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“Nolly” reviewed

A clumsily aspirational, shot-as-live serial set around a motel in the British Midlands — some distance removed from the working-class, Northern grit of ITV’s better known, Bob Dylan-approved “Coronation Street” — “Crossroads” became notorious for its combination of wobbly sets, inexplicable plot shanks and stretches of dead air deployed to trick out the U.K.’s yawning schedules. One argument goes it could only have been a ratings success in a country with just three channels – because there was frankly so little else to watch.

“Crossroads” nevertheless became a hit of sorts, in no small part due to the steadying presence of screen veteran Noele Gordon as queenly motel owner Meg Mortimer (née Richardson). Gordon – a RADA-trained East Ender who’d appeared in John Logie Baird’s colour signal tests at aged eight – joined the show from its debut, establishing herself as a star and fan favorite before being unceremoniously fired in 1981 as part of a (failed) behind-the-scenes plot to bring about the show’s cancellation.

That soap-worthy slap-in-the-face is the starting point of three-part series “Nolly,” a fond if oddly hasty-seeming miniseries for revamped streamer ITVX that reunites writer Russell T Davies and director Peter Hoar after their all-conquering “It’s a Sin.” We join Gordon, played here by Helena Bonham Carter, at the height of her early ’80s fame, breezing into rehearsals like a hurricane in pearls, and redirecting her fellow performers to the begrudging tolerance of seasoned shot caller Jack Barton (Con O’Neill).

Though dewier than her real-life equivalent was in 1981, Bonham Carter gets much of the Gordon detail right: the clipped accent, the staccato delivery, the priceless, almost imperceptible head turn – unique to “Crossroads” players – which signified the soap was cutting to another ad break. Most skilfully, within a single episode, she sketches a relentless, potentially exhausting creative personality, bristling to exert whatever control she could over a world that clearly regarded older women as disposable. Network boss Charles Denton (Tim Wallers) deems Gordon “a difficult asset”; Bonham Carter registers both sides of that backhanded insult.

Around the star, Hoar and his craft team have done an appreciable job recreating the curious look and ambiance of “Crossroads” itself: boxy frames, overlit sets, provisional blocking, chintzy design. (The latter is mirrored in Gordon’s own flat; her life becomes an extension of the show, and vice versa.) There’s always a panicked assistant director off-camera, coaching everyone to speed up or slow down as the network requires.

The pity is that, even with choice cameos from semi-familiar faces, we barely get to inhabit this world-within-a-world; nothing about “Nolly” budges me off my theory that while U.S. streaming shows routinely land three episodes too many, even those U.K. equivalents backed by commercial broadcasters keep falling three episodes short. The compression here feels more manic than economic; Davies’ writing floats intriguing statements of purpose – a defense of soap as a popular form, a study of how to bow out – only for them to dissipate as we shuttle back and forth through a six-decade career.

Whenever it allows itself to take a breath, “Nolly” approaches the depth and texture of Davies’ best work. A longstanding sympathy for the marginalized pulses through a sensitively handled heart-to-heart between Gordon and primetime stalwart Larry Grayson (Mark Gatiss), and again during Nolly’s late-life confession of a secret affair with TV boss Val Parnell. (This latter demands an episode in itself, not least for repositioning the Crossroads Motel as some less robust combination of the Taj Mahal and Rapunzel’s tower.) But then it’s cut, print and moving on, with just enough time for a whirlwind tour of the Far East before cancer rears its ugly head.

In doing so, “Nolly” draws an unanticipated line between early 1980s soap opera and today’s prestige streaming drama, itself rushing to fill a gap with fewer resources than the show deserves. The results remain a little niche, unlikely to spark further investment in that 94-disc boxset without prior sponsorship; by the end, even Jack Barton admits, “It never worked, ‘Crossroads.’” Yet, sporadically, Davies, Hoar and Bonham Carter bring Gordon back to life, in happier, more forgiving circumstances than she found herself in 40 years ago.