Born Joan Noel Gordon at 139 Clements Road, East Ham, London, on December 25th 1919 she became a leading force in the launch of ATV Midlands and a groundbreaking television personality.
Aged two she started to attend a dancing school and six-months later made her stage debut at the long-demolished East Ham Palace singing ‘Dear Little Jammy Face’. When Noele was a teenager the family moved to 201 Woodford Avenue, Gants Hill, Ilford, Essex. In 1929, aged 9, she won the top prize in a singing contest at The Ilford Convent where she studied until she was 15.
In 1934 Noel attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art – RADA – performing everything from Shakespeare to playing Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion. This lead into her first major professional work, aged 18, in the musical Black Velvet. For a time she worked in repertory theatre productions touring the UK – starring alongside newcomers such as Roger Moore. She also worked alongside John Mills in the comedy Arn’t Men Beasts?
In 1937 she had her first official work for television when she was hired to star in the BBC’s first major live drama produced at Alexandra Palace. As an Irish maid in Ah! Wilderness! she found her first television role a little too hot to handle. Studio lighting back then was much more intense than theatre lamps – due to the cameras needing a lot more light in order to transmit decent pictures. Under the heat of the lights the prop tray she was using as the maid heated up and burned her fingers. However, working on live TV dramas for the BBC lead to further work at the corporation in numerous BBC Radio drama productions. Noel’s London base at this time was 45 Cumberland Mansions, Bryanston Square, London, W1.
A year later TV pioneer John Logie Baird hired Noel to take part in his colour television experiments. She became the first woman to be transmitted in colour from a camera to television sets later that year. She also worked with Baird at the Tottenham Court Road Cinema when he undertook some ‘widescreen television’ tests on their big screen.
As Noele Gordon (she changed her name in the 1940s) she became a star of London’s theatre world – In 1941 she made her West End debut in Let’s Face It with Bobby Howes. Her biggest success of that era was the musical Brigadoon in which she starred in nearly 1000 performances across its two-year run. Composer of the Brigadoon songs, Frederick Loewe, upon seeing Noele’s performance, jokingly offered to marry her – so impressed with how she Interpreted his words. The critical reviews for Noele were pleasing and positive at this time too.
There were many other stage shows, including Big Ben, The Lisbon Story, Rain, Suspect and pantomime Humpty Dumpty at the prestigious London Palladium. A theatre first for Noele came when she was the first actress to star concurrently in two West End shows. While taking over from Julie Wilson in the starring role of You Bet Your Life with Arthur Askey she also remained understudy in Call Me Madam to Billie Wort.
On the 28th February 1941, she announced in the London Press Newspaper that she was to marry Capt. John Robertson Dunn Crichton. His ‘well-do-do’ family, however, frowned upon him marrying ‘an actress’ and at the last minute the wedding was cancelled; something it seems Noele never fully accepted – refusing to marry anyone else. In later years she kept his name out of any interviews relating to their romance, suggesting she didn’t want to embarrass him as he was by the 1960s a well-known high court judge. On the 19th May 1967, at Buckingham Palace, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
During the Second World War Noele continued to work in theatre productions and also as part of ENSA – Entertainments National Service Association – a performance organisation created to cheer-up troops with variety shows in the UK and abroad. Others involved with ENSA include singer Vera Lynn, singer/songwriter Ivor Novello and comedian/magician Tommy Cooper to name only a few. Founded in 1939 by impresario Basil Dean and the British Government the scheme became the Combined Services Entertainment which continues to run to this day.
In 1945 Noele made the first of two feature films. She had a minor part, as a neighbour Mrs Wilson, in 29 Acacia Avenue for Columbia Pictures. In 1946 British National Pictures made a movie version of The Lisbon Story – which was produced at the Neptune Studios in Borehamwood (which became ATV Elstree in the sixties). This film saw her in a much bigger part as Panache. Unfortunately, it is believed the film has been officially ‘lost’ however it is circulated in film-fan circles.
In 1949 she starred in her first Royal Variety Performance with the cast of Brigadoon who performed a segment of the musical for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
By the 1950s Noele was on the books of The Grade Agency. Knowing of her previous brush with TV production Lew Grade – who was planning to launch a new ITV regional television company – sent Noele to America in 1953 to study and observe their commercial services. She studied TV production for a year at New York University and also made hours upon hours of notes on the kind of programmes the USA networks were broadcasting – including their hour-long daily soaps. While in New York she also was hired by a local CBS affiliate station as a continuity announcer.
In 1955 Lew’s service, Associated Television, was given two ITV licences – one for London weekends and the other for the weekday Midlands. Noele became the first female television executive in the UK when she was hired to oversee the lifestyle output, a role she would also oversee in the Midlands.
When ATV London hit the air in September 1955 Noele was part of the very first programme ‘The Weekend Show’ which fell under her lifestyle remit.
As well as being boss she also script-directed some of these programmes and even appeared on-screen as one of the ‘experts’ on women’s issues. While at ATV London she also hosted a live fashion show from Oxford Street and became the host of ITV’s first chat show Tea with Noele Gordon.
In 1956 Noele began working for ATV Midlands in her role as Head of Lifestyle and Women’s Output, other Midland management included Reg Watson as Head of Entertainment, Ned Sherrin as Head of Factual and News and general Programme Controller Philip Dorté. It was noted at one point Noele was presenting up to ten programmes across ATV London and ATV Midlands per week!
For the Midlands region she presented an ‘ad Mag’ called Fancy That?, became the first female sports presenter when reporting and hosting Midland Sport and later hosted her own fish-catching sports show, A New Angle on Noele Gordon, which was about angling. Somewhat considered the ‘have-a-go-girl’ (the original Anneka Rice if you like) she also fronted her own series Noele Gordon Takes The Air which saw her learning to fly a plane – which she succeeded to do.
