Anyone remember Crossroads? The ITV series set in a motel in the Midlands? The answer for most of the young must be no; for oldies the name conjures up nine notes of music portentously heralding all the ennui we associate with daytime TV. I never watched an episode but lots of people did in its Eighties heyday: 15 million, in fact. But if you haven’t heard of Crossroads, watched it, or flinch from its problematic décor, you can still enjoy Nolly, ITV’s new three parter. The genius who is Russell T Davies has taken the most unpromising scenario – ageing female star of daytime Eighties TV soap gets sacked – and turned it into TV gold. Bravo.
The star of the show, now as then, is Noele Gordon, aka Nolly, aka Meg Mortimer, aka the Queen of the Midlands – in short, Helena Bonham Carter. Miss B-C famously played Princess Margaret in The Crown and here, in her furs, her Rolls Royce, her flame-coloured (there is no other adjective for it) hair and her magnificent diction, she’s even more regal.
The real life Noele Gordon rejoiced in being called the Queen of the Midlands – the toast of Birmingham – but do not confuse this with a Brummie accent. When a new character, Poppy, played with ingénue enthusiasm by Bethany Antonia (Crossroads was ahead of the game in having black cast members), starts speaking Birmingham, Nolly is having none of it.
“Look at Adams here,” she says, gesturing to her faithful co-star and Meg’s on-screen accountant Tony Adams (Augustus Prew) with his cut-glass RP, who was born, as they said back then, on the wrong side of the blanket. “My mother”, says Adams proudly, with perfect diction, “says I was conceived on a coil of rope”. So out goes the regional accent on Nolly’s say-so, a move that goes down badly with the men in charge. Makes you think though whether she’d get away with it now, when regional accents are pretty well obligatory, everywhere.
It’s hardly a spoiler to say that the plot revolves round Nolly’s sacking from Crossroads after 18 years in charge of the motel. She spends the rest of her life fielding off queries from everyone about it: the series is peppered with middle-aged women coming up to her with a smile, saying that “my mum is such a fan but if you don’t mind me asking, why did they sack you?”
No one really knows until Nolly is arrested in a police raid on a strip club in Bangkok, and finds out from a most unexpected quarter. To cut to the chase, it’s sexism, the male problem with a stroppy woman; “a difficult asset”. Con O’Neill, as the show’s producer Jack Barton, is a terrific embodiment of laconic masculinity, in his unforgiving specs.
And it’s that which gives this series its contemporary resonance. It’s a feminist take on Nolly, even though she was an improbable feminist pinup. Yet, as we find out at the start she was the first woman ever on colour TV, the first woman to interview a Prime Minister – the twinkly Harold Macmillan observes that there were probably lots of men who took a dim view of it.
Helena Bonham Carter doesn’t hide Nolly’s middle aged spread – “we all need a bit of help”, she observes when she thinks her old pal, Larry Grayson – a completely fabulous Mark Gatiss – is wearing a corset. But although the hair colour is unforgiving, the dresses like nighties and the figure matronly, this role reminds you how beautiful Helena Bonham Carter is – flashback to those lovely cheekbones in A Room With a View.
Nolly’s greatest support is her young castmate Adams, and I have to say, I fell in love with the actor playing him, Augustus Prew, myself. He is the best friend who rallies round Nolly at every turn and tells her unpalatable truths when she needs it: “Why don’t you f***ing ACT?”, he says, when she’s in the doldrums playing Gypsy in Leicester. She does, and steals the show. Everything’s Coming Up Roses indeed. The Adams-Nolly relationship gives Nolly its love interest, only it’s that more abiding thing, friendship.
But the real star of the show is the décor and the costume: unforgivingly Eighties. Look at that eyeliner, and count your blessings.