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We’ll Take Manhattan (BBC4)

Rachel Cooke wonders: Was fashion in the 1960s really this wet?

Rachel Cooke wonders: Was fashion in the 1960s really this wet?

I tend to get Jean Shrimpton and her near contemporary Celia Hammond muddled up. One of them now spends her time worrying about cats (this is Hammond, as it turns out) and the other one (Shrimpton, then) owns a hotel in Penzance. You can see how the confusion occurs. Shrimpton might have been, as fashion types will have it, the first "iconic" model of the 1960s, as different from the girls in pearls who came before her as flares are from drainpipes. But let's be honest: in context, this means very little.

Look at early photographs of her now and there is something so dull-eyed about her beauty, a bland reticence in the place where most of us have a personality. I'm not remotely posh myself but, these days, I think I prefer Norman Parkinson's bosomy aristos to David Bailey's vapid twiglets.

In part, this is a matter of taste. I do love the 1950s aesthetic. Give me paste jewellery and a proper handbag over a minidress and white plastic boots any day. It's also that I can imagine the posh girls' voices: loud, affected, entitled. When I think of the Shrimp, I hear only silence.

Did We'll Take Manhattan (26 January, 9pm), a film about how Bailey shot the Shrimp in New York for Vogue and Changed Fashion Photography Forever, make her any less blurry? No. This Jean Shrimpton, as played by Karen Gillan and written by John McKay, wouldn't have said "Boo!" to a goose. Truly, I've seen puddles less wet, with the result that the film shot itself painfully in the foot. Instead of cheering on our two young upstarts as they stormed Condé Nast, a tight-assed bastion of cashmere twinsets and prissy rules, I found myself sympathising with Lady Clare Rendlesham (Helen McCrory), the snooty Vogue editor whose job it was to rein Bailey in.

For one thing, she was ten times sexier than Shrimpton. For another, she had better eyelashes, hats and coats. Mostly, though, it was the way that, while Shrimpton's lip trembled at the merest setback, Rendlesham shouted loudly at the men around her, at which sound they would mostly snap to attention.

Not that she wasn't cartoonish. They all were. If the costumes were totally Mad Men, the dialogue owed its greatest debt to Absolutely Fabulous. Portraying Rendlesham as a dinosaur was unfair: as I understand it, she was mostly a champion of the new. Declaring, in 1964, Paris fashion to be dead, she gave the cover of Queen, where she later worked, a black border to prove it.

Meanwhile, Diana Vreeland (Frances Barber), the horse-faced doyenne of American Vogue, was depicted as a ranting mad woman, with barely a hint of her wit or good taste (though I did laugh when, on hearing that Shrimpton was from the country, she said: "Bucks? What is that? Dallas?").

As for Bailey . . . Jeez. If he'd launched into a few verses of "You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two", I would not have been surprised - though admittedly, his cockney sparrow routine would have annoyed me an awful lot more had he not been played by the mesmerisingly handsome Aneurin Barnard. (Barnard spoke throughout with his teeth clenched, a tick that had the blood rushing embarrassingly to various of my capillaries.) That said, he was perhaps a little too beautiful. It was him the camera loved, not his muse-model, who seemed, at times, almost dowdy by comparison.

And did everyone at Vogue House really applaud the terrible twosome as they returned triumphant to London with a contact sheet crammed full of edgy, sensibility-changing shots? Hmm. I can't make up my mind about this one. When I worked on a fashion magazine, it managed to be, as these places usually are, both a hell-fest of bitchiness and a sickly outpost of luvvie-style phoney compliments. Also, never underestimate how seriously fashion people take fashion.

To you and me, Bailey's trip to Manhattan is hardly up there with the impressionists metaphorically storming the Salon de Paris. But to fashion people . . . well, it is. When Vreeland said - this particular piece of baloney wasn't, alas, in the film - that the bikini was "the most important thing since the atom bomb", she wasn't being facetious.

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 30 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, President Newt