British miniseries Nolly: Like tea through the hourglass…

By Gen Terblanche4 September 2023

British miniseries Nolly: Like tea through the hourglass…

For TV palaeontologists, the early 1980s are a glorious era during which the soap divas roamed the earth, crushing ratings under their glamorous heels as their hair reached to the heavens in spun-sugar towers. Meg Mortimer of Crossroads in the UK roared and clawed her way across the screen with the best of them. In the hands of actress Noele “Nolly” Gordon, humble motel owner Meg was a Marlena or a Brooke, her coral lips eternally pursed over a cup of tea. She was the show. Then Nolly was fired.  

“She was suddenly, ruthlessly and mysteriously sacked overnight. It was done horribly. There was no lunch, there was no dinner, there was no warning. It was a very public humiliation,” says Russell T Davies (Doctor Who), the writer-creator of British drama mini-series Nolly. Fans were outraged. Nolly, even more so. 

Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon (Nolly) in Nolly S1 on Showmax

Now Helena Bonham Carter sashays onto the soap set for Nolly’s revenge, complete with fur coat, sunnies and a ciggy. Along with showing us the actress in her heyday as the queen of TV, the show tackles the saga of Nolly’s firing, and her second reign on the British stage. 

Watch the trailer for Nolly S1

The soap age 

“Soaps absolutely ruled the television networks, and life revolved around them to a degree that’s hard to understand these days,” says Russell. “Everyone remembers sitting down with a plate of chips or a sandwich, having their tea and watching Crossroads. It was significantly underfunded in comparison to Coronation Street … on Crossroads, they had to buy their own clothes! Sets would wobble and microphones would fall into shot. And that’s the conditions created by ATV, under which they had to make it. So, I love those people for soldiering on and I think there’s a real bravery to them.” 

Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon (Nolly) and Augustus Prew as Tony Adams in Nolly S1 on Showmax

Russell rounded up everyone on Crossroads who was still breathing, as he dove into researching the story. “I had the most fun I’ve ever had! There’s a very great woman called Dorothy Hobson, who wrote a book about what happened on Crossroads, who happened to be around ATV as a researcher. By chance, she was in the studios in the weeks that Noele was sacked, which was an astonishing place to be.” 

Queen Nolly 

What Russell found was that Noele wasn’t just sincerely adored by the Crossroads cast and crew, she really was the queen of TV. “She was the first woman in the world to appear on colour television, the first woman in Britain to interview a Prime Minister, and the first woman to have her own daytime chat show. She was actually on the staff of ATV as a producer. She didn’t produce Crossroads, but she did help genuinely to create what became daytime television. She went to New York and studied daytime television in America for a couple of years and became an expert in it in order to bring all that expertise across here. It makes her sacking all the more shocking.” 

Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon (Nolly) in Nolly S1 on Showmax

“I’m aware that it’s a very niche story, but actually every story is a niche story,” says Russell. “With this, you are literally coming to see a classic story of a very powerful person being brought down, and the mystery of why, and how she survives.”  

Diva, diva, diva 

“Russell wanted to bring her back into people’s minds and give her the send-off she deserved,” adds Helena, who now proudly calls herself a “Noele nerd”. “She’s just so unflinchingly honest, direct and unembarrassed. And she doesn’t let them get away with the treatment of her. I found her ferocity, her sheer spirit, really inspiring and hilarious too. For a woman that was forced to retire there was nothing remotely retiring about her as a personality.” 

Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon (Nolly) in Nolly S1 on Showmax

“If you gave the same attributes to a man: forceful, opinionated, bossy, knew what they wanted, told everyone what to do … Would it have been the same sort of problem? I don’t think so. In a woman, that really narked people off. I think many of the men who ran the show were terrified of her and threatened by her! Nolly is also a bit of a MeToo story, but without the sex. It’s men in offices in suits deciding on what women should be doing, what they should be like, as Nolly says in the show… That really encapsulates a lot of the anger that women feel as strongly today as then,” says Helena.  

Have a laugh, dear 

Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon (Nolly) in Nolly S1 on Showmax

Nolly didn’t go crying into the night, though. Life was far too absurd for tears … as was soapie death. “Everything that happens in the show is all true, which is completely bonkers! When they’re all trying to find out how she’s going to be killed off is completely farcical and absurd, but it’s absolutely true! No one told the cast anything, let alone Noele, and then finally she’s sent off the QE2 … The absurdity of the storylines was hilarious,” reveals Helena.  

So put the kettle on, pop your feet up and tell everyone to shh, ’cause it’s time for your stories. Watch Nolly S1 now and check out the best of British TV on Showmax. 

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