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We'll Take Manhattan: Meeting David Bailey

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John McKay John McKay | 10:38 UK time, Thursday, 26 January 2012

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.


  • Comment number 1.

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

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • Comment number 4.

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

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • Comment number 8.

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

  • 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?

  • Comment number 10.

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

  • 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!

  • Comment number 12.

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

  • 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)

  • 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!

  • 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!

  • Comment number 16.

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

  • 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').

  • 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"

  • 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.

  • 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...

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • Comment number 24.

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

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 38.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • Comment number 41.

    To a photographer and contemporary of Bailey this was an enthralling watch. I love Karen Gillan, even though she was carrying a millstone in this role - playing the iconic Shrimp. The guy was utterly gorgeous almost mesmeric, though of course his accent was a bit off - Bailey now looks like a baggy sofa with bad springs, he only sounded like one when he was younger. Everything was so personal to me - my pal Wendy was a contemporary model with Shrimp and was a bit too classy for Bailey, she mostly worked with Litchfield and Snowdon (now I understand why). I worked in Fleet Street, though a lot later 1978 and Bailey was always buying old cameras, even then for his company Third Eye - he would always send in these wonderful skinny birds in posh frocks with cut glass accents to pick up stuff. It was a wonderful experience working in that environment, with the likes of Carl Sutton , ex Picture Post and all his Fleet Street mates. I can perfectly understand Annie's affection, where would we be now without him. Ironically, my daughter is a fashion photographer and journalist (and a model) and absolutely nothing has changed. Bailey opened the door to the SLR bringing together the extemporary world of photojournalism and fashion.

  • Comment number 42.

    Wonderful cast,have watched it on 'iplayer 4 times !Karen gillan is a believable 'Shrimp',not an easy role,emulating the original ! The story of David bailey,and his muse,threw some light on their careers for me. A very watchable story ,excellent script cannot fault a 'frame', well done writer chappie !!!

  • Comment number 43.

    I enjoyed the programe and it was good that my father John Cole's Studiofive got a mention too. I am not so sure the studio was quite as disorganised as the programe showed! Anyway thanks for the reference.


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