Noele Gordon is a television legend; she produced and appeared on ATV’s first-ever programme “The Weekend Show” in London in 1955 and set many other TV records over the following years.
She was the first female to have a major chat show on ITV (Tea With Noele Gordon), pioneered daytime TV entertainment with Lunchbox and was the first female presenter to interview a Prime Minister – to name only a few of these feats.
Noele, you’ve been living with ‘Meg Richardson/Mortimer’ for years. Did Meg intrude on Noele’s life?
Oh no, we are completely different and you drop these things entirely when you leave the studio. I would say that perhaps the only effect the programme has had on me – apart from ageing me – is that it has made me a lot more tolerant than I used to be. We’ve dealt with so many problems in Crossroads which, if one doesn’t know much about them, one is inclined to shrug them off. For example, the problems of the handicapped were treated in depth when my screen son was crippled.
We especially looked into the effect a handicapped member of a family has on the rest of the relatives.
You say you and Meg are dissimilar, how different are you to her?
Oh, I’m completely incapable as everyone at ATV knows! Meg is very practical, she can count, which I can’t! She is very good at dealing with staff whereas I would never be any good at hiring or firing people. I’m much too of a coward. If I ran a motel I’d end up with about a thousand employees. I’d never had the nerve to sack any of them!
Meg Richardson isn’t allowed to smoke, Noele Gordon smokes like a furnace. But then again, it is very difficult to say just how different we are. I don’t know if I would treat my children the way Meg treats hers. Then again, if I had children, I might. I just don’t know.
You mentioned that you’re incapable, yet you have taken up hobbies such as flying?
Oh, I’m very good at doing things like that. I’ll always have a go. I’m not a very capable person at looking after myself, though. I seem to need a lot of people to look after me! My one great talent that I’m very proud of is my great ability to get people to do things for me! I presented a show where I learned to fly for ATV, Noele Gordon Takes The Air.
I also hosted a series on Anglers and other sports shows. For Lunchbox I drove a tank, a bus, a train and a racing car. Went down a mineshaft looking for coal. Oh yes, I’ll have a go at anything.
Is Meg a real person in your eyes?
Yes, in fact, she’s modelled on a friend of mine who does actually run a hotel in the country. When we were first starting the series, we leaned quite heavily on her for advice. Her husband continued to act as an unpaid advisor on the programme for many years too. [Geoff and Edna Lancashire were the hotel advisors and friends of Noele]
Did you put any of your own ideas into the scripts?
We were always encouraged to make alterations if a line was difficult or wrong. Also, we were encouraged to put up ideas. For instance, I went on a trip once and ended up in a hotel in Scotland that was a cross between Dartmoor and Belsen! Well, we wrote it up in the show, all the ghastly things that happened at this hotel.
We got letters saying ‘no that couldn’t happen!’ But it did! Also, we were often consulted if we were going to be in a storyline that they thought we may not like. For example, I was asked to comment when they were going to send me to prison. And when I was going to be poisoned, the producer rang up one Sunday afternoon and asked, “Hey, how would you like to be poisoned?”!
We’ve talked about the differences between Noele and Meg, but are there any similarities?
Well we both make ‘to do’ lists, and then lose them. I think we have the same attitudes. I think we’re both pretty normal, average sort of ladies really. I would have liked Meg Richardson to have been a bit scattier though. Me I’m demented!
What is your opinion of Meg?
I think Meg was marvellous. A lovely lady! I wish the producers had given her a few more faults. But she never seemed to have an Achilles Heel at all.
How do you deal with your popularity, people recognising you wherever you go and coming up and talking to you?
If they stopped doing it, you might as well give up. It’s a great compliment that people think I’m Meg Mortimer and I find most people very nice. What is a bit disconcerting is that people who see you every night on the screen think they know you and they think you know them. Very often, usually very nice ladies will say to me, “Oh hello” and I’ll say “Hello” and then they will realise and say, “Oh God, of course, you don’t know me!” But I love it. I think it’s a measure of the success of the programme.
Earlier you discussed a little of how Crossroads dealt with serious issues, do you think these stories helped the causes?
