In The End, It’s 'Nolly's' Turn

Con O'Neill as Jack Barton interviews Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon in Nolly

Con O'Neill as Jack Barton interviews Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon in 'Nolly'

Quay Street Productions/Masterpiece

The third episode of Nolly is the best episode of the series. It is the most open and reflective of the trio, focusing on themes like the significance of the stories we tell ourselves; the value of maintaining good friendships across time and space; the sadness of realizing that you may not know what you’ve got til it’s gone; and the pleasure of a comeback on your own terms. Nolly has survived the worst of her experience, having learned and performed Meg’s fate, and now that those particular agonies are over, she’s moved on.

Tony: “Go back to Leicester, do your job, and act!” 

Having watched all three episodes twice, I’m glad I did because it rewards careful viewing. However, I’m even more disappointed in the first episode, because the second and third are so much better. I’m sympathetic — this series requires quite a bit of exposition, which can be a real bear, and risks tilting toward clunkiness at nearly every moment — but I’m also aware that Russell T. Davies is an exceptionally good storyteller. I’m disinclined to let him off the hook in this case and will issue the most encouraging criticism I can, imagining that I’m reviewing a draft of his script and jotting both NGEFY (Not Good Enough For You) and Make It Work at crucial points in the margins. (If you’ll indulge a brief bit of exposition of my own, NGEFY is borrowed from the legendary children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom. Among many other contributions to the canon, she discovered Maurice Sendak and mentored Margaret Wise Brown, so you can imagine both the significance of the shoes I’m summoning all my chutzpah to slide a single toe into and the esteem in which I generally hold Mr. Davies. Not everyone’s work merits an NGEFY; sometimes they’re just NGE, full stop.)  

Exactly as Larry Grayson (Mark Gatiss) recommended, she’s found a way to be at center stage, in a revival of Gypsy in Leicester. She’s traded in her Rolls-Royce for a much more modest car (a Morris Minor, maybe?), but the production may well transfer to London’s West End. It seems to be set up for success, with a lively, talented company of performers and a 14-musician orchestra. The thing Nolly is anxious about is, for once, herself. Rose is an iconic role, and how is she to turn in a performance worthy of comparison with Ethel Merman and Angela Lansbury? She’s been exclusively a TV actor since 1938! In this crisis of confidence, Nolly pours her heart out to the stalwart Tony, who fixes her with a stern, loving glare and issues the directive she needs: that this boring, cowardly baby act will not fly and that she needs to rise to the challenges of the role rather than be determined to fail. 

Helena Bonham Carter as Nolly opening her arms wide to the audience in 'Nolly's finale

Helena Bonham Carter as Nolly in 'Nolly's finale

Quay Street Productions/Masterpiece

A not-insignificant aspect of Nolly’s struggle with the role is the culture shock she experiences in a 1980s theatre culture she scarcely recognizes from the one she thrived in decades ago. In Episode 2, Larry couldn’t believe that Bruce and Rudy were just out there holding hands any old time they pleased, and here we find Nolly having to push through the lifelong habit of being emotionally reserved to connect with the role and her fellow cast members. She knows they titter and gossip behind her back, and she understands why; women without long-term male partners, without children, are socially illegible, leading others to speculate, making up their own stories to make sense of people whom they can’t quite get the measure of. 

Finally, during a full-cast conversation, Nolly names and explains the situation with her longtime former lover, showbiz impresario Val Parnell. He’d had a long and varied career, including discovering and signing Julie Andrews. He spent his last two decades in a secret (well, probably not-so-secret) relationship with Nolly. Nolly enjoyed a mutually respectful relationship with Val’s wife, Helen, and Val brought Nolly aboard at ATV when he was the managing director. Several of the cast's younger members are scornful, insisting that Val had bought her and that she must have been a homewrecker, but the truth is more complex than that. 

After many years in this happy trio, Nolly and Helen were blindsided by Val abruptly leaving both of them for a third woman and then dying of heart failure a few years later. Nolly draws a straight line from Val’s treatment of her to her sacking. She realized, too late, that she had little to show for having given Val twenty years of her life, and she’d forsaken many potential life paths in favor of prioritizing that relationship. Those were choices she’d made, but now that she knows that “I was sacked because I was sackable” by a bunch of men who “raised a glass of champagne and moved on to the next,” she questions whether they were choices at all.

Helena Bonham Carter as Nolly singing her big number in 'Nolly's finale

Helena Bonham Carter as Nolly in 'Nolly's finale

Quay Street Productions/Masterpiece

It’s significant that Nolly has chosen to graft her unceremonious, unwilling departure from Crossroads onto the pre-existing narrative of having been unceremoniously and unwillingly severed from her relationship with Val. One chapter of the story leads logically into the next, and the second validates her interpretation of the first. Neither, however, does much to make the case for her assertion that Val didn’t treat her like a high-ranking kept woman. On the other hand, figuring out a way to tell this story to a large group of much younger colleagues, making herself sympathetic and unlocking the pain and regret she needs to deliver her knockout performance of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” into the bargain is precisely what she and the entire production required.

