Sunday, January 8, 2023


Presenting "Lunch Box"

Noele Gordon had a big role to play as a producer and executive in the formative years of British commercial television, but her name is normally mentioned only when talking about her later starring role in “Crossroads”, a soap opera itself most remarked upon for its inferior production quality. This isn’t going to change straight away: in February 2023 the network that showed “Crossroads”, ITV, will broadcast “Nolly” a three-part drama written by Russell T Davies and starring Helena Bonham Carter, about Gordon’s firing from the show she made famous.

Back when ITV, originally a network of regional stations, started in 1955, few people in the UK could have had experience in the television industry – the only channel on air by then was run by the BBC, from London, the only regional outpost opened by then was based in Birmingham, and broadcasts only lasted for five hours a day. The path taken by Associated Television (ATV), initially contracted to provide television in London at the weekend and in the Midlands during the week, was to send their recruits for training in the United States, where its TV industry was growing at a far faster pace.

To that end Noele Gordon, a RADA-trained actress who had been starring in a touring production of the musical “Call Me Madam”, and who had joined ATV both as a presenter and as Head of Lifestyle Programmes, would study at New York University, work as a continuity announcer for WCBS-TV, and remarkably became one of the few British people to appear on the ill-fated DuMont Network, guest starring as a fitness instructor in the 31/08/1954 episode of the famous early sitcom “The Goldbergs”. The episode was broadcast live.

Back in the UK, Gordon would present the opening programme on ATV’s London service in 1955, moving to Birmingham in 1956 when the Midlands service opened. At a time when everything could be thrown at a TV screen to see what stuck, Gordon filed feature reports for news and sports programmes, acted as content producer on the women’s magazine show “Week End”, presented chat shows “Tea with Noele Gordon” and “Midland Profile”, produced the documentary series “Weekend Farming” and “Midland Scene”, while also presenting fishing series “A New Angle on Noele Gordon” and, in 1957, “Noele Gordon Takes The Air”, a six-part series where she learned to fly, qualifying as a pilot in the last episode. Amongst these programmes, Gordon became the first woman to interview a Prime Minister on television, namely Harold MacMillan.

with Gertrude Berg in "The Goldbergs"

Gordon’s signature series before “Crossroads” was “Lunch Box”, broadcast live for forty-five minutes each day, presenting dedications to viewers and music performances from the house band, Jerry Allen and His TV Trio. I found one episode on YouTube, and the relaxed atmosphere, the backchat between Gordon and the band, and lack of audience, felt a little like a radio breakfast show.

The problem with discussing Noele Gordon’s career before “Crossroads” is that little of it exists, or was kept – the episode of “Lunch Box” I saw began with Gordon remarking that the episode was being recorded this time around. Television was still ephemeral in the 1950s and 1960s, and shows being made to be broadcast at novel times of day like lunchtime were almost boarding on the experimental. When “Crossroads” began in 1964, produced by Reg Watson, future creator of “Neighbours” and director of “Lunch Box”, “Lunch Box” was not replaced, and restrictions on broadcasting hours that meant ATV closed earlier at night on days when “Lunch Box” was broadcast were not lifted until 1972.

The role of Meg Richardson, owner of the Crossroads Motel, was written for Gordon, and with “Crossroads” becoming successful quickly, her appearances in other shows reduced, her executive position having already been vacated for more on-screen roles. As I understand it, the basis of the new drama “Nolly” was that Gordon was fired from the show because her status as a national treasure with the British public was preventing Central Independent Television, a reconstitution of ATV to continue providing ITV in the Midlands from 1982, from replacing the show with better ones. “Crossroads” had always been recorded as if it was broadcast live, causing shaky sets and flubbed line readings to remain in each show, but storylines and performances still shined through, and Gordon’s departure in 1981 did not stop the show, which eventually ended in 1988. “Acorn Antiques”, Victoria Wood’s sketches that satirised the quality of “Crossroads”, would later see Julie Walters’ Mrs Overall being let go in similar circumstances.

After “Crossroads”, Noele Gordon went back on stage, most notably in a revival of “Call Me Madam”. She died in 1985, before a planned return to “Crossroads”. Knowing now of her career before that show, perhaps that could form a greater discussion of her life and career in future.

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