Primarily we aimed to be family entertainment, but we have helped a lot of people enormously. One of the ways we did this was through the setting up, thanks to ATV, a foundation to help relatives of handicapped people by supplying a helper who looks after a disabled person for a day or weekend to enable the relations to have a rest. The programme we did about decimalisation when the change-over came is another example of Crossroads helping. The Post Office thanked us in Parliament for that
Despite all the groundbreaking stories in Crossroads, the show still came in for a good deal of criticism?
Whatever the critics in the press said, Crossroads did a very good job! It did the job it was designed to do. Its ratings were amazing and a heck-of-a-lot of people still like it. From the actor’s point of view, we were very conscious of the time limit. To be in Crossroads you had to be very professional. We rehearsed on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays and the episodes were recorded on Thursday and Friday. There wasn’t time to be amateur about any of it!
With such a busy schedule, it couldn’t have left you much time for a social life?
Free time? I never had any! Really, when you’re in a soap opera, you give up your personal life. But I did it gladly because I loved working on Crossroads.
Is this why you never married?
Look, I really think no-one has ever really wanted to marry me! I’ve been acting since I was two-and-a-half and I’ve never really met anyone I’d like to give the business up for. I have one or two ideas though! I’d give it up for Charles Aznavour…
And Larry Grayson?
Oh Larry, bless his soul! No, I’m a bit old fashioned really. As I said, I’m not really very capable and I couldn’t work and be married at the same time. If I had a husband running around I don’t know what would happen to him. God knows, poor soul!
It sounds like you’re not a great fan of ‘Women’s Lib’?
Well you see, I’m a very strange little animal. I’ve been liberated all my life, dear! I think its an awfully sad thing that they’ve had to pass laws to make women equal. I don’t want to be equal to a man; I think I am far superior! Always have done! I am a great believer in equal rights. I think that if a woman is doing the same work as a man she should get the same wage rates.
Being dedicated to your work, do you never feel lonely, missing that ‘normal’ lifestyle?
Hmmm, I haven’t got time to feel lonely. Occasionally, you know, one does feel you would like to have a strong arm around you, and a shoulder to cry on. But I am a very fortunate person, I have wonderful friends.. ..and I lean on them. I think most women would like a man about the place.. ..I’m still looking.
Did you run into problems in your career being a woman?
People try to take advantage of a woman. They do. But they don’t do it twice! My father died some years ago, and both my mother and I found that from time to time people do try to take advantage of you. But usually, I find people are very nice to me.If you’re not getting your own way with a man, I’ve found two things which are great to do! Cry or fall down. If a man feels you’re really helpless, they love you. You generally get your own way then.
Did it bother you that eighteen million people tuned in to watch you night after night?
I never thought of it as millions of people looking at me. Never! That would really drive you mad! I still get nervous, before performing for television. I was warned about this on Lunchbox when I first started. If you think about the millions of people you will go screaming out the building!
Let’s talk about those pioneering ATV daytime years on Lunchbox…
A jolly great programme that! I did it with Ivor Jay, who went on to create the soap opera idea [boarding house drama series] that eventually Peter Ling and Hazel Adair transformed into Crossroads. Ivor became the script editor for the soap. I used to hate Ivor and Ivor used to hate me!
The first time I ever really talked to Ivor was when we all met at an ATV party, and he looked at me and said, “I bet you wouldn’t go into the lion’s den at the local circus.” And I said, “I bet you I would! But there are easier ways of getting rid of me than that!”No, I loved doing Lunchbox it was great fun. I love interviewing and I love doing live shows.
Did you get on equally as well with the Crossroads team?
We all got on very well. We’re a family, you see. You’ve got to get on, after all, you’re living with each other five days a week. We are all fond of each other. We like each other. We know each other extremely well.
What do you think are some of the finest Crossroads episodes?
Personally, some of the finest episodes we ever did were at Coventry and at the Cathedral. They were so pleased with some of those episodes that they have put the scripts of the episodes in the archives at Coventry Cathedral. We shot some fabulous stuff in the Cathedral that brought people from all over the country to see the place. The episodes were all surrounding the car accident with Sandy, and we were wandering around Coventry looking for guidance and so on.
Do you recall any embarrassing moments?
