This article, The Bassey formula by Tony Palmer, was published in the Observer’s review section on 19 April 1970
Shirley Bassey wants us to care about her. Every gesture, every inflection, every song pleaded for endless sympathy for her suffering. The audience at the Talk of the Town, where she is currently appearing for a season, seemed to understand their role in the game and responded with enthusiasm.
But it’s difficult to know what it is about Miss Bassey that commands either respect or affection. She appeared in a backless off-pink nightie out of which peeked a little bit of bottom. The way that little bit of bottom banged and thumped and gyrated away, anyone would think that the audience had never seen a bottom before. Her voice has adopted a new concept in loudness called full-thrust ahead, and it spoke words in a clipped melodramatic shriek that presumably was intended to give extra meaning even to the indefinite article. Her manner of singing has a deliberate and self-conscious hysteria. Words become symbols of agony. So the simple and innocent word “Joker” becomes “Jok…aarh,” concluded with a raspy punch.
She’s got Judy Garland’s act almost to perfection. The same wrestling with the mike lead, the same sip from the glass of water proffered by the ever-grateful audience, the same striding around as if on a cross-country trek. She’s got Lena Horne’s phrasing pretty accurately and Ella Fitzgerald’s swoops. After a slightly off-key note she gasps at herself (and the audience) with amazement that she’s still ticking. She shakes her head and flinches her shoulder-blades. And she’s got a lot of hand gestures. She parades around like a Roman empress, flicking her fingers for applause. “This is me,” she sings “and I don’t give a damn.”
Her art is a package sold in the name of entertainment. Like much of show biz, her material is instantly forgettable, calculated to offend no one, stimulate no one, and make no one think why it is they are being shouted at. She has absolutely no stillness either in her voice or in her person.
Why, then, do audiences applaud Miss Bassey so feverishly? One clue came last Tuesday night. While she was lurching through her most famous song, Hey, Big Spender, she suddenly picked on a balding little man in the front row beaming admiringly at her through his pebble glasses. “Like to spend a little time with me?” she gloated. The audience roared their approval.
“I’m a big girl now,” she whispered with arrogant confidence. She then put on a pair of those comedy spectacles which instead of lenses have large painted eyes that wink at you. Grotesque though they were, the glasses seemed to fit the image perfectly. She became like one of those fat ladies at the circus or the dwarf with three arms. She was inviting the audience not to laugh with her, but to laugh at her – to laugh at her deformity.
In her, they could recognise their own coarseness and by applauding her, they could excuse this same coarseness in themselves. Her vulgarity purged them of theirs, since she could demonstrate by her act that it didn’t really matter.