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'Nolly' Recap: Episode 1

Daniel Hautzinger
Nolly in a fur coat in profile
Nolly has been the star of a popular soap opera for years when she suddenly learns she is to be fired. Credit: Quay Street Productions and Masterpiece

Nolly airs Sundays at 8:00 pm on WTTW and streaming. Recap the following episode.
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A young woman is escorted into a studio and seated by a frenetic man. He fiddles with some devices and then wheels over a television monitor in triumph to show his subject what he has accomplished: the first color television projection of a woman, featuring her. He is the inventor John Logie Baird, nearing the end of his innovative career; she is Noele Gordon, only at the start of her stardom.

Thirty-seven years later, in 1975, thousands of people have gathered outside a church to see her married – or rather, Meg Mortimer, her character on the hit soap opera Crossroads. She sometimes fails to distinguish between herself and Meg in the eyes of the public. Crossroads producer and writer Jack Barton frets that the crowds ruin the shot of Meg leaving the church – Meg’s wedding wouldn’t have so many guests. But Nolly, as everyone calls her, tells him it doesn’t matter; only a cruel person would turn away all those fans. The shoot goes ahead with the crowds in it.

By 1981, when the show has been on air for eighteen years, Nolly makes those kinds of calls as a matter of habit, and receives absolutely no pushback. John is not in rehearsals to contest her script changes and blocking shifts, with which the rest of the crew and cast quickly agree, no matter how absurd. She is the unquestioned queen of the show, as is obvious when the new actor Poppy Ngomo starts and almost sits in Nolly’s chair, to everyone’s horror.

Of course, Nolly herself tells Poppy anyone could sit there; the real star of the show is the motel Meg owns in Crossroads. Poppy is playing Anna, a Black adopted member of Meg’s family – Crossroads often tackles taboo topics. She’s written to have a working class Birmingham accent, but Nolly – who’s looking at the script for the first time as she runs through rehearsal, as she always does – insists that Poppy instead do a posh RP, or received pronunciation, accent. Nolly and her younger costar Tony Adams, who plays the manager of the motel, both came from humble backgrounds and pulled themselves up; their mothers wouldn’t want to hear working class accents on TV, even if Tony quietly wonders if the show is starting to sound old fashioned.

When Jack tries to object at a later rehearsal, Nolly bulldozes him. Poppy keeps the RP accent.

Nolly is relatively welcoming to Poppy until Poppy dares to disagree with her right before a studio run of the show in which mistakes aren’t tolerated. Fifteen million viewers for three episodes a week doesn’t mean 45 million viewers, as Nolly boasts; it means roughly the same fifteen million people three times, Poppy points out. Nolly had promised to handle the necessary improvisation if an “under-run” occurs and the actors need to fill time to make the show the proper length, but when the phone rings on the show in a cue to start ad-libbing, Nolly hands it to a terrified Poppy to go it alone.

Nolly exerts control over the whole cast, even the actors, like Tony, to whom she is close. He lives across the street from her; they can see each other from their windows. She calls him out to go shopping late at night, even though the stores are closed – they’ll window-shop. She’s feeling melancholy, missing a married lover who died some nine years ago. Her mother died two years ago, the actor who played her son on Crossroads for eighteen years died suddenly a few months ago, and she herself is two years over the retirement age of 60. She never married; Tony is the closest thing she has to a man in her life.

Her agent is in the process of negotiating a new contract for her with Crossroads’ presenter ATV, hoping to secure her some extra time off. She worked even through all of those deaths without missing a beat. But when he arrives at a meeting with the ATV executive Charles Denton he’s surprised to hear that there will not be a new contract. Nolly is being fired.

Nolly thinks it’s a joke or a negotiation tactic. Neither she nor her agent can deduce a reason. But Charles told the agent that Meg will be killed off in six months.

Nolly brings Tony over and tells him the news before a scheduled phone call with Jack Barton to discuss the firing, which she has Tony listen in on. She finds out that she is the only person being fired, and angrily tells Jack that she’ll find work quickly – she doesn’t need six months. Her death is negotiated forward to three months from now.

She doesn’t tell anyone else, and is distracted while filming the next show, in which the groundwork is beginning to be laid for Meg’s departure, as characters discuss her age and eventual change at the motel.

Later, Nolly shares the news with Susan, who plays the motel’s maid. Susan brings up Nolly’s “predilection” for married man and suggests she offended someone, but Nolly denies it. She also admits that she won’t be able to find work at her age and after an ignominious firing. So Susan advises her to resign, in a big announcement to the press that can launch a new phase of her career and preempt the firing.

At the show’s next rehearsal, press are swarmed outside, to everyone’s confusion. Nolly stands in front of them with Tony and announces that she was fired – not that she’s resigning. She includes a little speech lauding herself: she’s the star, not the motel, as everyone says.

Phone calls, mail, and negative press stream into ATV, lambasting the decision to ax Nolly. People even protest in support of her. The actors on the show have mixed feelings. When Susan suggests on set that they all resign together in support of Nolly, no one supports her. She accuses some of them of seeing some benefit to the departure of Nolly, allowing them to take the spotlight. Another actress calls Nolly a relic of the past. It all makes for a riveting soap opera.

Upset by a comment to the press from Charles Denton that Meg might be killed in any number of ways, even a plane falling out of the sky, Nolly has marched to Jack Barton’s office. She doesn’t want her character to die. Nolly will leave; her time on the show is over. But she doesn’t want Meg killed off.

Jack won’t commit to anything. Nolly gets back on the elevator and screams.