Helena as Crossroads Noele? CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews ITV's Nolly

Helena as Crossroads Noele? CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews ITV's Nolly


Helena as Crossroads Noele? She’s fabulous, darling! CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews new ITV drama Nolly

Nolly (ITVX) 

Rating: ***** 

Gossip! It’s the lifeblood of television and theatre. Without back-biting and whispers, breaches of confidence and tales of indiscretion, there wouldn’t be a show.

According to veteran thesp Roger Allam, the collective term for the profession is ‘a gossip of actors’. Well, I’ve heard that’s what he says, but keep it to yourself.

Nolly (ITVX), a three-part drama about the sacking of star Noele Gordon from Crossroads in 1981, revels, delights and wallows in the thrill of it, the secrets and the false rumours that grip the cast of every successful serial.

Helena Bonham Carter plays the imperious soap queen who ruled teatime telly for 17 years, and she’s fabulous. There’s no other word for it, darling.

In a mink coat that reeks of gin and ciggies, and an auburn hairdo that could scrub pans, she plays the glamorous and extraordinary actress, singer, TV executive, pilot, sports presenter, political interviewer and West End star.

Imperium: Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon in ITV’s Nolly

Almost all Noele’s pioneering achievements have been forgotten today, nearly four decades after she died. But Nolly, written by Russell T Davies, aims to bring her back to the fore – and castigate the chauvinistic male TV establishment which cancelled her for the crime of being female and forceful.

Noele was difficult, and the drama (which won’t air on ITV until the autumn, though it’s available for binge-watching on the ITVX streaming video service) makes no bones about it.

In a ferocious opening scene, the actress savages a producer who crassly condemns the hundreds of Crossroads fans who have gathered to gawp at a wedding scene, filmed in Birmingham cathedral.

Nolly, as she was known to her friends, chews the man up and spits out his bones. He is humiliated, in front of all the cast and crew.

‘The problem is you,’ she tells him. ‘If 10,000 people have showed up to show their love, then I think that’s a wonderful thing. What sort of person would cut them out of the picture?’

So close: Helena as Noele and Mark Gattis as Larry Grayson 

Reality: Noele and the comedian and Generation Game host Larry Grayson in real life

This is a woman who never compromises. No wonder Crossroads was one of the most popular British programmes ever made, second only in viewing figures to Coronation Street – which had a far bigger budget.

Nonetheless, critics sneered at the fluffed dialogue and wobbly set, made worse by budget constraints. By 1968, bosses at the independent Midlands broadcaster ATV were so embarrassed by their biggest show that they tried to cancel it. The public backlash was led from Downing Street: PM’s wife Mary Wilson was a devotee.

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Crossroads survived, but when the knives came out for Nolly 13 years later, no amount of fan protests could save her. Bonham Carter shows us the vulnerability behind Noele’s tough facade.

There are big, flamboyant scenes, such as a rousing call-to-arms on a bus, surrounded by Brummie housewives, but there are also many intimate glimpses of despair and loneliness.

Nolly never married, though her closest friend and Crossroads co-star Tony Adams (Augustus Prew) lived across the road and acted as her chauffeur as well as confidant… and chief gossip.

Mark Gatiss plays another admiring friend, the comedian and Generation Game host Larry Grayson.

Unlike Bonham Carter, he fails to capture the airy glamour that audiences adored – his version of Grayson is seedy and cynical, which Larry never was.

But the script does give Gatiss a chance to revive a few of his double entendres, which seem more outrageous now than they did in more innocent times: ‘My friend Everard came round. I got him a cup of beef tea. I said, “You need some meat inside you”.’ Try getting away with that now at 5.45pm on Saturday primetime.

The happiness Russell T Davies feels at the memory of TV’s glory days is irrepressible. Nolly makes you want to watch a Crossroads boxset – though it wouldn’t be the same on high-definition widescreen.

The tellies were tiny when we were all glued to Crossroads – but the characters were immense.

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