Helena Bonham Carter: ‘Watching TV in the age of streaming feels lonely’

Helena Bonham Carter ITV drama actress Nolly - Quay Street Productions/ITV
Helena Bonham Carter ITV drama actress Nolly - Quay Street Productions/ITV

Watching television has become a “lonely” business in the age of streaming, Helena Bonham Carter has said, speaking wistfully of the era in which 15 million would tune in to Crossroads.

The actress is starring in a three-part drama about Noele Gordon, the soap’s grande dame.

Nolly, which launches on ITV’s streaming service ITVX on Feb 2, explores Gordon’s 1981 sacking from Crossroads, which made headlines and led to protests from dismayed viewers.

“It’s very difficult to explain to my kids – they think I was brought up with dinosaurs – that there were only three channels,” Bonham Carter said of that time.

“So the impact of a soap was huge, and the impact of Nolly. She was in everyone’s living room, 15 million [viewers], three times a week. There wasn’t much else.

“Now, which I think is a bit of a shame, none of us are watching the same thing at the same time, so you miss the community of watching. You can’t go, ‘Oooh, what’s going to happen?’ Sometimes it’s a bit lonely, actually, watching telly.”

Bonham Carter conceded, however, that the proliferation of streaming services does offer more choice.

Noele Gordon Crossroads ITV soap opera - ITV/Shutterstock
Noele Gordon Crossroads ITV soap opera - ITV/Shutterstock

Nolly is a comedy drama which celebrates Gordon, who played motel owner Meg Mortimer between 1964 and 1981. “Nolly” was her nickname among cast and crew.

After her unceremonious removal by ATV, Gordon starred in a stage production of Gypsy, the Stephen Sondheim musical. Despite returning to Crossroads briefly for two episodes in 1983, she never returned to television full-time.

By then, she was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1985.

Bonham Carter said she hoped that the drama would give Gordon the “proper send-off” she deserved, having been “appallingly treated” by bosses at ATV.

“She was a great force,” she said. “We’re often so apologetic, particularly if we’re British. But she wasn’t. She was very upfront and deeply authentic and she wore her experience.

“I feel she was sacked in her prime. She was 61. She couldn’t have been better at what she was doing.”

Bonham Carter said she had been unfamiliar with Gordon’s story at first, before adding: “But then I read the script and I thought, ‘Why the hell haven’t I been aware of her?’ She’s such a sensational woman. She just fizzed off the page.”

Helena Bonham Carter ITV drama actress Nolly - Quay Street Productions/ITV
Helena Bonham Carter ITV drama actress Nolly - Quay Street Productions/ITV

Her research for the role included watching Gordon’s appearance on Russell Harty’s chat show shortly after her sacking. Bonham Carter said: “[She had] such a lack of apology, such gumption and fierceness. I thought, ‘Wow! We all need a Nolly in us!’”

Nolly was written by Russell T Davies, who conducted hours of interviews with former Crossroads cast members including Tony Adams (who played Adam Chance), Susan Hunter (Miss Diane) and Paul Henry (Benny).

He said: “In the industry, she’s very much spoken of as a diva, a bit of a monster. And yet when I went and spoke to the cast, the opposite picture came out. They very much loved her.”

Gordon was the victim of sexism, according to Davies: “She was a very powerful, successful woman who was spoken of as a bitch. Where does that come from and why is that so unfair?”

The drama highlights Gordon’s other career achievements: she was a pioneer of daytime television, as the host of ATV’s Lunchbox, and the first woman to interview a British prime minister when she sat down with Harold Macmillan.

Crossroads was famous for its wobbly sets, but Nolly does not dwell on that.

Peter Hoar, the series’ director, explained: “The Crown was, bizarrely, one of our references, because that’s how Nolly saw it. We didn’t want to show the programme through the eyes of those disapproving men who controlled the narrative and told everyone that it was c--p.”