Peter Hoar is having a hell of a week.
On Monday night, Sky Atlantic aired his episode of The Last of Us – directed with such heartbreaking humanism that social media went into several crying fits. Now comes Nolly, Russell T Davies’ second collaboration with the director after It’s A Sin. It's a bingeable three-parter following the infamous axing of soap star Noele Gordon from Crossroads in 1981. The series isn't his most important cultural contribution this week, but it re-establishes his eclectic range and consistent pathos.
Compared to It’s A Sin and Years and Years, Nolly feels initially like a lesser Davies drama – hardly possessing the same urgency and significance as Aids and far-right populism. It resembles a small side-project, and that impression solidifies with the knowledge of his upcoming return to Doctor Who. Nevertheless, it’s still a new project by Britain’s best TV writer and its smallness only increases the intrigue of such a specific premise. A premise that takes a little time to hop on board with.
And yet, you can’t resist the vivacious pull of Helena Bonham Carter as Gordon, who rocks up to the ATV studios in a Rolls-Royce and a fur coat like a grittier Princess Margaret – knowing and owning her value.
The series proceeds with Davies’ ravenous, dense and rhythmic dialogue as Nolly commands the rehearsals: defying writers, producers and her fellow cast members. She directs the blocking and even persuades the new actor Poppy (Bethany Antonia) to lose her Brummie accent for the more televisually appropriate RP. Contrary to what this critic expected in a portrayal of an actor that’s clearly close to the writer’s heart, her arrogant, catherine-wheel personality is never hidden.
But although Nolly possesses these questionable traits, she ends as a brilliantly considerate and entertaining presence. The first episode makes you see this figure – the first woman to appear on colour TV, the first woman to interview a British prime minister – through the eyes of those who want her gone. As you get to know her, understand her, and witness the intense ghosting from higher-ups (largely represented by director/producer Jack Barton, portrayed by Con O’Neill), those sceptical first impressions are quickly forgiven.
When Nolly’s let go after 17 years and her character Meg exits via the QE2, she’s shredded constantly with the question ‘Why on earth were you sacked?’. The answer becomes, simply, ‘Men’.
That response expands into gripping monologues (a Davies staple), always delivered in beautiful, provocative bursts. As well as meeting with her fans on a bus in Birmingham, Nolly also addresses a group of young actresses and details the crushing societal judgements of women without husbands or children. It's a moving speech that ripples from a distant past to the still-broken present.
More than the injustice, the misogyny, and the heartfelt feminism of Nolly is the deep love for television – especially soap operas. Davies has previously elaborated on his adoration for the latter; he was even a script’s breadth away from working on Crossroads prior to its cancellation. That passion pulses through every scene.
During the bus sequence, an obstinate male passenger openly abhors the genre as ‘nonsense’ and ‘for women’. Nolly retorts with a mocking list of ‘important’ manly things like ‘the pub and football and beer’, and you feel Davies’ defensive zeal in these words. Nolly is a celebration not just for a key figure in British television history, but for the medium itself.
Nolly is available now on ITVX.
|What||Nolly, ITVX review|
02 Feb 23 – 02 Feb 24, ON ITVX
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