There were many reasons why 2012 BBC drama ‘We’ll Take Manhattan’ riled - and not least the fact that I just love the song, especially when sung by the wondrous Ella Fitzgerald. As a fashion statement then, this is surely as iconic as it gets. And the subject matter? Well it seems the arrival in New York of the young and ’appenin’ couple David Bailey (seminal ‘60s photographer) and his ‘model’ girlfriend, Jean Shrimpton was the spring board for a cultural revolution. This was the early 60s. Forget the arrival of the Beatles – either at home in England, or when they landed bound for glory, in the welcoming arms of their Stateside fan base. The drama kicks off with the amazing statement that "In 1962 no one had heard of the Beatles. No one expected to be famous who was not born rich or titled. There was no such thing as youth culture." This event was a mere ripple in the grand wave of cultural change that was the Swinging Sixties then, according to this shiny drama. It was the arrival on the fashion scene of Bailey and Shrimpton that REALLY mattered. And this is just, well…wrong.
Actor Aneurin Barnard as David Bailey is compelling – just gorgeous. You would be forgiven for falling at his feet and begging him to take your picture, whether he was talented or not! But Karen Gillan as Jean Shrimpton – the actress also famously known for playing Amy Pond, The Doctor’s sidekick in ‘Doctor Who’ – simply lacks charisma. Now I know I may be in a minority of one with this opinion – after all, she is a media darling, and in company with her ‘Doctor’ co-star Matt Smith, won Best Actor in the British Television Awards in early 2012. (OK – she got Best Actress, but same thing, just different gender). So what’s my problem with Gillan? Well she pouts and poses her way through every ‘Doctor Who’ episode like a naughty and slightly disconsolate schoolgirl, and is flagrantly upstaged both by Matt Smith as The Doctor, and by Arthur Darvill as her boyfriend, Rory. She just seems in love with herself. Too often in celebrity land, this creates a self fulfilling prophesy wherein, voila! Everyone else loves you too!
So she turns up here in ‘Manhattan’, posing is a career choice now, and she’s pouting to her heart’s content. A style rebel? Really? And can Gillan genuinely step into the (Biba) shoes of Jean Shrimpton? Not for nothing did Bailey love the original, genuine article. Shrimpton was the perfect model. David Bailey said in 2012 BBC 4 documentary ‘David Bailey: Four Beats to the Bar and No Cheating’ that her ‘girl next door’ appeal meant everyone loved her, just as the camera loved her, and the fashion industry loved her. She looked ordinary, yet at the same time, extraordinarily beautiful. A difficult look to pull off. He also pointed out that English model and fashion icon Kate Moss has this same appeal.
Moss was herself at the front of a fashion sea change – when she was photographed by English photographer Corinne Day in 1990 for London style bible ‘The Face’ it spearheaded the ‘heroin chic’ look that dominated fashion spreads throughout the decade. ‘Ordinary, yet extraordinarily beautiful.’ Gillen has the first part of that sentence covered, but there it ends. Now you may say, give the girl a break, but I hate being informed what’s attractive. Isn't beauty in the eye of the beholder?
When Matt Smith told Jonathan Ross on his eponymous celebrity interview show that his new Dr Who ‘companion’ was ‘a 10’ in the looks stakes, I thought ‘Really? Honestly?’ Isn’t she just middling pretty, overly confident, and extremely tall? Oh, and like 'The Shrimp' - with vibrant, red hair. You must admit, Smith is a pretty good foil to this uninspired look, as – let’s be honest – he’s odd looking, verging on the ugly. What she lacks however, he has in spades - charisma.
Surely, with the original Bailey and Shrimpton pairing, he was the artist, she was the beauty? In ‘We’ll Take Manhattan’ he’s compulsively attractive, and handles his daft 'rebel without a cause' role pretty well. She's…well, Karen Gillan. One of those actors who will never transcend the limitations of their own look.
The 'We'll Take Manhattan' slavishly devoted storyline suggests this couple of fashionistas headed up an iconoclastic style revolution – though from what I could see, their outrageously innovative behaviour was limited to Shrimpton posing in various unlikely spots, by the side of a busy road for example, oh and she carried a teddy bear. Now I have no quarrel with the expertise of Bailey. Poised on the cutting edge of the style, design and celebrity explosion that was Britain in the Sixties, he knew how to create a good look, and however he staged Shrimpton, she was fabulous. Her sulky appeal was the backdrop of an era, until Twiggy came along and became iconic in her turn.
What I feel was overblown and ultimately unsuccessful was this drama’s insistence that Bailey and Shrimpton were astonishing, revolutionary. Come on, isn’t this just silly? Certainly the drama couldn’t carry off this premise, and it all fell a bit flat. Like ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ we were being fed a lie here, a fairy tale in which image is king, and we have to agree with the aesthetic tropes spoon fed us by the TV. One of which is that Karen Gillan is anything other than an ordinary girl, in extraordinary circumstances – that of international fame, courtesy of the dear old Doctor.