We are again taken to the magical decade of the 80s with Russell T. Davies’ new miniseries, Nolly. But first, we are taken to 1938, when Nolly is the ‘first woman’ on colour TV. She looks at the camera and speaks in Direct Address to the audience, the only time she does this except in the last shot of the episode.
She is transported using montage clips of Nolly as an established performer, now played by Helena Boham Carter, gracing the screen with a fur coat and perfectly coiffed red hair. Her ‘save-the-cat’ audience-sympathising moment comes in her reaction to the crowd of fans waiting outside the chapel on her wedding day. Jack Barton is opposing her, played by Con O’Neill, and serves as an opposer by suggesting they cut the fans out of her wedding pictures. Her lines ‘what is it? I’ll fix it’, and ‘What sort of person is that?’ [who would cut fans waiting in the cold air to see her] immediately make the audience love her and equally admire Carter’s, for lack of a better phrase, ‘bad-ass’ delivery. This shot-reverse-shot establishes a conflict of power between the two that will significantly influence the plot of the show.
The colour palette is understandably exuberant yet does not overmine the grey fog, and elitist conservatism that make up the mise-en-scene of an 80s workplace. Nolly’s house is also a slight reflection of ‘high-class’ versus the intruding working-class modernism, with it including porcelain and light pastel architecture, seeming to dedicate almost every lamp and desk to some antique period other than the present.
This series is going to have comic moments throughout. Nolly’s seeming unpreparedness for the day’s script is juxtaposed with her dictating every light and aspect of the scene’s composition, going especially hard on Poppy’s accent. The equal frivolity and intensity of the soap world give the forty-five minutes intrigue alone and is brought to a head when Poppy corrects Nolly for adding the total number of viewers incorrectly over three nights of airing. The telephone, a device used to improvise when an actor can’t make it to filming last minute, is handed to the newcomer, with Carter’s savagely cold, ‘Poppy, it’s for you.’
There are small details to be admired, such as when the character Tony’s sexuality is only implied 18 minutes in, seen with a dipped hand and saying ‘Darling’ to Nolly over the phone. What could seem stereotypical by today’s standards is a comic wink from Davies on where those traits originated from, an exertion of camp due to a life’s worth of ‘straight-acting’ in a heteronormative British society.
The miniseries knows precisely what it wants to do, and executes it flawlessly with [ADHD-friendly], attention-grabbing pace.
The episode comes to a head when Nolly, through her agent, finds out she has been sacked from her lead role in Crossroads. The audience knows the reason. Her shooting down Jack about Poppy’s choice to make Poppy have a Birmingham accent was his breaking point, revealed by an extreme close-up of a vengeful smirk. Nolly has a chance to ‘take centre stage and beat those bloody men,’ reclaiming her narrative by telling the press she has resigned.
However, the genuineness that the audience most admired about her character from the opening scenes takes over and leads to the beginning of her possible downfall. She tells them, ultimately, ‘He sacked me.’ Like the 21st-century audience watching, Carter wins over the audience enough to cause a fierce backlash from her character’s fans, softening the blows expected for her reputation after such a dramatic revelation.
The most extraordinary scenes are reserved for the end of episode one. Dialogue occurs between cast members who theorise whether they will also be sacked and if this is a sign of the changing times. The camera begins rolling, and the conversation remains with real anxieties improvised within the lines written for the program. The director commenting to the AD, ‘best episode ever,’ reveals this was a mixture, demonstrating the actor’s capability of blending fiction with reality on a masterful level.
Finally, Nolly discovers the ill-kept secret behind her sacking, Jack’s disapproval of her demonstration of power in the workplace. She mainly wishes that she does not ‘die,’ attempting to reclaim one last shred of dignity before she goes. ‘You won’t die,’ Jack dryly states. ‘It’s your character, Meg.’ There’s almost no difference. Her character's death is also the probable death of her career and the power and respect she once had for Crossroads. Leaving his office with a determined conviction, stepping into the elevator, she lets out a scream to the camera before the credits roll.
Davies balances the intricacies of workplace politics with the humour of how truth is often stranger than fiction to create a bio-series that seems to be yet another jewel in his crown of grandiose television accomplishments.
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