tue 14/07/2020

Shirley, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Shirley, BBC Two

Shirley, BBC Two

Ruth Negga captures some if not quite all of the young Bassey's sass

Ruth Negga as Bassey the nascent diva projects sultriness and vulnerability with equal conviction

A couple of series ago Alan Yentob took himself off to Monte Carlo to grill Dame Shirley Bassey for Imagine about her life in showbiz. Kissinger got more out of Gromyko at the height of the Cold War. (The Soviet foreign minister’s nickname was Nyet.) The BBC have had another stab at showing what makes the girl from Tiger Bay tick, this time in the form of drama, where there is licence to make things up.

The first thing Shelagh Stephenson’s script put straight is this business about Tiger Bay. The multiracial dockside slums of Cardiff was her home for only a couple of years before her black father was imprisoned and the family consisting of a white matriarch and sundry siblings pushed a trolley-load of possessions to a different part of town. But The Girl from Splott doesn’t scan so prettily.

Fairly soon child Shirley was teen Shirley, earning a couple of bob for crooning in a pub, then auditioning for a jaded talent scout who instantly predicted stardom when he heard the unreal sound emanating from that larynx. The rest was a cut-out-and-keep history of the Svengali who creates a protégée and has a job on his hands not to lose control of his creation. What the film caught better than most rags-to-riches tales was the confusion and terror suffered by the nascent star on that steep solitary learning curve to fame. One clever variation on a standard montage found her manager Mike Sullivan (Charley Creed-Miles) instructing Bassey in both stage presence and, as important for the illusion, table manners.

As a young cygnet growing into regality, Ruth Negga (pictured right with Henry Lloyd-Hughes as Kenneth Hume) gave it a commendable swing of the bat. No actress can sing like Bassey – not even Jane Horrocks in pastiche mode – so it was best to ignore the clumsy dubbing and concentrate on the sultriness and vulnerability she projected with equal conviction. It wasn’t Negga’s fault that the script kept to these binary settings. Stephenson’s governing idea, pushed a little too telegraphically, was that the diva was a construct behind which a frightened young woman hunted in vain for love. The story stopped at the moment when, having married Hume, discovered he was gay, had his baby and chucked him out, the young girl retreated permanently behind the carapace - Cardiff accent carefully dropped - which half a century later Yentob found impossible to penetrate. “I’m my own woman now,” she said, “and nothing’s going to stop me.” People tend to say such things towards the end of biopics.

What there wasn’t much of, oddly, was racial prejudice. The BBC have stuck Shirley into something called the Mixed Race season, one of those slightly bogus thematisations that television apparatchiks like to dream up now to let you know that they’re stroking their chins and not just thinking about celebrities in sequins (although Dame Shirley is nothing if not a celebrity in sequins). The race issue was actually soft-pedalled by Stephenson. On this evidence it didn’t seem to impede her progress much, and the only time it significantly got in the way was when she lost the part of Nancy in Oliver! apparently on grounds of her skin colour.

Other dots were duly joined. For all the narrative artifice, Bassey’s early life is an affecting story featuring a mother (a tough old boot here played by Lesley Sharp) who virtually shoved her talented daughter out of the door to better her chances, no matter that she had to leave a baby daughter in the care of a sister. It was big stuff, but somehow there just didn’t seem to be much at stake. “You wanted a mink coat and you got one,” advised Sharp. “There’s not many in Splott that can say that.” End of story.

Bassey’s early life is an affecting story featuring a mother who virtually shoved her talented daughter out of the door

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Comments

Good review. An interesting documentary that ultimately failed to dazzle. If this film had only captured the impact of Shirley as a performer, I can't help but think that the laudable portrayal of the vunerable girl from Splott would have had more depth. Jasper Rees mentions the clumsy dubbing and I am sure this would've been less vexing if a bit of clever cinematography had been employed in the most important stage scenes. Perhaps selecting different camera angles, using silhouettes, panning in on audience reaction, even using slow-motion pictures of the actor which were not supposed to lip-sync. Although it had its moments, the director might have found more inventive ways to portray Shirley as the ultimate performer.

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