Helena Bonham Carter is luminous in this hypnotic love letter to TV

Nolly ★★★★

In the era of The Crown vs Checkers of Facts, Russell T. Davies’ television history drama Nolly strikes a sensible note from its first frame. “Based on a true story” it promises, with one caveat: “Some characters and scenes have been invented.” Well, it would hardly be a chapter of TV history without a few porky pies told.

Nolly is Noele Gordon, an actress and institution in British 20th-century culture. For almost two decades she played Meg Mortimer, the owner of the Crossroads Motel in the iconic soap opera Crossroads. She’s the equivalent of America’s Erica Kane in All My Children, or Australia’s Sally Fletcher from Home and Away.

Helena Bonham Carter is riveting as Nolly (Noele Gordon), an actress and institution in 20th-century British culture.

Meg was a long-suffering soap heroine whose every emotion, gasp, and ounce of anguish was wrung out nightly on the small screen, like an old but familiar silk hanky. Noele Gordon was doubtless infinitely more elegant than Meg but, as is often the case with soap operas and institutionalised actors, the boundaries between the two could be strangely blurred.

This three-part drama opens with a sequence that has particular poignancy for Australians: Nolly’s first screen test, shot by television pioneer John Logie Baird, whose name would, decades later, be given to our first and most enduring national television awards, the Logies. And as with Nolly, perhaps, they’re a hard-wrung soap opera all of their very own.

But we don’t waste time in 1938. Pretty soon we’re in 1981, with a stop-over in the mid-1970s, and the world of Noele Gordon is slowly being fashioned before us. All told this is a snapshot of Nolly’s most infamous chapter – her sacking from Crossroads at the height of her power – and the fallout which followed. It is also an examination of the misogynistic television culture which brought about those events.

Nolly, with Bonham Carter (second from right) as Noele Gordon, takes us inside the making of the iconic Briths soap opera Crossroads.Credit:BBC/Foxtel

The centrepiece of the story, however, is actress Helena Bonham Carter, surfing into Nolly from The Crown, where she has spent a few years in bright-coloured coats and big hats, and delivering here a performance that is both luminous and revealing.

On the page, Nolly is already beautifully complex, courtesy of Davies who has a knack of writing an elegant algorithm of emotional nuance and subcutaneous melancholy. But in Bonham Carter’s hands, the ageing soap opera heroine becomes a martyr sacrificed on the altar of changing values in a cruel business.

Nolly also talks powerfully about the institutional power of soap opera. The genre may be in recession in parts of the world – the decline and de-funding of America’s network soap operas is particularly acute – but in various formats, notably the telenovela, and even some of the surviving older mega-soaps, such as EastEnders and Home and Away, business is still booming.

It is also a reflection of Davies’ excellence as a writer, and his ability to build a compelling drama about the minutiae of a business which is, when the cameras are off, infinitely less interesting than the headlines might imply. As Australians, we did not experience Crossroads, and to some extent Noele Gordon remains an unknown figure in a foreign history book.

And yet, from the moment she steps into the frame, Bonham Carter is riveting to watch. “I am making this show better if I have to haul it out of the grave line by line,” Gordon says in one scene. Crossroads, that is, not Nolly. You can’t hear the writing in Nolly, and you certainly can’t see the acting. Instead, you’re frozen in place, hypnotised by Davies’ masterfully campy fever dream.

Nolly is streaming on Binge and Foxtel on Demand.

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