In 'Nolly's Second Episode, You Can’t Keep A Good Woman Down

Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon with a drink in her hand in Nolly Episode 2

Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon with a drink in her hand in Nolly Episode 2

Quay Street Productions/Masterpiece

The premiere episode of Nolly closed on our titular heroine screaming right into the camera, all of the vexation, confusion, fury, and sadness of her unexplained and unceremonious sacking from the successful soap opera Crossroads pouring out in one anguished howl. Episode 2 will also close out with a tight closeup on Nolly, but this time, we’ve got our formidable protagonist back. She steps into a literal spotlight at the encouragement of her long-reigning bestie, Larry Grayson (more on him in a moment), who asks if she thinks she can navigate this next phase. Staring right into the camera with the confidence of a true diva, Nolly invites and challenges us all: “Oh, watch me.” That’s more like it!

Thank goodness for Larry. His wry stand-up show, Shut That Door!, is playing multiple sold-out performances at a nearby theatre, and sitting in the audience, Nolly enjoys what looks like the first real laugh and moment of ease since she learned that she and Crossroads would be parting ways. Larry has been a fixture of British TV for years at this point, most famous for hosting the long-running Generation Game for the BBC, and has tons of material for a set filled with amusing vignettes, all delivered with a cheekiness that’s somehow both dry and arch. 

Everyone’s having a great evening, and some of his camp comedic bits prompt Nolly to reminisce about their long history together. We get flashes of his two appearances on Crossroads, his surprising Nolly on her episode of This Is Your Life, and their joking engagement. Decades of friendship history, laughs, and genuine love are delivered in the space of two minutes. Brisk storytelling: we love to see it!

Mark Gatiss as Larry Grayson in his dressing room in Nolly Episode 2

Mark Gatiss as Larry Grayson in 'Nolly'

Quay Street Productions/Masterpiece

Of course, things are more complex behind the closed door of Larry’s dressing room following the show. Having decades of history together is wonderful, but it’s also a reminder that they’re a lot older than they were 20 (ok, 30) years ago. Nolly’s been sacked and has no prospects, Larry’s taken to wearing a girdle on stage, and his retirement plan is to take care of his devoted sister and housemate, Fran. Crossroads will go on without Nolly, and the fate of The Generation Game is up in the air since its viewership numbers have been dropping. (It would be revived in 1990 for another run, with original host and king of light entertainment Bruce Forsyth.) 

On the other hand, as Larry points out, some things are looking up for the younger generation: the courtly and capable backstage hand Bruce and his boyfriend Rudy “sit there holding hands in front of anybody! It’s a whole new world!” Nolly isn’t just there to reminisce, though. Larry is, if not the last, then one of the last of her surviving friends to have both the historical perspective and keen sense of the absurd to appreciate exactly what fate will befall Meg Mortimer in her last appearance on Crossroads

No amount of cajoling, pleading, and outright demanding details from the writers and, eventually, the now-terribly important Jack Barton has resulted in the divulging of Meg’s fate. The fever pitch of public interest in this cataclysmic plot twist has visions of boffo ratings and actual behind-the-scenes power dancing in Jack’s head. Drunk on being the hotshot du jour, Jack likens Meg’s exit to the furor around Who Shot J.R. Ewing on Dallas the year before. As River Song would say: Spoilers! Can’t have those!

Helena Bonham Carter as Noele "Nolly" Gordon and Mark Gatiss as Larry Grayson stand backstage in 'Nolly'

Helena Bonham Carter as Noele "Nolly" Gordon and Mark Gatiss as Larry Grayson in 'Nolly'

Quay Street Productions/Masterpiece

So how will it all end? After learning that a scene by Meg’s graveside is in the can and that the entire Crossroads set is being dismantled, rebuilt at an airfield, and then set on fire, Nolly was convinced that Meg would be dying in that fire. But no – Meg lives! Meg decides to board the QEII for a new chapter in her life. Everyone at the motel thinks she’s dead because her note explaining it all is burned in the fire before anyone has a chance to read it, but her daughter Jane figures it out, and guess what? They’re shooting her final scenes on the real QEII before it sets sail from Southampton next week! 

The news had made Nolly break down into wracking sobs when she initially read the script at home, but sharing it with Larry, the two can’t help but burst into gales of laughter at the pure silliness and absurdity of the whole thing. A fakeout followed by shooting on the real QEII? Sure! It’s such a strange conclusion of her decades-long tenure on ATV, highlighted in the flashback opening scene set in 1958, as she meets, prepares to interview, and nearly charms the pants off of then-Prime Minister Harold Macmillan

Larry alludes to Nolly’s long-dead lover at one point, suggesting that “if he were still alive, he’d have come charging to your rescue” – still no name for this guy, but he was important in TV, not just in Nolly’s life. Whoever he was, he’s a focus of some of her most profound regrets; she has no extended family, no children, no career, and so for all her brave face-wearing, she also has no idea what she will do next. Nobody needs to earn their feelings, but profound melancholy is very reasonable here!

Chloe Harris as Susan Hanson, Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon, Richard Lintern as Ronald Allen, Clare Foster as Sue Lloyd, Augustus Prew as Tony Adams, Antonia Bernath as Jane Rossington at a Crossroads table read in 'Nolly' Season 2

Chloe Harris as Susan Hanson, Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon, Richard Lintern as Ronald Allen, Clare Foster as Sue Lloyd, Augustus Prew as Tony Adams, Antonia Bernath as Jane Rossington in 'Nolly'

Quay Street Productions/Masterpiece

Nolly’s not the only one deep in her feelings; there’s a lovely scene that cuts between the bleak comedy of errors that results in the diminished shoot on the QEII and the equally bleak vibe at the ATV studios among the rest of the cast of Crossroads. In a move I interpret as a reflection of shame and guilt about booting Nolly, the brass didn’t throw a party or company-wide marking her departure. She got a fruit bowl, which…if that isn’t the saddest, most half-assed, vague gesture towards acknowledging someone once integral to the network’s survival and success for decades, I don’t know what is. 

The deep melancholy woven into Nolly is everywhere, but this was the strongest moment. The end is happening, time is marching on, and the only ones bearing witness are cast members not on the call sheet and background artists working on makeup, costumes, and the run of the set. Nolly gave her professional life to ATV and remembers the names of everyone there, along with specifics of their families. She drove a producer to her wedding because the bride’s parents died in a car wreck several years before. She remarks pointedly to Jack, “Make sure them upstairs know. It shouldn’t be forgotten.” 

You know who won’t stand for this? Tony. He walks out of rehearsal, dashes to the marina, and sails to Southampton as fast as the wind will carry him! I don’t know if England’s waterways can support such a warm-hearted caper, time-and-mileage-wise, but to be nitpicky about it would be to deprive us of the joy and appreciation Nolly feels when Tony arrives, giving her the burst of enthusiasm Jack has been screaming for as the mighty ship sets off to its next stop, in Cherbourg. (Yes, Nolly has to stay aboard and travel to Birmingham alone. Cruelty? Poor planning? Two things can be true!)

If there’s one thing Nolly won’t have to do alone, it’s survive the night her final episode of Crossroads airs. She & Tony go out window-shopping, only this time, they take the bus, where their fellow riders are lovely and concerned. They can’t believe she was written out of the show! It’s nice to see Nolly in Excellent At Being Famous mode, and her fans being warm and enthusiastic. It’s the healthier version of the scene in Soap Dish where Sally Field’s character, an aging, glamorous, insecure soap star, lets her BFF head writer (played by Whoopi Goldberg) talk her into going to a shopping mall and pretending she had no idea she’d be recognized there. Basking in the adulation of the public always helps.

But there’s always one, the one who needs to say judgmental, ignorant things. In this case, it’s a middle-aged guy who needs everyone on the bus to know he doesn’t watch soap operas. They’re not real storytelling, a load of old rubbish, fundamentally silly, valueless because they’re for women. I would love to heap scorn on this guy, but Nolly takes care of it. In her version of America Ferrera’s big moment in Barbie, she launches into a speech that is a bunch of Sociology 101 insights, convincingly and satisfyingly delivered. Does a soft little ridiculous soap opera pale when compared with the valid, serious, traditionally male pursuits of shooting the breeze and cheering on the football down at the pub? Are those intergenerational connections among daughters, sisters, mothers, and granddaughters something to sneer at with contempt? Are you sure, sir? Because the sight of you, newly home from the pub and smelling of many beers, wandering about the bedroom in what Nolly refers to as “sagging, yellowing UNDERPANTS” is not exactly glorious to behold. 

Nolly’s got her mojo back, not only in dressing down an ignoramus on the bus but in her plans for the future. We revisit her conversation with Larry one more time, and he’s got a new strategy for helping his friend see possibility instead of paucity, taking her out onto the stage so she can feel how much she belongs there. Does she remember that she’s Nolly Gordon, who turned down multiple offers of glamorous marriages, who delivered 1000 performances in the original run of Brigadoon? If anyone’s poised to show the men who doubted her what a mistake they’ve made, it’s her. Oh, watch me, indeed.

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Helena Bonham Carter stars as Noele Gordon, one of the most famous faces on British TV.
Nolly: show-poster2x3

Nolly’s Fabulous Knick-Knacks:

  • One of the grim details all of the day players on Crossroads mention casually is deeply galling: apparently, it’s common practice not to tell an actor that their services will no longer be required but to let them find out very passively by simply not providing them with scripts for the following week. Poor Poppy gets this treatment almost immediately after Nolly’s departure. 
  • On the bus, one of the fans has a fun moment of flirtation, saying that she really only watches to see what the very handsome Tony is up to. Dreamily, and maybe not fully conscious that she’s doing so out loud, she says, “Oh, I’d take my teeth out for him!” Everyone hoots at this wholesome ribaldry, which is clearly the best way to close the book on Meg. 

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Sophie has been happily steeping in the potent brew of British TV since her parents let her stay up late on a Thursday watching the Jeremy Brett adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. She loves mysteries, espionage thrillers, documentaries, and costume dramas, and if you're not careful, she might talk your ear off about the Plantagenets. Sorry about that in advance! 

You can find Sophie on all the platforms as @sophiebiblio and keep an eye on her bylines from all over the internet via her handy portfolio.

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