Shirley Review: Bitesize Bassey Bio

SHIRLEY: Thursday 29th September, BBC2, 9pm

Apparently it’s Mixed Race Season on BBC Two (who knew?!) and opening this celebration of British culture was Shirley, a good little biopic about the star behind a host of James Bond songs and sequinned dresses. I say ‘good’, because cramming any life into 70 minutes is quite a challenge, but to fit the rise of one of Wales’ most famous icons into such a space leaves little room for dramatic embellishment. Thank god someone invented the montage..

Yet despite the sudden shifts, rather abrupt life chapters and unsubtle signposting, Shirley was held together by an involving story, a canny screenplay from Shelagh Stephensonan and an excellent performance from Ruth Negga as the titular ‘Girl From Tiger Bay’ (she actually moved to Splott – a far less glamorous town just down the road – when she was very young).

“Being Shirley Bassey isn’t easy you know!” shouts Negga with growing regularity as the ex-factory worker discovers that fame and fortune don’t solve all of life’s little problems. She may have made the shift from shy girl-next-door to global sensation, but Bassey still had her fair share of worries. Not only was she haunted by her decision to leave her young daughter behind in small-town Wales to build her career, but her hubby was gay, and less subtle with it than that bloke from Pineapple Dance Studios. She decided to try and make it work for the kids of course. Daddy issues we reckon.

Like everything else in this piece her relationship with the dandyish Kenneth Hume was rather rushed, and other interesting themes – such as an episode in which Bassey missed out on the part of Nancy in Oliver! due to her mixed race – are only mentioned in passing. The Beeb are clearly on a tight schedule, but these were good opportunities missed.

It’s fitting that a young actress with Irish and Ethiopian roots nailed the accent of a Welsh girl of English and Nigerian descent though. Lesley Sharp played Bassey’s no-nonsense mother with skill and we see her Nigerian father being hauled off to jail in the opening sequences (daddy issues explained?) but Ruth Negga’s charm and talent ensures that this humble-beginnings tale does justice to the vulnerable young siren. At its core, this is a likable yet workmanlike drama, which occasionally threatens to excel. Yet while the short run-time makes it more accessible to many, you can’t help but feel that she (Bassey herself and the person playing her) is worth at least another half hour..

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