Although the empty rehearsal room, with the smoking pianist and the decorating table from behind which wannabe impresario Mike Sullivan watches a teenage Shirley Bassey sing for the first time, is a million miles from the outlandish glitz of today’s TV talent shows, there are parallels to be drawn between Shirley Bassey’s journey from working-class Welsh girl to internationally renowned superstar singer and the contestants on today’s television talent shows. Mike even gives it his best, ‘What are you going to sing for us today, Shirley?’ at her first audition.
However, there’s something endlessly enchanting about Shirley’s story which Simon Cowell would give his best black polo neck for, and this fascinating film from director Colin Teague (Doctor Who, Being Human) – made as part of BBC Two’s Mixed Race Britain season – captures a great deal of the magic and melancholy of the early part of her life and career.
Beginning with her birth as part of a large, impoverished family in South Wales and continuing through her early performances singing in pubs for two shillings a time, her rise to fame in clubs and theatres around the country in spite of the odious racial prejudice of the age, and peaking at the height of her fame in the 1960s (concluding just before her greatest triumph and only American number one hit single, the theme from Goldfinger), Shirley is an unflinching portrait of a talented but conflicted personality whose professional success came at a personal cost. We see a diva whose devastating voice was never quite loud enough to drown out the dichotomy between her lavish lifestyle and her desire for the simpler, family existence she could never have.
The caricatured Rock Profile version of Bassey – which led in part to the creation of Bubbles Devere in Little Britain; all ‘Darling!’ and ‘Champagne!’ – is mercifully absent (although Mike Sullivan dispenses as many ‘darling’s as he does glasses of bubbly).
Instead, Misfits star Ruth Negga’s superb portrayal concentrates on Shirley’s single-minded determination to reach the top and the sacrifices she made on her journey from Splott to stardom. Despite a fine recreation of the singer’s onstage manner and persona, it’s in the quieter, more introspective moments that Negga really excels. The moment when Bassey’s young daughter Sharon – who is being raised at home with the family in Wales – sings ‘Happy birthday, Auntie Shirley’ to her mother is a masterpiece of sad-eyed desolation.
The ever-excellent Lesley Sharp is on fine form as Eliza Bassey, the dogged, pragmatic mother who encourages – almost forces – her daughter towards fame and fortune and away from the poverty-stricken world in which she has raised seven children and given up two more for adoption. ‘This is no life,’ she warns Shirley. ‘Get out while you can. Don’t do what I’ve done.’
Charlie Creed-Miles is equally impressive as her piteous manager Mike Sullivan, who starts off Cowell-ish but ends up cowed as Shirley grows from a naive teenager whom he can mould and make money off into an opulent, obsessive celebrity who kowtows to nobody but thrives on adulation.
It’s only through her need for constant praise that she ever ends up marrying Kenneth Hume (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), a thrusting, obsequious Cockney whose munificence can’t disguise his true nature. ‘He’s a pansy,’ Eliza notes of her son-in-law, and the scene where Shirley catches him flirting with their chauffeur is another understated highlight.
Bolstered by a wonderful soundtrack, which mixes the big band sound of Shirley Bassey’s finest tunes with incidental music alternately intimate and expansive, and a fine recreation of the smoky clubs and hostile theatres of the late fifties and early sixties, Shirley is a compelling story of a contradictory star.
Airs at 9pm on Thursday 29th September 2011 on BBC Two.