Helena Bonham Carter and Russell T Davies spin TV gold
Anyone remember Crossroads? The ITV series is set in a Midlands motel? The answer for most teenagers has to be no; For oldies, the name conjures up nine musical tones that ominously herald all the tedium we associate with daytime television. I never saw an episode, but a lot of people did in the 80’s heyday: 15 million to be exact. But if you haven’t heard of Crossroads, seen it or balked at its problematic decoration, you can still enjoy Nolly, ITV’s new three-part series. The genius that is Russell T. Davies has taken the most unlikely scenario — an aging female star of ’80s TV soap opera being fired — and turned it into TV gold. Bravo.
The star of the show is still Noele Gordon, aka Nolly, aka Meg Mortimer, aka Queen of the Midlands – Helena Bonham Carter for short. Miss BC famously played Princess Margaret in The Crown and here, in her furs, her Rolls Royce, her fire-colored (there is no other adjective for it) hair and her magnificent diction, she is even more majestic.
Real life Noele Gordon was delighted to be called the Queen of the Midlands – the toast of Birmingham – but don’t mistake that for a Brummie accent. When a new character, Poppy, played by Bethany Antonia with naïve enthusiasm (Crossroads was ahead of the game with black cast members), starts speaking Birmingham, Nolly gets none of it.
“Look at Adams here,” she says, pointing to her stalwart co-star and Meg’s accountant, Tony Adams (Augustus Prew) with his see-through RP, which they said was born on the wrong side of the ceiling. “My mother,” says Adams proudly and with perfect pronunciation, “says I was conceived on a pulley.” So the regional accent goes to Nolly’s sag-so, a move that doesn’t go down well with those in charge. However, it makes one wonder whether she would get away with it now that regional accents are actually mandatory everywhere.
It’s hardly a spoiler to say that the plot revolves around Nolly’s release from Crossroads after running the motel for 18 years. She spends the rest of her life answering everyone’s questions: The show is peppered with middle-aged women approaching her with a smile and saying, ‘My mom’s such a fan, but if you don’t mind if I ask why did they fire you?”
Nobody really knows until Nolly is arrested in a police raid on a Bangkok strip club and finds out from a most unexpected source. In a nutshell, it’s sexism, the male problem with a snotty female; “a difficult commodity”. Con O’Neill, as the show’s producer, Jack Barton, is a grandiose embodiment of laconic masculinity with his unforgiving glasses.
And that’s what gives this series its contemporary resonance. It’s a feminist version of Nolly, although she was an unlikely feminist pin-up. But as we learn at the outset, she was the first woman ever on color television, the first woman to interview a prime minister – the snippy Harold Macmillan notes there were probably plenty of men who were skeptical.
Helena Bonham Carter doesn’t hide Nolly’s middle age — “we all need a little help,” she notes when she thinks her old pal Larry Grayson — an absolutely fabulous Mark Gatiss — wears a corset. But though the hair color is unforgiving, the dresses like nightgowns and the figure matronly, this role reminds you how beautiful Helena Bonham Carter is – a throwback to those beautiful cheekbones in A Room With A View.
Nolly’s greatest support is her young castmate Adams, and I have to say I’ve fallen in love with the actor who plays him, Augustus Prew. He’s the best friend who flocks to Nolly at every turn, telling her uncomfortable truths when she needs it: “Why don’t you f***ing ACT?” he says when she’s playing Gypsy at Leicester . She does it and steals the show. Everything is Coming Up Roses indeed. The Adams-Nolly relationship gives Nolly his love interest, only the more enduring one is friendship.
But the real star of the show is the decor and costume: unforgiving eighties. Look at that eyeliner and count your blessings.
Nolly will be streaming on ITV on February 2nd