TV review: Shirley

The embodiment of sex appeal, Shirley Bassey's sheer vitality obscures her self, says Gary Day

October 6, 2011




Shirley Bassey was the first sexy female singer. Kenneth Hume, husband number one, called her "a force of nature". He was right. She had a gigantic vitality. You could see it in those far-flung arms, hear it in that explosive voice. Even at 74, she still has the power to make my spine fizz like a lit fuse. Gracie Fields was the darling of the working class and Vera Lynn the nation's sweetheart, but neither could blast an audience skywards like Shirley. They were too close to them, too comfortable. Gracie was the girl next door. Vera was every fiancee or wife. But Shirley stood alone. She wasn't part of a wider community, she was not the photograph in a loved one's wallet. She was a fantasy figure. And desire thrives on distance.

Shelagh Stephenson's beautifully crafted Shirley (BBC Two, Thursday 29 September, 9pm) captured the diamond diva's outsider status right from the start. We saw her as a child stumbling round a party, more or less ignored by the adults as they whooped it up. It was Eliza Bassey, played by the ever-reliable Lesley Sharp, who encouraged her daughter to go into show business. "I don't want you ending up like me, nine bloody kids." "Seven, Ma," corrected her daughter. She didn't know that her mother had two other children, half-sisters, that she left when she moved to Cardiff. Ah well, every family has its secrets.

Eating chips on the uncarpeted staircase, the teenage Shirley dreamed of becoming famous. Eliza made sure it happened. "You are going to that audition even if I have to drag you to the train station myself." A bored London agent, Mike Sullivan, ably played by Charlie Creed-Miles, idly flicked a lighter until Shirley sang the first few bars of Stormy Weather. Here was someone who was really going to set the world on fire. Shirley wasn't sure if this was what she really wanted, but mum said it was, waving her off down the street and shutting the door before her daughter had the chance to look back.

Sullivan taught her how to command the stage, how to stand and how to move. Shirley used it to good effect when she silenced the crowd at the Glasgow Empire, who would amuse themselves by pelting performers until they were knocked unconscious or retreated to the wings. But they met their match in the girl from Tiger Bay. Sullivan also began Shirley's education in the arts, a task completed by Hume, a wonderful study in deception as played by Henry Lloyd-Hughes. Shirley dropped her Welsh accent and spoke posh but was embarrassingly reminded of her humble origins by one Mrs Morris, who interrupted a TV interview on the platform at Cardiff station to tell the viewers that Shirley's family were too poor to buy her knickers. "I had to lend you a pair of mine," she hooted.

Ruth Negga as Shirley had the wide eyes of someone who looked lost. The drama began with her sitting in her dressing room, facing the mirror. "Who am I?" she asked. From there, we boarded a faulty time machine that whisked us to different parts of her life in non-chronological order. However you put them together, they didn't add up to a person. "I don't know what to do when I'm not being Shirley Bassey."

And so we kept finding ourselves back in the dressing room, asking the same question. Part of the problem was that she couldn't remember her dad, and this left her with "a big block of nothing". A piece of that might have been turned into something if she'd been able to look after her daughter. But Sullivan said that being an unmarried mother would "destroy her career". Eliza agreed and so Shirley's sister Iris took charge of the baby. Shirley ended up like her mum after all. At least for a while.

This was more than a mere rags-to- riches tale. It was about a change in the entertainment industry from social solidarity to individual stardom. Sex appeal stands in for loss of self. Bassey exaggerates the whole process, revealing an energy that transcends show business trappings but has no other means of expression.

Random Acts, a series of three-minute films that will be shown over the course of a year, are intended to disrupt the way we look at the world. In Pole Dancer (Channel 4, Tuesday 4 October, 11.05pm), a possibly Polish man watches a possibly Polish woman wind herself around the upright before he strips off and wraps himself around it too. It's definitely not sexy. And neither is Apple (Channel 4, Monday 3 October, 11pm), although I seem to remember that the eating of one once got a couple fired up about the possibilities presented by anatomical differences.

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