At the weekend, we watched ‘We’ll take Manhattan’, the BBC programme about the trip David Bailey and Jean Shrimpton took to New York in 1962, which took both their careers mainstream and launched sixties youth culture in the proccess. (UK folk, it’s still on iPlayer til Friday*). What you see above are the original pictures from that trip.
I don’t think this was the aim of the programme, but it made me feel quite sad for Jean Shrimpton. Whenever I’ve read anything about David Bailey in the past it was working class hero sort of stuff, boy from the East End makes it big due to association with up and coming upper class model. This was also pretty much the narrative given in the documentary BBC4 were showing alongside the film.
But the way it was presented in WTM wasn’t quite like that. Yes, she was from a wealthy family and privately educated, but she was hardly a society girl. She was all akward glances and clumsiness and her dad actually chucks her out of the family home when she refuses to stop seeing Bailey, who is married. Then they go to New York and she gets caught in the power struggle between the Vogue editor Lady Clare Rendlesham, an upper class fashion establishment person who wants everything to be classic and ladylike and like the past and thinks Shrimpton is plain, and Bailey, who rejects everything that has gone before, gives oddly grand speeches and does his best to piss her (Lady Clare) off. He’s not exactly nice to Shrimpton either and keeps telling her to stop crying because it gives her rings under her yes. She’s all on her own and completely dependent on her modelling income, she’s gambled her life on him and he’s more interested in fighting some kind of generational and class battle.
But really, the thing that made me saddest was the resolution at the end, where everything is fine because she is seen as beautiful. There’s a scene where Bailey and Jean have been arguing about him being an arse and then he sort of apologises and says I think you’re amazing, and then goes on to recount lots of stuff about the way she looks, like her long legs. Nothing about her as an actual person**. And the big vindication at the end is that everyone back in London loved the pictures and Lady Clare is forced to say that Shrimpton is in actual fact beautiful.
And I get that if you’re a model that is what you are being judged on and it’s great for unusual looking people to be recognised and to broaden the definition of beauty, but if your boyfriend is your photographer and your livelihood and that is the best he can do, it’s just really, really sad. And I’m pretty sure that wasn’t what the programme’s makers wanted me to take away from that.
I think I must be in a funny mood. I got really quite emotional at Borgen (Watch it! all the episodes are still on iPlayer) at the weekend.
* I’m not saying you should. It was alright. Helen McRory was excellent, Karen Gillan was pretty good and the Bailey actor was lovely to look at but his accent was well into caricature territory. Not quite in Russel Crowe in Robin Hood territory, but far, far too Michael Caine to be taken seriously.
** He still does that now. In the documentary he went on and flipping on about his wife’s long neck and shrugged off any questions about being a father in the quickest time possible.