When Russell T Davies first discussed with Kevin Lygo the idea of Nolly, his biopic of soap queen Noele Gordon, it turned out the ITV boss was closer to the subject matter than he might ever have imagined.
Because back at the height of Gordon’s fame and just after she was brutally axed by ITV’s Crossroads, the actress famously appeared on BBC1’s Russell Harty Show, where the researcher at the time was none other than … Kevin Lygo.
“Kevin was the researcher who went to Nolly and spoke to her and got her onto the show,” says Davies. “That’s how to get a commission. I didn’t know that - it was a complete surprise - so he was obviously also fascinated.”
The three-part biopic starring Helena Bonham Carter in the title role is both a love letter to television and a hugely entertaining tribute to Gordon who as motel matriarch Meg Mortimer was one of the two most famous women in late 1970s Britain (along with Margaret Thatcher).
But while Thatcher would stick around for another decade, Gordon’s 17-year reign at the Crossroads motel was brought to a sudden halt in 1981 when she was ruthlessly and unexpectedly sacked overnight.
A massive soap fan who nearly got his first break on Crossroads (only for it to be cancelled just as he submitted his first script), the more Davies worked in television, the more mysterious Gordon’s treatment seemed and the more fascinated he became by her story.
“Part of the reason I got interested in the story was because in the industry she is very much spoken of as a diva and a bit of a monster, a star,” says Davies.
“And yet when I went and spoke to the cast the opposite picture came out, they very much loved her. This was a very powerful successful women who has been spoken of as being a bitch and I thought where does that come from, how does that automatically happen? It’s monstrous.”
Davies used the opportunity of lockdown to research the show, doing countless zooms with cast members who played Benny and Miss Diane and in particular actor Tony Adams, who played womanising Adam Chance.
He had first mentioned the project a few years ago to executive producer and long-time collaborator, Nicola Shindler, and it was the first thing he wanted to do after the pair completed Channel 4’s It’s A Sin.
“I knew Crossroads but I didn’t know the extraordinary life [Gordon] had led before,” says Shindler. “I didn’t know she was a producer, that she had been the first woman to interview a prime minister.
“She had a real weight about her and was someone who brought so much with her I found that extraordinary. And then to see how brutally she was treated, that was something that needed to be told.”
The drama’s loving recreation of the Crossroads motel and the soap’s key players is an absolute treat for anyone who remembers it from 40-plus years ago (plus Mark Gatiss appears as Gordon’s close friend, Larry Grayson).
But you don’t have to have watched Crossroads or even have heard of Noele Gordon to enjoy it.
“It’s funny and it’s warm and I think people will watch it for that even if they don’t know the soap,” says Shindler. “Russell will always find the poignancy and sometimes the tragedy in these stories but it’s also incredibly entertaining. Everyone will appreciate the humour in it.”
Bonham Carter is suitably majestic in the title role and says the character of Nolly “fizzed” off the page.
“She came into my life like a life force straight from page one. I thought, why the hell have I not been aware of her, she is such a sensational woman,” says Bonham Carter.
“She was really appallingly badly treated and she said exactly what she felt. I suspect she was sacked because people were threatened by her - they might have been annoyed too - but she was clever and probably cleverer than most of the people on the show.
“She wasn’t going to be bullied any other person might have crumbled - but she didn’t. I loved that humanity which inspired [Russell] to write it.”
Recreating those Crossroads scenes involved the cast watching a whole heap of episodes of the Midlands-based soap.
“We had to watch lots of Crossroads, there’s a whole bible of how to act in Crossroads,” adds Bonham Carter. “There’s a sort of certain pace of slowness because a lot of the time you’re trying to tell the camera person what you are going to do next.”
“I liked that aspect, the soap acting,” says Augustus Prew, who plays Tony Adams (Crossroads’ Adam Chance).
“You’ve got three people in your head - you’ve got you, and the character who’s the actor and then you’ve got the actor playing the character within the show. It’s a very meta universe you get to play with.”
But anyone expecting a plethora of wobbly sets, for which Crossroads became infamous, will be disappointed.
“There is one moment if you look very carefully where I did ask one of the actors to close the door rather vigorously and the lights do move,” says director Peter Hoar. “But we never intended to rubbish the show because that’s not what the people on it ever saw it like.
“The Crown was bizarrely one of our references because that’s how Nolly saw it. We treated it with the respect it deserved.”
And while attitudes towards women in the industry and beyond have thankfully changed in the intervening years, there is still a long way to go.
“The structure inside television has changed and there are so many female producers which is great, and so many female owners of production companies,” says Shindler (the drama is the first from her new production company, ITV-backed Quay Street Productions).
“But I think the way women are described, and reviewed, and judged is different from how men are judged still. So I think it’s very relevant.”
As for Davies, nearly four decades after the soap’s cancellation prompted the briefest of false starts to his extraordinary career, he has finally got to write the words ‘Interior, Crossroads Motel. Day” at the top of a script. And it’s as much a delight for us as it is for him.
Nolly begins streaming on ITVX from Thursday 2 February and will air on ITV at a later date.