CRAIG BROWN: Day a toaster tried to wreck Crossroads
Back in the 1970s, when I was a teenager, my family lived on the Surrey/Hampshire border, which was also the border between two ITV companies, Southern and Thames.
This was a huge advantage to those of us who were addicts of Crossroads, the daily soap opera. First, you could watch it on Southern — and then, the second it was over, you could watch it again on Thames, though weirdly, Thames was six months behind, so the Crossroads Christmas party always took place in July.
With these double doses, I became something of an expert on the comings and goings at Crossroads Motel. As far as I know, I am still the only castaway to have chosen the theme tune as one of my Desert Island Discs.
I mention all this because Nolly, a drama about the sacking of the Crossroads lynchpin Noele Gordon (played by Helena Bonham Carter), is being screened this week.
Helena Bonham Carter as Crossroads star Noele Gordon alongside Mark Gatiss as Larry Grayson in the new ITVX drama Nolly
On the Graham Norton Show, Nolly writer Russell T. Davies observed that Noele Gordon had once been one of the most famous women in the country, but nowadays her name means nothing to those below the age of 50.
TV is an amnesiac medium. People who were, in their day, huge TV stars — Robert Robinson, Hughie Green, Fanny Cradock, Johnny Morris — ring no bells with the under-50s. Even David Frost, who was once on every programme, has just about evaporated from our memory, and he died only ten years ago.
Luckily, I still have Noele Gordon’s 1975 autobiography, My Life At Crossroads, to help jog my memory. It comes with a foreword by Mary Wilson. ‘Mary who?’ younger readers will ask. The clue lies in the address at the bottom: 10 Downing Street. Mary was the wife of Harold Wilson, who was then Prime Minister.
‘I am sure many women see Noele Gordon in the character of Meg Richardson as the type of woman they themselves would like to be — understanding, sensible, able to cope with any situation,’ writes Mrs Wilson.
The real Noele Gordon as Meg Richardson on the 1960s ITV soap opera Crossroads
Yet, in reality, Crossroads was comically rackety, and My Life At Crossroads unwittingly confirms this. The skinflint producers hated recording more than one take: if actors fluffed their lines or an accident occurred, the cameras would keep whirring.
Noele Gordon recalls shooting a kitchen scene when the actor who played her son, Sandy, ‘noticed that the toaster had caught fire and that flames were coming out of the machine . . . ‘Put it out, Sandy,’ I told him. We all swung into action, still acting the scene and saying the lines we were supposed to say as we coped with the flaming toaster.’
Another time, a tea cloth caught fire. ‘The director at the time not only covered the whole incident with his cameras but he also gave instructions to the floor manager as to what he should do if the whole set went up in flames. ‘Evacuate the studio,’ he said, ‘But keep one camera on — just for the Midlands News.’ ‘
Actress Ann George, who played the busybody Amy Turtle, regularly forgot her lines. She would simply repeat whatever the actor before her had just said. If her fellow actor had said: ‘I see it’s raining again,’ she would look startled, and then say, ‘It’s raining again’.
Helena Bonham Carter at the BFI preview of Nolly at BFI Southbank earlier this month
My own favourite episode involved the actor who played Chris, Noele Gordon’s on-screen stepson. One week, Chris set off for Switzerland. Months later he returned, played by an entirely different actor. ‘Welcome back, Chris!’ said Noele. ‘Your holiday seems to have done you the world of good!’
The wonderful comedian Kate Robbins, who played a cleaning lady, remembers hoovering in the reception area while Noele Gordon was talking on the phone.
The vacuum cleaner made such a loud noise that Noele was forced to shout to make herself heard. Eventually, the exasperated director yelled: ‘Cut!’ and stormed over to Kate, asking what on earth she was doing.
‘The script says ‘Kate hoovers in the background’,’ she replied.
The director glared at the script. ‘It’s a typing error!’ he snapped. ‘It should read: ‘Kate hovers in the background!’
Another volume I treasure is my Crossroads Cookbook (1977). In my next column, I shall examine its recipes, which also seem like relics from a long-forgotten land.