson is played by Mark Gatiss in the series, which starts on ITVX on Thursday (2 February).

Gordon had several gay friends in her lifetime, and frequented gay bars, becoming famous for an incident involving one in Nottingham.

Mike Garrett, the head of Crossroads Appreciation Society, explains: “There was a gay bar that didn’t let women in until Noele rolled up and said, ‘I want to come in’.

“She wouldn’t go until they’d let all women in and, after that, all women were allowed in. So she sort of trailblazed for the lesbians in Nottingham.

“I think after all the disappointment of the men who didn’t marry her, or left her, she always found with gay men that sense of security.”

Garrett continues: “They weren’t going to do anything that she didn’t like, or leave her. So I think she always loved that community because they were loyal and she adored them.”

Alongside her affinity with the LGBTQ+ community, she was also known for her high-camp energy when it came to her onscreen persona, from daring outfits to her dry sense of humour.

Take her final scene as a regular character in Crossroads.

Is there anything more legendary than the matriarch of the show surviving a catastrophic fire and suddenly appearing on the QE2 in bright eyeshadow before dramatically sailing beyond the horizon? Not really.

Was Noele Gordon a lesbian?

Helena Bonham Carter as Nolly. (ITV)
Helena Bonham Carter in Nolly. (ITV)

Gordon never married in her lifetime or started a family, leading to several rumours that she might be a lesbian – especially given the company she kept.

The theories remain strong to this day and it is something Davies has acknowledged in the run-up to the show.

Speaking about pitching the idea for the series, he told The Times: “The head of one TV station said to me, ‘But she was a lesbian,’ which almost stopped me in my tracks because I wouldn’t write something that would out her – one careless remark almost crushed the whole show.

“But I dug deeper and discovered that lesbian was being used as a scare story, an insult, a little piece of witchcraft. Because, surely powerful women have something to hide? They couldn’t just be… powerful, and a woman, could they?”

And Carter confirmed to The Mirror that a speech is written into the show about empowering women so they are not defined by their relationship to men.

Whether or not there is truth to the rumours about her sexuality, it is clear that at the time the slurs were weaponised against Gordon.

How did she die?

After leaving Crossroads, she returned to the stage, and prior to her death was even in discussions to make another return to the soap. However, with a history of smoking and drinking, Gordon was diagnosed with stomach cancer and died in 1985 at the age of 65.

Nolly airs on ITVX on 2 February 2023