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The drama of a real British TV star


Noele “Nolly” Gordon, a longtime British soap star until she was unceremoniously dismissed in 1981, was a larger-than-life figure common, even essential, in the business world. A little ridiculous, a little bossy, but also a lot entertainment. The final period of her career is brought to life in “Nolly,” a three-part biopic directed by Helena Bonham Carter that premiered in the United Kingdom last year and comes to the U.S. courtesy of Masterpiece on PBS.

For nearly two decades, he presented the underfunded soap opera “Crossroads,” set in and around a motel in the British Midlands. A running joke has someone pointing out how odd this proposition is, given that there are no motels in England (at least not in the American sense of the word). The show ran from 1964 to 1988, and in retrospect it all seems a bit camp, from the cardboard-looking sets to the stiff acting to the shabby, washed-out color palette. Paying homage to both the show and the way Gordon carries him on his back, this homage is from Russell T. Davies (known for the “Doctor Who” revival) and has a winking spirit while also being a moving portrait of Nolly. .

Compared to the old clips floating around, Carter’s commentary has a bit of an edge. The real Nolly had softer features, whereas Carter had the kind of high cheekbones that could cut through a scene. This gives it a slightly different feel overall, but that’s a minor point. The performance is funny and impressive and it works like a gangsta.

Nolly may be a handful, but he’s no phony and cares deeply about the people he works with and the job at hand. But it can be frustrating, and Davies captures this with a sly sense of humour. When a new actor joins the show, Nolly objects to his regional accent. Nolly thinks everyone should use the nicer-sounding pronunciation, RP.

However, someone explains that the character had a difficult upbringing.

Nolly is having none of it: “I was raised almost alone. My mother worked day and night, God bless her soul, and I have not the slightest hint of Scottish Presbyterian, not a word, not a vowel, not a guttural stop.” Carter’s emphasis on “glottal” is perfect.

But Nolly wasn’t done. He turns to his best friend and co-star Tony Adams, played by Augustus Prew: Look at Adams, he says. “I grew up on a fishing boat. “His mother had an affair with a coal mine assistant manager.”

“He said I was born on a spool of rope in a boathouse!” he adds.

“And yet in the end cut glassNolly turns to the new player and says: “Can you RP? Are you trained? What do you think? Can you do this?” It doesn’t matter what the show’s director (Con O’Neill) wants. As for Nolly, he knows best. “I’m making this show better, even if I have to dig it up line by line from the grave.” He’s been doing this long enough that his instincts are probably right for the most part.

Regardless, the men who employ him are fed up and decide to show him who’s boss. His contract was not renewed and he was suddenly informed that his character would be killed off. With so much mutual hostility in the air, he suspects their revenge will be a “cheap, tacky and pathetic” fictional death. He’s not wrong to be worried. The network’s boss bluntly tells a reporter: “There could be an explosion. Concorde could fall from the sky and land on its head. “It could get hit by a bus or swallowed by a whale.”

Nolly and her co-stars (who adore her and see her as a mother figure) are probably as uncertain as the audience about her fate on the big screen. However, this process is humiliating and heartbreaking as he reaps a portion of what he sows. “I’m just a former soap star who got fired,” he tells his likeable old friend and fellow actor Larry Grayson (Mark Gatiss). They sigh and decide that they are just “two old stars bellowing into the night” and it’s a touching moment. He will reinvent himself with his career on stage, achieving moderate success. And there’s a nice coda that allows him to end his relationship with “Crossroads” on better terms.

For US audiences, Carter’s performance has the advantage of not competing with a memoir. However According to Davies, “A lot of people in Britain haven’t heard of him either.” That’s the undercurrent here. Fame is temporary. Time passes and no matter how indelible you once were, you drift into darkness. As reruns have been replaced by streaming, our collective pop culture literacy has taken a hit. We are increasingly removed from the past, losing all those wonderful passive opportunities that once meant it was easy to stumble upon decades-old ephemera.

This shift means a project like “Nolly” can’t rely on familiarity and shortcuts to get the job done. Even if you don’t have any frame of reference, even if you have no knowledge of this prima donna or soaps from that era, it’s supposed to work. But it’s still so well written, so well cast and executed that it finds a way to thrillingly reimagine a slice of British pop culture history from the analogue era. It may be a romantic look at the past, but it’s still a cute and meaningful look.

“Nolly” — 3 stars (out of 4)

Where to watch: Sunday at 8pm on Masterpiece on PBS

Nina Metz is a Tribune critic.


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