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 1.

    Hi - John McKay writer and director online, and happy to talk about "We'll Take Manhattan"

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions, John. That's very kind of you to do.

    I haven't seen the movie yet, but I was wondering how long did it take you guys to film "We'll Take Manhattan" and are there any fun memories on set you can share?

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    This programe is utterly trivial. Full of cliche. Wigs are unbelievable. Script is juvenile.
    Not what I expect fro BBC4.
    How do you have the nerve to present it as an intellectual programme?

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I have a Q for you John - what is your favourite moment in the finished drama?

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    Comment number 5.

    Wow these comments are taking a long time to get moderated.
    @ BB - We actually shot the film in about 3 weeks, but it was 3 years in the making!
    @lizs - I'm sorry you don't like it. I'm not sure it's an "intellectual" programme - but maybe an instructive one for a generation who have never heard of Bailey and Jean.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    @Fiona - I like the sunset scene by the Thames that loses all its sound. It was the easiest and most pleasant one to shoot!

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    Comment number 7.

    Hi all; almost didn't watch but loved it! Was there then and remember seeing Jean wearing the same clothes she'd worn at the party the night before whilst walking that long legged Afghan (with legs to match hers!)! Was it Baileys' dog? Mind you now Baileys means that Irish cream based drink - which I rather enjoy on occasion.

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    Comment number 8.

    Liz is talking utter rubbish! Loved the programme. The real photos at the end were a really nice touch. Well done!

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    Comment number 9.

    fantastic programme. i knew a bit about david bailey but didn't know about this photoshoot before. wonderfully evocative of a time of cultural revolution. loved the sunset scene too! what cameras were used in the filming of it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Hi John, I loved the music, but didn't see any credits for it. Can you tell us about it? Thanks

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    @Alinewson - glad you liked it. It was important to me that we had the real photos at the end, to show that it all really happened.
    @Suze15 - it was Bailey's dog, I think, but I believe he gave it to Jean and it ended up (happier) on the farm. I wrote it in - and then we couldn't afford it! Acting dogs are expensive!

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Also, was wondering which article inspired the programme? Would be interested to read it.

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    Comment number 13.

    Mr. McKay, my family sat down to watch this tonight and it was a great watch. Brilliant acting from Helen McCrory, who played the narcissistic editor so well. The cinematography was good and i loved the transitions to the old b&w photos. I have a question. Are you and your crew part of a independent production working for the BBC, or did you make this separately and sell it to them? I am inquisitive as this is the career path i wish to take in the future. (Im 16)

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    Comment number 14.

    Loved the drama. It was very well done. The only thing it mentioned the Beatles at the beginning saying nobody had heard of them. Bailey had a bit of a Beatles haircut which I didnt think anybody had till the Beatles were famous!

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    Comment number 15.

    Thank you for your persistence, it was wonderful. You captured the elegance of the era & the exciting changing times ahead. It also captured Bailey's rawness & love of Jean.
    Using the original photos from the New York shoot in the closing credits was a beautiful touch and completed the programme.
    I will be watching it again on iplayer, I loved it!

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    Comment number 16.

    Thanks John. I want to learn to talk like Helen McCrory as Lady Clare!

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    Comment number 17.

    I'm not at all interested in fashion, quite the opposite, but I enjoyed the film.
    Karen was convincing and so was Aneurin, Helen McCrory was as usual good too, as a proto Anna Wintour like figure.
    Despite the small budget it looked great too.

    To be an anorak, as someone who works in the airline biz, I can say that the VC-10 aircraft at the start was not yet in airline service in 1962 (if it had been, it might have sold more!)
    But where else are you going to get a first generation jet airliner in BOAC livery, to shoot, if you cannot have CGI?

    3. Lizs, how do you know if it was 'trivial' if you posted before the film had even finished, or were you just topping up your daily rant at the BBC dosage?
    I did not expect a highbrow event here, there is stacks of that sort of programme on BBC4 (and BBC2).
    Fashion or not, the emergence of ambitious and chippy working class types like Bailey into areas hitherto the preserve of the upper class, was an important cultural and economic signpost of the 1960's.

    (Love the touch at the end on the flight home with Bailey dismissing pop music in what would be the 'jazz decade').

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Thanks for all your great comments. Let me see if I can answer a few questions -

    @al123 - The camera we used was a new one called a Sony F3. It's very lightweight, which we needed because we had such a small crew, but natively takes 35 mil lenses. I'm really pleased with the look - and it's amazing projected on a big cinema screen.

    @maceasy - the music was composed by Kevin Sargent, an amazing composer and an old friend. I know I wanted a jazz score, because Bailey loved jazz so much. Kevin assembled a jazz quartet and recorded them altogether, live - which is never done any more. The soundtrack is coming out on Itunes, I believe.

    @alinewson - I think the first article I ever saw that sparked my interest was one by Robin Muir in the Weekend Guardian, about four years ago, which coincided with the publication of an album of the NY shots - "NYJSDB62"

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    Comment number 19.

    John McKay has done a fantastic job. I have never seen anything so powerful and beautifully written about my times and aspirations. In 1962 I was sixteen, two years later I would be at Hornsey College of Art with a Rolleichord. The way the transition from medium format to 35mm was handled in so few words against the changing social times was truly breathtaking. I’m now an aspiring author and whether I succeed or not, Kindle, Amazon and ebooks are about to do exactly the same destruction job on the stuffy, funny old world of book publishing. If you have shares in a publisher dump them immediately.

    What wonderful times to have lived through. Baby Boomers are a fantastically blessed generation. Aneurin Barnard definitely has the Bailey look but even more handsome. Karen Gillan carried off a good performance but only looked the part in the closing stills. She just doesn’t have the Shrimp eyes, like Sixties models Joanna Lumley and Wendy Marler - some sort of anglo-saxon aristocratic gene - its in the high eye-brows and droopy eyes. Sadly time has not stood still regarding any of our looks, particularly David Bailey and David Hemmings - check him out in Blow-up and again in Gladiator. Life sucks and gravity pulls. However fabulous, amazing times - eat your heart out kids.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Here are some more responses -

    @benhector55 - We'll Take Manhattan was made by an independent production company (Kudos) for the BBC. Although I often work for Kudos, I'm not a staffer - very few writers or directors are staff at any company anymore. 16, eh? My advice is go get an education, travel, make stuff, fall in love - and then decide whether you really want to work in showbusiness.

    @martinsnest - BAiley was famous for having a beatles haircut before the beatles existed. I think it was because he knew Vidal Sassoon, and liked continental styles.

    @Nadia - thanks!

    SONICBOOMER - the plane we used was one at RAF Duxford. I was assured that it did enter service in 1962... but maybe we stretched it by a month or two! Originally I'd seen them on a Comet, but boy those things are small...


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