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BBC Two Mixed Race Season: Shirley

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Katherine Lannon Katherine Lannon | 17:51 UK time, Thursday, 29 September 2011

In February, I had a phone call to say Prospect Cymru was developing a factual drama about Dame Shirley Bassey for BBC Two, to be included in the channel's Mixed Race Season.

Would I be interested in meeting the Executive Producer Charles Thompson to discuss? How could I refuse?

It sounded like a dream job and just up my street: I'm Welsh for starters, and Shirley is a national institution after all.

And I have some experience of biopics, having worked on dramas about Stephen Hawking, Beethoven, Mrs Beeton and John Lennon.

The script for Shirley was beautifully written by Shelagh Stephenson.

As producer your role is to translate the script to the screen working with your director - the super-talented Colin Teague - and together develop a creative vision for the project.

Ruth Negga as Shirley Bassey

Ruth Negga performs on stage as Dame Shirley Bassey

We quickly gathered our team together and started the all important casting process.

We were so lucky that the divine Ruth Negga agreed to play Shirley.

We were also lucky to find all the locations we needed in and around Cardiff and Swansea, including London night clubs!

I thought I knew a fair bit about Shirley - the girl from Tiger Bay, the extraordinary voice, the Bond songs, the glamour, the gay icon and that fabulous Glastonbury performance.

The sheer power and endurance of this amazing woman means it was a real responsibility to deliver a brilliant portrayal which captures the essence of Shirley.

The very wonderful Ruth Negga really did deliver this.

Ruth immediately submerged herself in Shirley - researching her and studying her to perfect the Welsh accent, the body language, the power of Shirley's performances and her emotional journey.

As well as reading two major works, the most recent biography of her by John Williams and the autobiography of her late personal manager Mike Sullivan, as a production team, we read old newspaper articles, looked at interviews, archive footage and performances.

After sifting through an enormous amount of material, it became clear that the story we wanted to tell was the one of Shirley's childhood, and her rise to international stardom in the 1960s.

It was while working on this project that I discovered so much more about Bassey's early years.

Even as a young woman, her life had all the stuff of drama.

She grew up as part of a large mixed race family living in poverty. Her father disappeared from her life while she was still a baby. Then there was the birth of her first child when Shirley was only 17, her relationship with her ambitious manager and her controversial first marriage to Kenneth Hume.

Lesley Sharp as Eliza Jane, Shirley Bassey's mother

Lesley Sharp plays Shirley's mother, Eliza Jane

Poignant themes of the relationship between mothers and daughters emerged strongly for me, with Shirley's mother Eliza (played by the superb Lesley Sharp) along with Shirley as mother to her daughter, Sharon.

Shirley's is a powerful and uplifting life story.

This project had lots of challenges, not least because of the timescale.

The drama had to be ready for September to launch the Mixed Race Season and we were starting the preparation for the shoot in June.

In drama terms this is a very tight deadline - dramas can take years and years to develop and appear on the screen.

The shoot was just 13 days and waking up every morning hoping above hope that we would achieve everything we needed was one of the big pressures.

We did this through the sheer dedication and professionalism of everyone involved, especially Director Colin Teague, First Assistant Director Lee Trevor and Line Producer Catrin Lewis Defis - and of course Ruth herself.

Watching Ruth being filmed as she performed This Is My Life looking sensational in the beautiful Brangwyn Hall in Swansea (which doubled as a 1960s TV Studio) was completely magical and moved members of the crew to tears.

It is in the final moments of the film and it was a coming together and representation of all the talent on this project - from Shirley to Ruth, to every member of the cast and crew.

Katherine Lannon is the Producer of Shirley.

Part of BBC Two's Mixed Race Season, Shirley is broadcast on Thursday 29th September at 9pm.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    I have a question for the Bang scientific programme. I used to swim regularly in the sea at Torbay, and hope to in the future. Following the nuclear spill at Fucushima (Japan) I heard that the radio-active water which was used to cool the reactors washed into the sea and made the radiation level in the nearby sea 3,000 times more dangerous. Is that radiated sea-water likely to wash up over here and do us swimmers damage? ie: is it still safe to swim in the sea at Torbay and for how long? - All the best, paranoid and selfish Al - and God please bless and protect, and heal those people at Fucushima.

  • Comment number 2.

    I think that the acting was great in this drama. I am was very disappointed in the story line. The story told us little of Shirley's life and struggles growing up and only touched slightly on the prejudice that she faced when she never got the part in Oliver and that was it. I was angry that instead it seemed more about her mother and fathers lives. In fact it portrayed the stereo typical views of an age gone by where all white women where little more than sluts for having a relationship with a black man and those black men where no good, equally portraying that all children of mixed race parents where spawned from unsavory characters. I am from a mixed race back ground and my father was a hard working gentle-man and my mother a hard working nurse, both of whom where married and committed to raising their children well, in fact even more so because of the stigma back then. I am surprised that Ms Bassey would allow this programme to be aired. It says something about her if she is willing to allow such a negative portrayal of her parents to be aired this way in favour of her own reputation. Shame on You!!!

  • Comment number 3.

    In fact I would go as far as saying that considering it is 'Mixed Race' season that it may have served us better to find a writer of mixed race to write this storyline. Someone who had experience in this field.

  • Comment number 4.

    This was a very simplistic telling of Shirley's story - who was the father of the baby that was suddenly sprung upon us when she was signed up by the manager. She never lived with Kenneth Hume whom she was knew was gay and the baby she had whilst married was probably that of the actor Peter Finch - where was he in the story? What a whitewash

 

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