The It’s A Sin writer has always been obsessed with soaps – and now he’s put Helena Bonham Carter in one. Here, he discusses his new drama about Crossroads – the show that sparked his TV dream
Helena Bonham Carter as Nolly Photograph: ITVX
I was transfixed by a bright yellow wall. It was the early 70s, and my mum had bought our first colour television set. Brand new, out of the box, but unplugged, blind, dead. She glared at me and my sisters, Janet and Susie. “I’m going to your nan’s, so don’t you dare turn that on without me. If you do, it will explode and kill you.” And they wonder why I became a dramatist. We waited all of two seconds after she’d gone, then ran to plug it in. And then it appeared.
Crossroads. Miss Diane was arguing with husband Vince, the postman. I think he was drunk. Actually, I think she was an alcoholic and seeing in him everything that had gone wrong in her life, or something. But never mind that – they stood against a wall that was so yellow! It would be trite to say that image burned itself into my brain so deeply that my entire career has been chasing that moment. And yet here I am.
Those were the days. When everyone watched the two great soaps, Crossroads and Coronation Street. In the 60s, that’s all we’d had, a street in Weatherfield and … a motel? The Crossroads Motel? Please don’t think motel was a buzzword. Even then, no one knew what it meant. It’s technically a hotel on a motorway, which was supposed to sound glamorous. But, with apologies to Birmingham, it was in Birmingham.
Pout and about … Russell T Davies circa 1986. Photograph: Russell T Davies
Coronation Street sprung fully formed from the mind of Tony Warren. Don’t let anyone tell you that television shows need time to bed in. His very first episode sizzles into life in scene one and is still buzzing with that same energy 62 years later. But Crossroads was more … assembled. A flatpack of stories. Created by Hazel Adair and Peter Ling, it was originally based round two sisters, Meg (Noele Gordon) and Kitty (Beryl Johnstone); one rich, one poor. To be fair, two feuding sisters should have generated enough stories to run for 100 years, except the rivalry never quite worked, and in 1969 Johnstone died. Given the speed of production – Crossroads was Britain’s first five-day-a-week soap – Kitty’s death was mentioned, months later, and she vanished without a funeral or a regret. And, I think, the programme limped from that point onwards.
But I was watching! Somehow, with television, something clicked and kept luring me in. All of it: soaps, quizshows, comedies, drama, everything. At the risk of cod-psychology, I often wonder if it was because I was gay; when other boys hit puberty and turned to girls and sport, I just watched. I watched the parties, I watched the snogging, and I watched TV. Sometimes I think the closet made me a writer. Sometimes I think that’s bollocks, because I was inventing Asterix stories when I was nine. But still, everything good in my life has come out of being gay, so I’ll stick with my first theory.
As a result, I was still watching Crossroads at the age of 18, when I went to university at Oxford, just in time for the show’s greatest scandal to erupt: the sacking of Noele Gordon. It was a strange, noisy, public sacking, humiliating for character and star. It fascinated me so much that, 42 years on, I’ve written a drama about those events for ITV, starring Helena Bonham Carter as Noele, or Nolly, as everyone called her.
But even when Nolly’s imperious Meg had sailed off on the QE2 (which we had to recreate on an empty Liverpool dock with a crane, a wind machine and a CG ship), I stayed watching. Until the day that Crossroads changed my life.
At a Crossroads … Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon in Nolly. Photograph: David Hindley
In 1986, William Smethurst took over the show. In an interview with the Guardian, he said, as I remember it: we’re looking for new writers but no one will write for this show because they all think it’s rubbish! Well. Challenge accepted. The dream! I was unemployed, tucked away in a tiny flat in Cardiff; I had no agent, no contacts, but I did have a newfangled electric typewriter. So I bashed out a script and posted it off. Maybe three weeks passed, maybe three months, then the phone rang. They said: we like this, please come to Birmingham, meet the team, we’ll show you around, and let’s talk. Back then I thought: wow, is it that easy? Now, looking back, I realise it’s even simpler than that. Yes, I can write. Good call, Crossroads!
So off I went. They’d summoned four hopefuls. We got shown around the sets – back then, I’d never been in a drama studio, but even with no experience I thought: this is tiny. The sets were practically backdrops. Never mind breaking the fourth wall, they had problems with walls two and three. But I loved it. It was my first insight into television production. We were even given a list of the price of drinks at the bar; it felt like the Holy Bible. Then, crucially, they gave us a trial script to write, drawn from real storylines. My episode was “Bomber Lancaster is nice to Jill after she has a bad day at work.” Lovely! I can do that! Off I went, back to Cardiff, back to the electric typewriter. I bashed it out and sent it off and waited.
Four or five days later, I walked into my local newsagent and there they were, stacks of newspapers, every single headline – the Mirror, the Sun, the Mail, the Express, the Daily Star – all shouting “CROSSROADS AXED!” My dream died on the spot. I bought the Mirror and 20 Silk Cut and walked home, crushed.
It was a funny old time, the mid-80s. In those same months, I was offered a job as a Play School presenter, and as a cartoonist for the Sunday Sport. But Crossroads had lit the fuse. That electric typewriter worked! Inventing scenes and giving imaginary people things to say … yes, that was the life for me.
I stayed in soaps a long time, first in children’s TV, working on Paul Abbott and Kay Mellor’s Children’s Ward, then inventing my own shows in Granada Television’s magnificent entertainment department, whose leader, David Liddiment, sought to fill every spare slot in the schedule with a soap. I created Revelations, the story of an adulterous bishop with Judy Loe on splendid form as his murdering wife (“Shakespeare on a micro-budget,” said the Independent). Springhill, the story of the antichrist born on a Liverpool estate. I’m not making this up! Except we were making it up, day after day after day.
I loved it and then I moved on. I got tired of my overwrought soap voice. In a soap, everyone says what they’re thinking; in life, no one says what they really think, and that began to interest me more. So I wrote Queer As Folk, and changed my life again.
Bonham Carter with Mark Gatiss as Larry Grayson in Nolly. Photograph: ITVX
But to this day, I still watch the soaps. It feels more lonely, now. My friend Phil’s mum died last year, and I felt like soap viewership had been reduced to one. Me. But the things I once loved are still loved, and maybe writing Nolly was a chance for me to remember those golden days, and to say thank you.
It’s an ephemeral thing to love, a soap. It’s easy to say you’re a fan of a football team, or a singer, or a fantasy franchise. And I’m very much aware that, two years ago, I wrote an article for the Observer describing my life in relation to the rise of HIV and Aids in the 1980s. That subject is vast and full of anger. Crossroads cannot bear the weight of comparison. And yet, in my memory, those things are bound together as one. In the autumn of 1981, boys like Ritchie Tozer from It’s a Sin headed off to London, walking blindly into disaster, while Noele Gordon was recording her final scenes in Birmingham in the exact same months. Both those things happened. Both are true. Both are me.
In the end, in defence of these lovely, silly, brilliant, vital TV shows, I have to quote my own script, because I gave the final line to Noele Gordon. In episode three, a man says to her that he watches TV only for the news and the wildlife. “Well then,” says Nolly. “You’re a fucking idiot.”
Nolly is on ITVX from 2 February.