Nolly | ITVX
Putin vs the West (BBC Two) | iPlayer
Emily Atack: Asking for It? (BBC Two) | iPlayer
Hotel Portofino | ITV
Nolly (ITVX) sounded right up my alley. Russell T Davies’s three-part homage to “Queen of the Midlands” Noele “Nolly” Gordon focuses on her shock sacking, in 1981, from her role as Crossroads’ Meg Mortimer, aged 61, after 18 years.
Before watching, my only niggle was Helena Bonham Carter playing Gordon. Was this taking counterintuitive casting too far? For those who don’t know, Crossroads, originally running from 1964 to 1988, was a TV soap opera set in a startlingly overstaffed motel. As many as 15 million viewers tuned in nightly to watch such characters as Miss Diane, woolly-hatted handyman Benny, and Mortimer, grandly presiding over the motel front desk like a self-styled Evita of competitively priced chalets.
Crossroads became infamous for its stilted (one-take) scenes and rickety scenery, ultimately inspiring the Victoria Wood spoof Acorn Antiques. There’s fun to be had reproducing the campery of this lost soap world, and Davies does. But he’s serious about showing the real Noele, a fur-coated prima donna (“I practically invented daytime TV!”), but also kind, hardworking and adored by fans and colleagues alike. It’s all here. Her pioneering achievements: the first woman to appear on colour television and to interview a prime minister (Harold Macmillan). Her close friendships, such as with fellow cast member Tony Adams (Augustus Prew) and her one-time faux-fiance Larry Grayson (Mark Gatiss, sporting strange ratty hair). Her hurt (“I will not beg!”) at being fired by producer Jack Barton (Con O’Neill). How it blighted her final years (Gordon died of cancer in 1985). And for what? Ageism. Sexism (“Just men being men”). “I was sacked because I was sackable,” spits Gordon.
Nolly didn’t need to delve quite so deeply into Gordon’s post-Crossroads career – as a result, the third act plods a bit. Any sense of personal/romantic backstory is relayed via blasts of expositional dialogue. And a rather crowbarred-in scene about Gordon being a stickler for received pronunciation gives Bonham Carter a free pass to use a barely tweaked version of her own plummy tones. Still, this is drama so warm you could toast a crumpet on it – with Bonham Carter delivering a bold, wounded character you can root for. Nolly serves as a love letter not just to Gordon, but to popular television itself. “Is it some kind of soap opera?” a man sniffs. “Because I only watch TV for the news and the wildlife.” “Well, then, you’re a fucking idiot,” Gordon retorts.
Over to BBC Two for the opening instalment of the three-part docuseries Putin vs the West, from award-garlanded film-maker Norma Percy (Putin, Russia and the West). This boasts an impressive roster of interviewees, including ambassadors, ministers and former world leaders, such as David Cameron, François Hollande and Petro Poroshenko. It outlines events from 2013 onwards, including Russia invading Crimea, Putin shrugging off sanctions, and the gory, hellishly complicated rest.
Looking ahead (further episodes deal with the Middle East and Ukraine), there’s almost an atmosphere of those countdown-to-murder docs. A sense of a predator in plain sight; a catastrophe that could have been averted. “[Putin] mourns the loss of the Soviet Union – he wants to recover territory where he can,” says Cameron earnestly, but you only have to watch Putin strutting strongman-style through Russian palaces to realise that.
It makes for thought-provoking viewing: top-level first-person accounts, with splashes of background colour, such as Putin arriving for talks with Hollande with a present of vodka in a cool bag (so chillingly domestic). Volodymyr Zelenskiy appears in the final episode, as does Boris Johnson, the latter recalling a phone call in which Putin told him: “I don’t want to hurt you, but with a missile it only takes a minute” (a story that Russia disputes). Even here, Johnson fidgets, mugs and blathers (about getting Putin “on the blower”). It made me feel strangely exhausted – like a mother who should have put her toddler to bed ages ago.
Also on BBC Two, the documentary Emily Atack: Asking for It? saw the actor-presenter-comic pondering the extreme sexual harassment she suffers online. From “dick pics” and naked handstands (so random, I almost want to know why) to creepy messages (“I’ll be masturbating while watching your new documentary”) and rape/death threats that frighten her when she’s alone at night.
Atack, who debated “cyber-flashing” in parliament last year, wonders if she is indeed “asking for it” by having posed suggestively and played sexualised roles such as The Inbetweeners’ Charlotte. Of course not, though it seems likely that fame amplifies the porn-soaked entitlement that’s swilling out there already. Men do it, a male volunteer says, because “we can get away with it”.
There’s another story here, concerning Atack’s personal sexualisation (including sexual activity at 12 with an 18-year-old) that she and her parents bravely and tearfully attempt to discuss. Atack’s documentary is all the more commendable because it will doubtless expose her to even more abuse. While other documentaries, such as Channel 4’s recent Undercover: Sexual Harassment – The Truth, covered similar ground – even down to interviewing grotesquely pestered schoolgirls – perhaps that proves the point. The problem isn’t that females keep complaining about it, it’s that males keep doing it.
Our near-hysterical obsession with the posh of the past continues with six-parter Hotel Portofino (ITV). Previously on BritBox, created by Matt Baker, it’s billed, I’m contractually obliged to inform you, as “the new Downton”. (But what isn’t?)
Set in the 1920s, it stars Natascha McElhone as a wealthy type who runs a beautiful hotel on the Italian Riviera with her caddish husband. Anna Chancellor gets the Maggie Smith-patented rude-aristo role (on Catholicism: “All that smoke and potpourri!”). Servants bustle about, including an English cook who, being a mere commoner, marvels at the “different” vegetables.
In fairness to Hotel Portofino, it attempts to usher in darkness with talk of the Great War and fascism, but it all gets swept away in the gorgeous vistas, storylines about the “family Rubens” and McElhone’s fabulous scrunched-linen wardrobe. This is Upstairs Downstairs with added totalitarianism and sunburn – so silly you may just enjoy it.
Star ratings (out of five)
Putin vs the West ★★★★
Emily Atack: Asking For It? ★★★
Hotel Portofino ★★
What else I’m watching
Pamela, a Love Story
A Pamela Anderson documentary, on events in her life, including the globally distributed sex tape. Anderson is involved with this, unlike last year’s Disney+ drama Pam & Tommy (for which Lily James and Sebastian Stan were nominated for Golden Globes).
A dramedy starring Jason Segel and Jessica Williams. A therapist (Segel) grieving for his wife tries to stem his own personal unravelling by telling the absolute truth to his clients. None other than Harrison Ford plays a senior therapist.
Amol Rajan Interviews: Bill Gates
Amol Rajan interviews the generally reclusive tech uber-supremo about Microsoft, the perils of being a “white saviour” and his connection to Jeffrey Epstein.