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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Rebecca Nicholson

Nolly review – Helena Bonham Carter is brilliantly camp in Russell T Davies’s impeccable drama

A real sweetness and empathy … Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon in Nolly (ITVX)
A real sweetness and empathy … Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon in Nolly (ITVX) Photograph: ITV STUDIOS

After his brilliant drama about the Aids crisis in Britain, It’s a Sin, was such a hit, one can only imagine the options that writer Russell T Davies had for what to do next. He returned to Doctor Who, of course, but I love the fact that first, he chose to make the wonderful, idiosyncratic Nolly (ITVX), a tender tribute to the TV soap star Noele Gordon, who died in 1985.

This three-part drama, which is impeccably put together, also serves as a tender tribute to British television in the late 70s and early 80s. As such, it is nicotine-stained, fuggy, floral and blousy, peeking out from over the top of increasingly enormous specs. Helena Bonham Carter is brilliant as Gordon, known to her friends and fans as Nolly, and we meet her in the twilight of her career. By 1981, Nolly had spent 17 years playing Meg Mortimer, motel owner and leading lady of Crossroads, the soap that had been built around her star power. The early scenes of Nolly in full flight, as she conducts the cast and crew to her own tune, are funny and vibrant. “Haven’t you read the script?” asks Poppy, a young actor who has recently joined the cast. “No, never,” scoffs Nolly, aghast.

On set, Nolly is a semi-tyrant, but a gentle one, and most of the cast and crew love her for her flamboyance and frankness. “I am making this show better if I have to haul it out of the grave, line by line,” she says of the famously shonky soap, as she mercilessly takes a pencil to her scripts. Her only real enemy is producer Jack Barton (Con O’Neill, fresh from messing everything up in Happy Valley), who she refuses to listen to, ordering him around as if he were only there to hold her ashtray.

But that comes back to bite her. Famously, shockingly, Nolly was fired from the show, and Meg was written out, which became front-page news, and something of a national scandal. This show follows Nolly through the very public sacking and its fallout, and paints a sympathetic and adoring picture of the woman behind the headlines. Bonham Carter sails through this as if on the campest of clouds, but also beautifully articulates the grief behind the glamour. Nolly is part of the old guard, the oldest of guards in fact – she was the first woman ever to appear on colour television. But time moves on, tastes change, and – oh, the horror – regional accents are beginning to creep on to television sets, ready to elbow out the dying days of RP.

Mark Gatiss as Larry Grayson in Nolly.
Mark Gatiss as Larry Grayson in Nolly. Photograph: ITVX

For all of Nolly’s flamboyance – both the character and the show itself – there is a real sweetness and empathy at its core. The friendship between Nolly and her younger castmate Tony Adams (played by Augustus Prew, with a fine moustache), who takes her window-shopping and shows her off to delighted fans on buses, is very touching, and there is a willingness to linger on long scenes of conversation between two characters. It feels, somehow, fittingly old-fashioned. In the second episode, Nolly and Larry Grayson – played by an also brilliant Mark Gatiss – talk about the old days, and what’s coming down the line. Both know their careers are fading. They are left to simply reminisce and to wonder, and it is a joy to watch.

Occasionally, it is so fondly rendered that it lacks a touch of acidity. Some of Nolly’s spikier moments are a treat – I love seeing her wield her power as the “godmother” of the Crossroads set. After she has been axed so humiliatingly, her vulnerability comes to the fore, and for the last two episodes we watch as she attempts to find her place in the world again, outside the comfort of Crossroads. She worries that she is not good enough for the stage; she worries that she was never good enough at all. At dinner with Tony, she compares herself unfavourably to Angela Lansbury. She tells Larry she is just “an old soap star who’s been sacked”.

In the end, this is a posthumous defence of Nolly, poorly treated by the industry she loved and sent out to pasture long before her time. It is a defence of soaps, of television, of fabulous older women and of showbiz, darling, even at its grubbiest and least glamorous. It is warm, thoughtful and gorgeous, and by the end of it, I was a little bit in love with Nolly myself.

  • Nolly is streaming on ITVX in the UK, and will be available on Binge in Australia on 10 February.

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