In 1957 ATV launched the first weekday daily live lunchtime variety, chat and music show – Lunchbox. Lunchbox was a huge success for Noele and the company. Numerous times the Friday outside broadcast proved to be more successful than expected. In Nottingham, an expected 3,000 audience turned into 27,000!
Her ‘have-a-go’ image was certainly used to its fullest with Lunchbox. Over the years for this programme, Noele went Skin-Diving, became a fire-fighter, went out with a sea rescue team, trained as an Army soldier, rode a camel and horse. Drove a racing car and steam train, performed with the Chipperfield Circus – including bear and lion training – went mountain climbing, became a coal miner and sweet factory worker- to name a few. With her success Noele was able to afford a large house in the country, she moved into Weir End in Ross on Wye, Herefordshire, in 1963.
As a reporter for ATV News in 1958, she became the first woman to interview a Prime Minister – Harold Macmillan. She fronted ATV’s first and 5th-anniversary shows, interviewing stars such as Matt Monro, Rolf Harris, Joe Loss, Arthur Askey, Morecambe and Wise, Ken Dodd, Bob Monkhouse and many more who had previously starred on Lunchbox.
In 1961 she was celebrated as one of the ‘Women of the Year’ such was her popularity with ITV viewers. She was also by this point kept busy with fan mail thanks to The Noele Gordon Fan Club being founded by keen Lunchbox viewers.
Her private life, however, was still quite the opposite of her professional success. In 1963 a twenty-year affair with theatre and ATV executive Val Parnell came to an end when he dumped Noele and decided to divorce his second wife of 25-years, Helen Howell. Noele later revealed the two women had ‘happily shared’ Val on their terms over the two decades, Noele quite happy not to have to deal with a marriage proposal, however when they both were ditched for a younger actress, Aileen Cochrane, she was left devastated.
In 1964 Lunchbox was moved to a teatime slot and was re-branded as Hi-T. Throwing herself into her television career between 1955 and 1964 Noele also hosted many other ATV series including Midland Profile; a one-to-one chat show with stars of the day, Midland Scene; which took a look around the region at its everyday people and places as well as Midland Farming for the local rural communities. In the summer of 1964, Noele made a guest appearance as herself on medical saga Emergency Ward 10 – the storyline allowing for this was a hospital open day and garden party.
August 1964 saw Noele told that Hi-T was to be axed. It was to be replaced with a faster-paced version of the American soap opera format she’d seen years earlier. Cut to 25-minutes rather than an hour Crossroads was to be the UK’s first full-length daily serial. From November 1964 to November 1981 Noele appeared as Meg Richardson/Mortimer the owner of the Crossroads Motel in the fictional village of Kings Oak.
As Meg, she once again became a groundbreaker. Nolly became the nations most favourite female television star – winning more awards than any other between 1968 and 1981. She was the first celebrity placed in the TV Times Hall of Fame and even was honoured with her own fashion range in a department store. In 1975 Crossroads popularity reached a peak when Noele’s character of Meg married Hugh (John Bentley) and brought Birmingham city centre to a standstill when 1000s of the shows viewers turned up to see the couple. Throughout the 1970s Crossroads, a daytime soap topped the TV ratings often not only for ITV but also beating BBC productions too.
In 1973 Noele sold Weir End Lodge in Ross-On-Wye in order to be closer to the ATV studios. She built a luxury apartment at 12 Handsworth Wood Road, Birmingham. In February of the same year, she was the subject of a This Is Your Life show for Thames Television.
1974 was the year she returned to the London Palladium to star alongside close friend Larry Grayson in his variety show and later in the year she took to the stage in her second Royal Variety Performance. This time Noele was the host of the show – the first female host of the Royal Variety event. Again performing in front of the former Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother.
In 1976 Noele recorded an album for EMI, Noele Gordon Sings, at the Abbey Road Studios in London with Geoff Love and his orchestra.
After Crossroads she was offered a job at TV-am, however, her theatre commitments limited her involvement with the breakfast station, although she did make several appearances for the fledgeling early morning company. She also took part in a short return to Crossroads in 1983, for the wedding of her on-screen daughter. In the 1980s she also returned to the theatre in shows such as Gypsy, The Boyfriend and a revival of Call Me Madam. She also in 1983 toured in her own ‘one-woman show’ on the life of Cosima Wagner.
Her theatre roles met with, just like the 1930s and 40s, positive reviews and overall a hit with audiences. This triumphant return to the stage was only marred by an incident following a performance of Gypsy when a ‘crazed fan’ attempted to stab Nolly, who was saved by several other fans who stepped in to disarm the obsessed fan and his knife.
Noele died from Cancer on April 14th 1985, having had a number of operations to try and beat the illness over the previous two years. ITN reported that her funeral was for ‘The Queen Of British Soaps’. In the same month, Nolly had been due to be seen back on-screen in Crossroads, with new producer Phillip Bowman luring her back to the serial. She had signed the contract, and the scripts were written. Sadly it was never to be.
She was buried in St Mary’s Church Ross-On-Wye near Hereford where 1000s of fans turned out and packed the grounds to say ‘goodbye’.
In May 1985 a memorial service for Noele was held at Birmingham Cathedral. Guests included Susan Hanson, Jean Bayless, Jane Rossington, Tony Adams, Ronald Allen, Sue Lloyd and many of the other Crossroads cast as well as many of her friends such as Nicholas Parsons, Shaw Taylor, Fiona Fullerton and Roy Hudd. Special messages were sent from Lord Lew Grade and Patricia Phoenix, former star of ITV prime time serial Coronation Street, who dedicated a poem to her ‘friend Nolly’.
Unforgettable Noele Gordon, Tonight at 7,30pm on ITV1.
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