We'll Take Manhattan: Meeting David Bailey

Thursday 26 January 2012, 10:38

John McKay John McKay Writer/Director

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It's summer 2009, and I am sitting on David Bailey's sofa, trying to persuade him to let me write and direct a film about his life for BBC Four.

Bailey is short, fierce-eyed and direct: "I just don't want it to be s***!" he says.

I had spotted the photos which inspired We'll Take Manhattan in a weekend magazine a few days earlier - beautiful, rather innocent pictures of Jean Shrimpton, 18, on the wintry streets of Manhattan in February 1962.

I had sensed in the accompanying article the sniff of a story - of young Cockney upstart Bailey being offered a big assignment by Vogue, and risking everything by insisting on using his girlfriend, Jean, against the specific wishes of his fashion editor, the fearsome Lady Clare Rendlesham.

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David Bailey (Aneurin Barnard) shoots Jean Shrimpton (Karen Gillan)

Young love, bad behaviour, the beginning of a revolution... And now here I was, with Bailey's dog in my lap, trying to convince one of the most fearsome survivors of the fashion and photography world - the man who did the wedding photos for the Krays - that he should allow me to noodle around with his legacy.

If I had known then what I know now, I would probably have been more nervous.

Bailey has the intellect of a nuclear physicist - mighty, knowledgable, always questioning - in the body of a Mile End barrow boy, with his Cockney cut-your-knees-off-and-then-we-can-talk humour still intact.

Jean Shrimpton scrupulously avoids public contact, having retired from modelling in the early 1970s.

And portraying their life of 50 years ago, in London and New York, on a slender budget, would drive me and my tiny crew to the giddy limits of our ability.

The best part of making the drama was the detective work: the 20 or so published photos from their breakthrough NYC photographic session acted as a series of clues as to where they went and what they were doing.

By looking closely at the details, we were able to work out many of the exact spots where the shots were taken - and go there, to make the drama behind the camera.

Aneurin Barnard as David Bailey

Existing footage of young Bailey and Jean at work told us how they talked. Lady Clare, now deceased, was also kind enough to take part in a 1964 documentary, Fancy Dressers, which proved invaluable for Helen McCrory in catching her mix of tiger and butterfly.

The funniest part of filming was the Brooklyn Bridge. Bailey and Jean shot there ("it was so cold the camera stuck to my fingers") and so did we, but on a hot day - with my crew of 10 trying to politely hold back several hundred joggers, cyclists and tourists in 35C heat so we could complete our climactic scene.

Back to the sofa. Bailey sighs, frowns.

"Oh all right", he says. "All right."

I later discover that his life motto is Persistence. I guess my persistence paid off.

John McKay is the writer and director of We'll Take Manhattan.

We'll Take Manhattan is on BBC Four on Thursday, 26 January at 9pm. For all programme times, please see the upcoming broadcasts page.

Read an interview with Aneurin Barnard, who plays David Bailey, on the BBC Wales Arts blog.

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

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  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    @Fiona - Helen McCrory really does a cut-glass accent well doesn't she? Actually, we had a great early 60s documentary with Lady Clare in it to refer to, and she sounds - in truth they all sound now - like they come from another century.

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    Comment number 22.

    @Relgold - thanks. I'm not quite old enough to remember 1962, but I remember the sense of excitement at things REALLY CHANGING and FAST from the late 60s. Actually, I think we go through a similar revolution about once every 20-30 years, of everything old suddenly being useless - and we're due for one about now!

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Hi John, I am a little ashamed to say it but I didn't know who David Bailey was before seeing the ads for the movie. I did some research and had a bit more background information but was completely blown away by how wonderful the movie was made and the documentary that followed. I am now completely reinspired to do more with my photography and intend to be very 'persistent' from now on. I've only been doing photography for 3 years and I'm also a single mom so don't have alot of time on my hands and have a hell of alot to learn but I would really appreciate it if you could email me some details on how I would be able to possibly apply to be an apprentice for Mr Bailey. My email address is [Personal details removed by Moderator]. Thank you so much for making such a wonderful film about a truly gifted man.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Well, if that about wraps everything up, thank-you to everyone for watching, and also for your comments - good night!

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    @suelan - oops - your comment came through just as I was wrapping up. I'm not really an expert on how to get into pro photography, but I do know there are lots of men and women who have overcome personal challenges to establish their vision of the world through the camera. Look, shoot, enjoy - good luck!

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    Comment number 26.

    I did so enjoy watching your interpretation of the irreverent Bailey. I remember him so well - how he got away with it in the hidebound fashion world of the time I still don't know.

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    Comment number 27.

    I thought it caught the feeling of the times without being overdone staying with the easy lightness of the period. Surprised how much it got to me. I was a bit younger but remember the huge impression Jean made well enough. While that horrible snobbish rudeness of Lady Clare hiding behind her sense of class superiority really does now seem like something from a previous century but that was real enough then too. The face of Karen playing Jean...I think she caught something really quite touching and real and that was no easy thing given Shrimpton's quite extraordinary beauty. She brought her alive. Bailey well he was a genius behind the amiable rogue and that came out charmingly too.

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    Comment number 28.

