Shirley (BBC 2)

Rachel Cooke survives the clichés to enjoy a biopic of the great Welsh singer.

After a while, I lost count of the clichés in Shirley (29 September, 9pm). A girl who stuns a reluctant booking agent in an audition, his mouth falling wide open in amazement? Tick. A girl - she is a little older now - who can quieten even a fractious Glasgow audience by belting out "Stormy Weather"? Tick again. A girl - actually, she is a woman by this point, draped in diamonds, sequins and fur - who refers to herself in the third person every time she stands in front of a dressing-room mirror? Tick, tick.

Would there, I wondered, be scenes with paparazzi, involving enormous, old-fashioned flashbulbs and pork-pie hats? Of course there would. Also, in no particular order: ancient newspaper headlines ("Shirley: the new sensation!"), pouty tantrums and a secretly gay husband (naturally, said husband carried his new bride over the threshold of the swanky pad in Maida Vale he'd purchased by way of a wedding present). Wow. And the wonder of it is, the whole thing lasted only 70 minutes.

In the end, though, none of these things got in the way of one's enjoyment. You can have the ropiest script in the world and the smallest budget (I think this one's must have been about 45 quid - our heroine wore the same evening gown twice), but if the performance at the heart of a biopic is truly sensational, it won't matter a fig.

I don't think I've seen Ruth Negga on television before (she is best known for her role in Misfits, a show I've never dared to watch for fear of discovering just how uncool my jeans are). But, as Shirley Bassey, she - let's throw in yet another showbiz cliché here - knocked me dead. She had the accent just right (Bassey grew up in unlovely Splott, Cardiff), and the manner: shyness becoming confidence and then, as the money rolled in, out-and-out ghastliness - at which point, the accent went from Splott to something more affected, a sort of Welsh
Hyacinth Bucket.

She could do that Bassey thing with her hands, halfway between a wave and a flick. Even her lip-syncing wasn't the usual embarrassment. It was spectacular to see and I would love to know if Dame Shirley watched it on her widescreen at home in Monte Carlo. By all accounts, it takes quite a lot to discomfort Miss Bassey. But this, had she been able to stand it, would surely have done it. Negga's performance felt somehow truthful, as if she had seen right into her.

Two things helped her. First, an excellent supporting cast: Lesley Sharp as her tough-as-nails mother, Eliza; Charlie Creed-Miles as her stalwart manager, Mike Sullivan; and Henry Lloyd-Hughes as her slippery first husband, Kenneth Hume (according to this version of events, the beginning of the end of the marriage came when Shirley caught him mooning over his wan and gingery chauffeur).

Second, Negga was not required to age (the film ended in about 1964, when Bassey was in her thirties). Prosthetic wrinkles are so rarely the actor's friend. Whatever else I think of Shelagh Stephenson's script, it was an excellent idea to cover only the early years, this period having been given fresh heft by the discoveries of Bassey's most recent biographer, John L Williams.

It was Williams who last year revealed that Bassey's father, a stoker, was sent to prison for unlawful sex with an underage girl, after which he was deported to Nigeria (Shirley was then a toddler). And it was Williams who confirmed that the singer's mother had ten children by four different men, two of whom, as little girls, she abandoned in Hartlepool shortly before she headed to the wilds of Tiger Bay.

The latter revelation is important because it explains, at least in part, why her mother was determined for Shirley to leave her own baby daughter - born when she was 17 - in the care of her sister while she pursed fame and fortune. Eliza, as pragmatic as she was feckless, had abandoned two girls, for nothing. So why wouldn't Shirley leave one, especially if there was a mink stole in it?

And this, I suppose, was where the film succeeded, clichés and all. If there is a chip of ice in Dame Shirley's heart, someone put it there long, long ago.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 03 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Which Tories is it ok to love?

ahisgett - Flickr
Show Hide image

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis