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3 February 2023

Russell T Davies’ Nolly is more than melodrama – it’s a social history

The story of the Crossroads actress Noele Gordon (played by Helena Bonham-Carter) becomes a metaphor for something bigger.

By Rachel Cooke

One must be careful with love letters. But in the case of Nolly, his tender hymn to Crossroads and all who sailed in it, I think Russell T Davies pulls it off. Yes, it’s possible I’m biased: I have happy memories of watching that creaking soap with my Sunderland granny, whose rapt devotion to it brought to mind the crowds who hung on Dickens’ every word (she never used the word “soap”; she called them “my stories”). But while a working knowledge of Meg Mortimer and her strange Birmingham motel makes Nolly seem all the richer – was that the real Adam Chance (ie the actor Tony Adams, who played him for a decade) I spotted in its final scene? – it’s hardly obligatory. Davies is so clever. His series isn’t just a stirring melodrama; it’s a slice of social history.

Nolly was the nickname of Noele Gordon, who starred (there is no other word) as Meg Richardson (later Mortimer) from 1964, when ATV’s Crossroads began, until 1981, when she was brutally sacked: a decision that shocked the nation, and which Davies places at the heart of his drama. In doing so, he makes Gordon, played in a quite astonishing bit of casting by Helena Bonham-Carter, a proxy for all middle-aged women actors, and perhaps for all middle-aged women full stop: his sympathy for the way men chew them up and spit them out is clear and  deep and heartfelt.

But she and her friend Larry Grayson, the innuendo-crazed presenter of The Generation Game, are also, in his hands, representatives of a country that is changing in ways that will have painful consequences for some, even when for the best. In Nolly’s loveliest scene, Grayson (an adorable, affecting performance by Mark Gatiss) mournfully observes to Gordon that his gay assistant is free to hold hands with his boyfriend: a freedom always denied to him. Yet such a shift also signals the end for an old-fashioned, semi-closeted entertainer like Grayson. Having sniffed the air, he’s about to give up The Generation Game for retirement in Nuneaton with his sister.

Nolly gently sends up Crossroads’ low budgets and even lower production values, and it is huge fun watching Bonham-Carter stare into the middle distance for minutes at a time (filmed as live, if a show ran under, all manner of strategies had to be deployed to stretch it out). I loved being in rehearsals with Benny (Lloyd Griffith is Paul Henry, the actor who played Benny), Miss Diane (Chloe Harris is Susan Hanson, who played her), and all the rest; the filming of Gordon’s final scene on the QE2, her motel having just burned to the ground, is a set piece to die for. And as for Augustus Prew, who plays Gordon’s loyal sidekick, Tony Adams, he puts in a performance so good – so funny and warm and energetic – it made me quite delirious with happiness. To listen to the pair of them mull things over as they window-shop at Rackhams! I felt almost envious of their friendship: its exquisite combination of blandishments and lies; her need, his courteousness; their gossip only paused by the sight of draped nylon on a mannequin.

But Davies never forgets that 15 million people tuned into Crossroads three times a week, and that those involved with it (mostly) gave it their best shot; that it meant something to its fans and its stars alike, even as they knew in their hearts it really wasn’t good enough. His script pays close attention both to social class – when Gordon talks of received pronunciation and why people like her learned it, I thought of my granny all over again – and to that deathly illness of the modern age, loneliness. Here are Gordon’s fans thinking of her as a friend, and here is Gordon herself, switching on every lamp in the flat where she has lived alone since the death of her mother.

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To be obsolescent; to see that painful state just over the horizon. In Davies’s hands, Crossroads becomes an extended and unexpectedly beautiful metaphor for such a condition. Should one greet it? Kiss it on both cheeks like a pro? Or should one run, fast, in the other direction? These are the questions Nolly gently asks – those, and whether there is more mileage one day to be had in the full length, full glamour housecoat.

ITV, 3 February, 9pm; available on catch-up

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[See also: Happy Valley review: as magnificent as ever]

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This article appears in the 01 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Housing Con