Photographing Dame Shirley Bassey, UK prisons, and a TV production

A  series of short essays about some of Robert’s more challenging and unusual photo assignments. 

  1. Photographing Dame Shirley Bassey (see “Women” Gallery )
  2. A Photo Shoot at a Women’s Prison in England, for the Prison Reform Trust
  3. Painting with Light – working with Autistic Children
  4. BLACK DIVAS, Co-producing a Channel 4 Documentary


1. Photographing Dame Shirley Bassey

Robert recalls his experience of meeting and photographing a great singing star.

Over the last 20 years I’ve photographed members of the British Royal Family, leading politicians and a host of other distinguished and eminent operators in various fields. My portraits of many of them are in the National Portrait gallery, the Royal Society and several other public and private collections. Despite all that, there was still something really rather daunting about the prospect of photographing Dame Shirley Bassey.

I had a great time boasting about it to anyone who’d listen in the weeks leading up to the session, and it was wonderful harvesting the envious and admiring comments (admiring of her, envious of me!), but as the date drew near I began to wonder if I might have bitten off a just bit more than I could chew. For over 50 years Dame Shirley has been delighting a massive international fan-base. She has had one of the most successful performing and recording careers of any female singer, and in more recent times she has made some very elegant shifts in new directions. Who would have predicted that a 70 year old performer who has always been the epitome of glamour and old style star quality would be taking the Glastonbury Festival by storm, or recording and performing with a host of some of the hottest and edgiest new musical talents of the 21st Century? And she has done all this while staying true to her commitment to bringing something extra special to any song worthy of her vocal gifts, always managing to make a song her very own.

Due to the brevity of Dame Shirley’s stay in London, the timing for the photo session and delivery of the finished result was very tight. I had to photograph her in the Churchill Room at the London Savoy on the afternoon of the same day that she would be appearing as the guest of honour at a glittering charity gala event in aid of a charity foundation. The picture had to be approved by her and then speedily fettled, printed and framed, ready to be auctioned that same evening.

I’d been warned that she liked her photo sessions to be conducted in a crisply efficient manner, and with a firm hand. But how firmly and crisply do you handle an international icon before finding her limits and blowing the whole thing.

I think some of my fears leading up to the session were aroused by the unspoken assumption that the characters that Dame Shirley creates in the performance of her big James Bond film numbers might offer clues to the character of the woman herself. Scary if true! Who knows?

On top of that, thinking about all the distinguished photographers that she must have worked with over the last 50 years didn’t help. It was hard to imagine producing something special and really distinctive in such a rush.

Although she must have been photographed many hundred of times, when Dame Shirley and her assistant turned up ready for action there was not a hint of jadedness, or impatience. Far from it. She was just very professional and ready to get down to work. She was very sweet to my rather awestruck assistants and we were all put at our ease very quickly. She could not have been more charming and easy to work with. A couple of instances epitomize the photo session. At one point I asked her to embrace one of the massive white marble pillars in the room we were working in. She responded enthusiastically but recoiled on contact with the pillar, discovering how cold it was to the touch. I instructed two of my male assistants to rub their bodies up against the pillar to warm it up for her. They performed the task with vigour and a fair bit of camping about. It was an odd scene. She ended up in fits of giggles. The image we actually ended up printing for the auction had nothing to do with the pillars and came as a direct result of her willingness to be so playful and inventive with the shiny red fabric drapes that I’d hung up for the final photo sequence.

Later that evening Dame Shirley’s picture raised a fine price at the charity auction. To my delight, she really did seem to like it, so much so in fact that she asked if she could use it use the image as her Christmas card for 2011. Result!

This has definitely been one of the highlights of my photographic career.


2. A Photo Shoot at a Women’s Prison in England,

    for the Prison Reform Trust

I have had several commissions to photograph particular aspects of prison life in recent years, for two quite different types of client. My work for the Probation Service has been pretty straightforward. The Probation Service is keen to inform the public and those handing out prison sentences in the criminal courts about the work they do with prisoners.  Working for the Prison Reform Trust is slightly more complicated. As an organization campaigning to improve conditions in prisons The Prison Reform Trust has, amongst other things, to highlight problems in prisons. Turning up at a prison on their behalf with a camera in my hand I tend to feel slightly awkward knowing that the top brass at the prison want me to see how well they are doing in difficult circumstances, whilst I need to leave with a set of pictures that will serve The Prison Reform Trust’s agenda. It’s obviously a little more complicated than that, but the base reality is hard to avoid

Quite apart from the structural politics, I approached this particular job with some apprehension. I had visited my first women’s prison only a few months before on a job for the Probation Service. It stood right next door to a similarly laid out men’s prison but I felt that it was a noticeably more tense and unhappy place than the men’s prison. Even a moment’s reflection about the things that many woman prisoners leave behind might have explained why this was so, but there were plainly more complex problems beneath the strained surface. As it turned out this particular prison was to give me some new things to reflect on.

After going through the usual rigorous security checks, giving up my mobile phone and witnessing some seriously noisy lock and key action I was ushered through onto ‘the other side’. After a short solitary wait in a sort of no man’s land I met my minder and guide for the day, a very senior prison officer. Like most of the people I meet in highly responsible positions these days he seemed quite young, certainly too young to have so much responsibility.

I had arrived an hour early, but my guide made it plain that this was good news as far as he was concerned as we’d catch more of the action. He was warm, enthusiastic and eager to impress upon me how important it was to him that I got all that I came for. I had to fight a certain cynicism. “Surely”, I thought to myself, “he couldn’t mean all that stuff. I bet they’ve lined up material that will have me coming away with a rather false view of the place …”.

