herald

Wednesday 22 August 2018

Shirley's a bum note

shirley (bbc2)

SHIRLEY Bassey is a big star. Big voice, big, sparkly dresses, big hair and a big -- no, a massive -- ego.

SHIRLEY (BBC2)



Who else but Bassey would get away with turning up at Glastonbury, where she performed in 2008, wearing wellies with her name emblazoned down the side in sequins?

You have to be big, especially inside your own head, to pull that off.

Maybe the sheer bigness was what defeated the BBC2 biopic Shirley.

The budget was obviously tight (lots of close-ups during show scenes) and 70 minutes was way too little time to do justice to her life -- or at least the half of it that was covered, the drama ending in the early-1960s.

The best thing about Shirley was Ethiopian-Irish actress Ruth Negga (Love/Hate, Misfits), who absolutely nailed the physical Bassey: the quivering lip, the theatrical stage movements, the Welsh accent that later mutated into a weird, clipped, geographically indeterminate showbiz drawl.

She also does a bit of her own singing, and does it very well.

But Negga (pictured) had to battle against Shelagh Stephenson's script, which piled one crushing rags-to-riches cliche on top of another at an almost comical rate.

It opens in her dressing room in 1968, with Bassey in reflective mood -- literally. "When you look in the mirror, who do you see?" asks Shirley's mother, played by a wasted Lesley Sharp.

"When I'm on stage, that's when I know who I am," says Shirley. "It's like a miracle every time." With that, we're whisked via flashback to Tiger Bay in Cardiff in 1938, when Shirley is a toddler.

Her dad is arrested for assault and sent to jail, forcing Mum to pile the family's few belongings into a pram and take Shirley and her six siblings to live in the less exotic-sounding Splott.

In the blink of an eye it's eight years later and the 16-year-old Shirley is singing for shillings and chips in the local pub. "Mam, you know singing and that. -- can you do it for a job?" Ah, the innocence of youth.

Shirley auditions in London for manager Mike Sullivan (an excellent Charlie Creed-Miles) and knocks his socks off with her rendition of Stormy Weather. He tells her he can make her a star but she runs scared.

It transpires she has a baby daughter, Sharon (when did that happen?), and doesn't want to leave her behind.

But Mum is insistent. "This is no life, get out while you can," she tells her.

Sullivan books Shirley into the notorious Glasgow Empire, where the savage audiences used to bottle acts they didn't like off the stage. But she wows them, too.

After that, with Sullivan doing a Pygmalion and coaching her in how to walk, move, hold herself and use the right cutlery, there's no stopping Shirley.

The gigs and television engagements roll in.

She has a hit record, Light My Candle (At Both Ends), which the BBC bans because of the mildly risque lyrics, but that only makes it sell more.

But despite the fame and the growing wealth (not to mention the increasingly diva-ish behaviour), she's unhappy.

Because of the times she's living in, she has to pretend to the press that her daughter, who she barely sees, is her niece.

The story leaks out eventually, but Stephenson's script never deals with how Bassey handled the fallout.

She marries a film director called Kenneth Hume, a homosexual (a fact known to the long-suffering Sullivan), but kicks him out when she catches him in the act with the chauffeur.

But during a tour of Australia, she reveals to Sullivan that she's pregnant (again, when did that happen?), so she summons Hume back purely to keep up a front.

Shirley skips briskly through all this without ever really getting under Bassey's skin and ends abruptly, in 1968 again, with her blasting out This Is My Life.

Curiously for a programme showing as apart of BBC2's Mixed Race Season, the only time Bassey's colour is touched upon is when she's enraged at losing out on the promised role of Nancy in Oliver! to white actress Marni Nixon.



2/5

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