Princess Alexandra came to open the new ATV studios, and I had to do a fall in the motel reception. A sort of comedy scene. She asked me “Do you hurt yourself when you fall?” And I said not really as we are trained to do it at drama school. Well, she asked to see me do it. So I fell.The newsboys were there shooting it for the TV news, and that night it was broadcast. The following morning I went into the garage next door, and the fellow there said “You ought to be ashamed of yourself! Were you drunk last night? Falling down in front of the Princess like that!”
What has been the greatest thrill in your career?
I had a tremendous thrill when I appeared at the London Palladium with Larry Grayson in 1974. Having played the Palladium as a principal boy, going back 20 years later and being able to sing and carry on was great. I also did the Command Performance which was fabulous. The first night of Brigadoon was also a great thrill too. A lot of people don’t realise I did a lot of work before Crossroads.
Did you enjoy your screen wedding to Hugh Mortimer?
The wedding, too, was very nice and I think we showed the rest of the country just what a beautiful Cathedral Birmingham has got. I think it was a great high-spot. It did a lot of good too, as at the time a lot of people didn’t realise that a civil marriage could be blessed.It’s funny, but people pick up a lot more facts if they are watching something as entertainment rather than being preached at. They know what they saw on Crossroads was true because it was all fully researched. John Bentley, as Hugh, was wonderful to work with. We were a great on-screen partnership.
What would you like to say to the critics and people who knock Crossroads, still?
You cannot judge a programme like Crossroads, unless you stick with it for several weeks, at least. Because Crossroads makes four programmes a week, now we may have made one jolly good one and then we may have made three very duff ones, or we may have done two which are not so bad and then two which are pretty good. But the show cannot be judged on the same standards as Play Of The Week or even the serials that air twice a week. We knew our limitations, we knew our faults. And we would have loved to have had the time to put them right. But if we had had the time to put them right, then we wouldn’t have been able to make a soap opera.
Now your life at Crossroads is over, Meg has gone, possibly forever?
Meg had to go. Nolly, as my friends call me, will go on. I had to begin a new chapter in my life, exciting and also rather terrifying. But who knows what lies ahead? I never expected to leave Crossroads. I never expected to be starting a new life. It could be said that I am now at a Crossroads. What I won’t ever be doing is taking up the hilarious offers of jobs in hotels which came in from viewers convinced that I can really run a motel. I would like to do more in theatre because there is nothing like a live audience.
How were you told that after eighteen years of Meg Mortimer, she was going to be written out of Crossroads?
I was in Birmingham where my home is when my manager Michael Summerton telephoned to break the news. At first, I couldn’t grasp it. I had harboured my suspicions that I was being eased out because I seemed to have been given less and less to do. I had never dreamed I would be sacked. I put the phone down in tears. I cried all that night. Then I later cried all over one of chat show host Russell Harty’s best suits.
Will you leave the Midlands after so many years in Birmingham?
I shall go on living in Birmingham. After so many years in Midland Television, all my friends are in the Midlands and I am also president and patron of around 30 Midland organisations so I would not want to move. Since the death of my mother I have had our homes, which were neighbouring flats, converted into a house for myself.
How did you cope with the shock of being dropped from Crossroads?
Following the unhappy days that followed, I spent hours remembering the happy times and marvellous people I have known in Crossroads and this sent me to my scrapbook in which I have kept pictures and press cuttings recalling them. These helped me come to accept that while one way of life was about to be ended, a new one was about to begin.
Were your parents supportive of your stage and television career?
My mother, Joan was very supportive. My father James was more concerned about my working in theatre. But he came round in the end. He was a Scottish Civil Engineer, so no theatrical background at all. My mother was rather shy and I think she always had wanted to be an actress but never had the drive for that, so she was very pleased I was into performance.
What would you like Crossroads to be remembered for?
For the good causes, it made people aware of, and also, when it began in 1964 it made TV history as the world’s* first half-hour daily serial. (*UK’s first certainly.)
Was working for nearly 18 years on Crossroads worth it?
Worth every minute of it. Crossroads gave me more opportunities to act than any other actress has had in the history of the theatre. And some people say we did it badly, some people say we did it very well.. ..The main thing that mattered to me is that the public enjoyed Crossroads, and I enjoyed doing it.
Would you do it all again?
Every minute of it, I’d like to go back to the very first programme.
This feature interview has been compiled from material via ATV Press Office, Format V (ATV) and Goodbye Meg Magazine