She is not a great singer, but she does put the number across with tons of heart and energy, earning a huge, enthusiastic standing ovation from both the audience and cast. Unfortunately, all that work will be for nothing, as the production is contractually blocked from being transferred to the West End. There’s a conflict with a Broadway revival that’s already in the works. (This is not factually accurate – the show’s Broadway revivals include 1974 and 1989, but not 1982.) Nolly is surprisingly sanguine, asking her agent what’s next and readily agreeing to join a dinner theatre touring production of The Boyfriend set to make the rounds of places like Abu Dhabi and Bangkok.

Except for incredibly sharp stomach pain attacks, Nolly seems just fine out on the road. During a chat with Tony, who is keeping an eye on her place and bringing in her mail, she notes that a few of the younger cast members are taking her to a strip club during their next stop in Bangkok. She scoffs at the notion that there will be anything on display that she hasn’t seen before, but she is a bit surprised to see one of the dancers eject an egg (raw, rather than hard-boiled, which is an amateur’s mistake – think of the clean-up!) from her vagina. At that precise moment, the club is raided by the police; Nolly and the rest of the cast are swept up in the raid and eventually bailed out by a very capable and kindly British consulate staffer, Hanza. Hanza remarks that before moving back to Thailand to care for her ailing mother, she’d worked at ATV, and the miracle of miracles, she’s got all the details explaining the great mystery of Nolly’s sacking and shares them right away.

Helena Bonham Carter as Nolly walking in London in 'Nolly's finale

Helena Bonham Carter as Nolly in 'Nolly's finale

Quay Street Productions/Masterpiece

Having jotted down everything Hanza recounted from her time working for ATV head Charles Denton, Nolly marches into a little coffee date with Jack back in Birmingham and confronts him with the allegations that were the basis of her firing: “I’m a bully, a prima donna, delusional, I make people go through hell, a fly in the ointment, a difficult asset.” How did Charles know anything about it, though? He worked in London and never so much as watched an episode or made one set visit. Jack, what gives? Well, what gives is that Jack just might have kvetched about Nolly quite a bit to Charles, never thinking for a moment that this new boss might take any sort of staffing action as a result of hearing these complaints. This is one of Con O’Neill’s best scenes in the series, which is saying something because he’s been delivering such dramatic treats all the way along. I particularly admire his believable whipsawing between defensive squirming, defiant truth-telling, and abject supplicating across these minutes. He never said those exact words! But come on, Nolly, you know you’re very hard work! It’s exhausting catering to every one of your opinions every day! On the other hand, the show doesn’t work without you, and, in the immortal words of everyone from The Jackson 5 to NSYNC, he wants you back!

Finally, Jack apologizes, acknowledging that he never would have complained so vociferously about a male actor; he just didn’t think about the potential consequences, and then couldn’t backtrack. As it turns out, Nolly’s career and finances were ruined by an accident he was too embarrassed to attempt to fix. This may be the most pedestrian nonsense of all time. Despite it all, Nolly agrees to return to Crossroads. Jack came prepared with a pretty irresistible pitch for Meg’s comeback – her daughter Jill marries Adam, who tracks Nolly down and makes sure she’s in Venice at the same time the newlyweds are honeymooning there as a surprise for Jill. All right, fine, twist her rubber arm! Back home, Nolly enjoys a triumphant little dance party cut short by another attack of stabbing abdominal pain. Thanks to years of watching every episode of ER and Call The Midwife, I’m a pretty decent TV ailment diagnostician; these symptoms could be anything from a gallbladder in need of removal to cancer, but things don’t look great.

Nolly’s return to Crossroads is precisely as dreamy as Jack described it: the weather is gorgeous, Venice itself seems permanently bathed in the universally flattering glow of Golden Hour, everyone is so happy to have Nolly back on set, and as they prepare to shoot, we’re treated to a lovely montage of Nolly’s memories, from her fateful 1938 screentest to performance highlights, to telling off men who feel the need to loudly proclaim they don’t watch soap operas. 

Reader, I cried. I cried, and I didn’t stop crying — not when she faces her abysmal prognosis (late-stage abdominal cancer), certainly not when Tony’s brave face dissolves entirely in the hospital hallway after visiting Nolly — until the end of the final scene, which closes out one last time on Nolly in the center of the frame, smiling and happy, swathed in lovely, gauzy, cream chiffon. As she put it to Tony when he asked one last time about why she was sacked, she “was a story. It was a good story, and every story ends.”

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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:

  • Some things I’ll miss about Nolly: her gorgeous and well-maintained fur coat; all of the lovely little lamps in her flat, casting their soft, flattering glow; the magnificent silk dressing gowns everyone in the Gypsy cast wears in rehearsals
  • Did you notice that the bit of score playing over the moment just before Meg, Adam, and Jill are reunited in Venice? To my ear, it had a very Gianni Schicchi sound, which I’m interpreting as an allusion to Helena Bonham Carter’s first major film role as Lucy Honeychurch in A Room With A ViewKiri Te Kawana’s performance of the aria “O Mio Babbino Caro” features prominently in that film, partially set in Florence. For more fun and incisive comments about A Room With A Viewgive a listen to the podcast episode Lacy, Ani, and I recorded about it!
  • BBMAK’s “Back Here” didn’t quite fit in with the little boy band-assisted riff about Jack asking Nolly to return to Crossroads, but it’s so charming and under-played on Oldies For Young GenXers and Elder Millennials radio stations that it deserves a bit of shine here. 

Sophie's Selfie

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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