    I really don't understand some people! I couldn't believe I saw a complaint about this film are people blind? it was STUNNING it was so alive and colourful and most importantly real, the actors were amazing the style the pace I just smiled all the way through it captured how I feel David Bailey is like and its shame cause I think fashions changed its all about who know's who and its not about beauty or art anymore this is art and me myself I feel this film is a masterpiece, I'm just so happy and I really enjoyed the acting as well, this film deserves to be on the big screens, I mentioned on the other blog about this as its the same sorta style to No-Where boy and An Education which I LOVE! Its good that they have these comments because when I watch something I really that gives me so much pleasure I really want to let the person know who created it, so if you are still reading this THANK YOU!! PS especially loved the bit about the lines about the rich people getting their jobs because of daddy ha I clapped!

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    I wasn't going to watch but changed my mind and am glad I did...great work all round - in particular the great choice of outdoor locations, but why does the BBC never credit the music and the musicians?

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    I was enthralled by this programme. Top class drama extremely well acted. The actor who so admirably portrayed Jean Shimpton deserves to have a successful future with her looks and poise. It would be good to see more of the photos taken as part of this drama, and perhaps compare with the originals.

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    Comment number 31.

    My message to Liz - I watch BBC 4 almost exclusively (what else is there?) and this piece is possibly the best thing I've ever seen. Proves you don’t need a big budget to create a great movie. It really captured the times so perfectly. Like the Stones, Twiggy, Bailey, Duffy, Terence Donovan, Stanley Kubrik and Ken Russell inspired the rest of us, everything was now possible in our own little worlds, unlike the deference of the previous age. If you want to go further down this road John, I think Karen Gillan has something of the Mandy Rice Davis about her. Also boxer Freddie Mills, impresario Larry Parnes and record producer Joe Meek are fascinating untold stories of the period. Whatever your next production, I look forward to it.

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    Comment number 32.

    John, yep that type flew first in '62, not carrying passengers across the pond until '65 though!
    No matter, it's a good symbol of the oncoming 'British Invasion' - which Bailey was an early part of.
    With shooting in New York, apart from obvious large buildings, were there issues with post early 60's 'street furniture'.
    I ask because the makers of the original series of 'Life On Mars' mentioned the need to CGI out all the satellite dishes on houses, in 1973 the only dish near Manchester was at Jodrell Bank!

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Just popping back to thank additional viewers for their thoughtful comments and appreciation.
    @Sonicboomer - yes, the biggest challenge of shooting "on the streets" like Bailey and Jean is that the streets, especially London streets, have changed so radically since the early 60s. BIG movies can afford to clear whole streets, and refill them with period vehicles - I went around New York noting extra wide pavements where we could avoid seeing bike-racks, and kept tilting my camera up, where the city is still beautifully art deco and mid century modern.

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    Comment number 34.

    I wasn't going to watch the programme, although as a photographer I knew that in reality I wouldn't miss it!
    Obviously there was liberties taken with exactly what was said and to whom but I had an enjoyable time watching it.
    You did well to keep the streets shots period as NY has a lot of modern tat clogging it's streets.

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    Comment number 35.

    Hi. Just watched We'll Take Manhattan. Really enjoyed it as we do all BBC4 dramas. Wondered if you were going to put an album together of all the music/songs, as really loved them all. Many thanks.

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    Comment number 36.

    We'll Take was terrific, actors, photography, direction, dialogue, everything. Great film, which I enjoyed so much. Four beats to the bar and no cheating really struck a chord with me. I grew up in Bow a few hundred yards from where Bailey lived in Mile End. Like him I was fascinated by film photography but he made it, I didn't. The following sonnet is my tribute to him.

    The Real Thing?

    So ‘Four beats to the bar and no cheating’.
    David Bailey was quoting Count Basie,
    Answering the old question, ‘What is Jazz?’
    Jazz like a photo capture, so fleeting
    And if the notes are there, so the image
    Must be real, accurate, no retuning,
    No time for rehearsals, pluck the guitar
    Or press the shutter release on your stage.

    Bailey does this with film photography,
    Not digital. Holding the negative,
    You say, yes, this is a truth I can feel.
    But when you have only pixels, briefly,
    Pixels stripped from sensors, drained through a sieve -
    Then all you have is something not quite real.

    Derrick Gaskin (Del)

  • Comment number 37.

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  • Comment number 38.

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    Comment number 39.

    Hello maceasy #10 and Martyn #29 and anyone else interested in the music... the tracklistings have been added to the We'll Take Manhattan programme page if you're interested. I just watched back in iPlayer - three days left to watch! - and Kevin Sargent did get a credit at the end of the programme (he was sixth from the bottom, just ahead of the editor). Along with his original score, there was a handful of commercial tracks in the programme by The Shadows, Chet Baker, The Beatles and Ella Fitzgerald. 

    Thanks for taking the time to post your comments.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    I recorded this and have only just watched it - how it brought back memories of Bailey! I worked with him in the mid 1970s to shoot ads for the cosmetic company I worked for. He didn't suffer fools and I've seen him being very caustic when a colleague tried to tell him how to do his job. However I always got on well with him as I believed that you didn't book Bailey to tell him how to do his job. When I was expecting my first child he was incredibly sweet on shoots, always making sure I had a chair to sit on and organising Caesar (who ran his household) to give me a good lunch! Happy Days!


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