In ‘Nolly,’ Helena Bonham Carter shines as a TV lioness in the winter of her career

A splendid showcase for Helena Bonham Carter, “Nolly” zooms in on a very particular time and character in British history, revolving around the unceremonious firing of Noele Gordon, the star of a popular soap opera. While not the usual corseted stuff for which PBS’ “Masterpiece” is known, the three-part limited series serves as a reminder of how actresses who spoke their minds were often summarily labeled “difficult,” then and now.

Opening with a young Noele (known to everyone as Nolly) becoming the first British woman to be featured on a nascent TV screen in 1938, the project quickly jumps decades ahead, where Nolly headlines the low-budget soap “Crossroads,” and doesn’t suffer fools at all. In fact, she drives her producer (Con O’Neill) crazy, rewriting the script and complaining as she goes.

Despite her imperious manner, alternately making her a source of admiration and fear, Nolly is completely blindsided in 1981 when, after a 17-year run, it’s ordered from somewhere above that she be axed, sending her into an existential crisis. Far from taking her sacking lying down, she launches a public-relations battle that puts the network on the defensive while forcing her to endure random strangers constantly asking why it happened.

Written by “Doctor Who” scribe Russell T Davies, “Nolly” is filled with amusing little moments, like Nolly trying to get in shape by exercising along with a TV workout program, only to be seen a few moments later simply watching as she puffs on a cigarette and holds a cocktail.

Bonham Carter sinks her teeth into this larger-than-life personality, portraying a lioness in the winter of her career who understands that even if the show is dreck, being its star has become inextricably entwined with her identity.

In that sense, “Nolly” reflects the 1970s and ‘80s but also dabbles in universal and enduring insights about showbiz, ageism and not-so-subtle misogyny, almost like a spin on “Sunset Boulevard” for the TV era.

Credit Davies and Bonham Carter with accomplishing that with a relatively light touch, in a project that gives Noele Gordon, even posthumously, something one suspects the near-forgotten star would have loved: the chance to take a final bow.

“Nolly” premieres March 17 at 9 p.m. ET on “Masterpiece” PBS.

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