The first thing that struck me as we moved away from the entry lodge was the beauty and order of the large garden just in front of the first prisoner cell-block. Hanging baskets, well tended lawns and even a largish pond boasting enormous flowering orchids and big fat goldfish. There had obviously been a lot of time and love lavished on it. My guide seemed delighted at my first impressions. This was all so unlike my last prison shoot. I had to pause to remind myself where I was and what I was there for.

We went up to an office where I listed my fairly ambitious photographic hopes for the day. I braced myself for the reasons why not and legal restrictions but my guide seemed to think we could manage most of what I was after. What impressed me most about him in that first conversation was his obvious love of the job and pride in what he felt he was achieving with the women there. This was amply borne out over the next six fascinating hours as we moved around the prison meeting the inmates and prison staff in a wide range of situations.

For fairly obvious reasons the first challenge when taking photos in a prison is finding inmates and prison officers who are prepared to be photographed. One can tell some prison stories without people or just the backs of their heads, but real identifiable people are so much better. Great care is taken to make sure those offering their consent do so freely and are prepared to sign a release form that sets out clearly what we are up to with the pictures. I can’t be sure why, but there were so many people willing to cooperate with us that day that we had to get extra release forms printed. I hadn’t expected such a great willingness to be involved. It must say a lot about what the Prison Service is achieving there.

It was one of the hottest days of a fairly long heat wave. As we moved onto the first prisoner wing I noticed that it was quite stuffy but not as bad as one might have expected. This may have been a consequence of the absence of any big glass windows. Going into one of the two-person cells for the first time I struggled to imagine what it must be like being locked in such a small space for most of the day. One of my most important tasks was to give an impression of how cramped conditions were. Not difficult! The cells were really tiny with a minute adjacent chamber containing a toilet and wash basin. It would have been grim for one person, but at that time many people were living two to a cell with bunk beds. There were some improvements going on but the structure of the cells would continue to dictate a basically cramped environment.

The inmates’ valiant attempts to personalise the rooms with photos, posters and knick knacks, TVs, ghetto blasters etc. helped to lift the gloom, but often made the rooms seem even smaller. I was very touched by people’s willingness to show off their efforts yet at the same time they were desperate to tell me and the outside world about living in these conditions. All I could do was listen carefully and do my best with the pictures. I left the wing feeling a strange mixture of things. There was sadness at the lives of the women. I felt very privileged at having been allowed into such intimate spaces, and great relief that in a few hours I’d be out of there and on my way home to freedoms and choices that they could only dream of.

As I moved around the prison meeting a wide range of women I kept catching myself thinking “…you’re far too nice to be a criminal …”, whatever that’s supposed to mean, and “… what are you doing in a place like this?”. The women were just like people you’d meet outside. Intelligence, charm, physical attractiveness, as well as all the other stuff, were very evident to a wholly unremarkable degree. I did have a little wobble when during a very casual conversation an inmate made a passing reference to being a “lifer”. I didn’t know if this was true but it made me shudder thinking about what she might have done to warrant the sentence. We were in the tailor’s workshop at the time with lots of hard sharp things around. Prejudice in flight! I saw – not for the first time – that one of the biggest problems in these women’s lives is the outside world’s opinions about them. Some seemed very vulnerable. Others spaced out. There were a few who were obviously deeply suspicious of me and my motives for being there, and kept as far away from me and my camera as possible.

It was interesting to note the high proportion of the women who obviously took great care over their appearance even though there was no viable male company anywhere near. One of my subjects was very obviously pregnant and plainly ambivalent about it. There was a touching moment when one of the male prison officers drew on personal family experience to offer her reassurance about some unexpected movements and sensations in her belly. It was clear that the prison officers really worked at creating good relationships with the inmates, not an easy thing given the burdens of security and discipline. Odder still given that however well staff got on with inmates, the women were always referred to as Miss X or Miss Y. It’s a great testament to the professionalism of the prison officers that such a good level of relatedness was possible.

My partner, a biologist based at Oxford University, has just published a major textbook  about pheromones. It’s mostly about animals but there’s a chapter about pheromones and humans. One of the few areas where it’s been shown that pheromones exert a well proven biological effect with humans is the synchronised menstruation of women living closely together in institutions. I found myself wondering what it must be like being around mass PMT inside an institution where there is already so much stress.

Whatever people may have been making of a large bald black man with lots of overlarge jewellery wielding cameras and complicated forms to sign, I was generally greeted politely and enthusiastically wherever I went. My reassurances that inmates had given me exactly what I’d been after went down very well. I don’t suppose there’s an abundance of acknowledgement on offer to these women in this kind of environment.

There were a lot of ethnic minority inmates, though not as many as recent news reports had led me to expect. The only ethnic minority staff I encountered seemed to be non-uniformed administrators or medics.

I had one of the saddest experiences of the day in the visitors’ suite. The suite consisted of sets of four or five chairs arranged on two sides of about half a dozen low tables in a fairly large open plan room. It was comfortable but certainly not about intimacy or privacy. I was warned that it would be very unlikely that anyone would agree to being photographed. Sure enough our first approach was rebuffed.

With spirits sinking we approached another table at which sat a particularly attractive thirtyish Mediterranean looking woman with a huge mane of dark curly hair. She wore a very fetching silver satin finish trouser suit and a big warm smile. On the other side of the table sat her two visitors, a twenty something mixed race couple. The man, black and casually dressed seemed quite shy and quiet. The blond haired woman at his side had the air of an enthusiastic trainee social worker. They all said yes to photos , breezily signed the release forms and then – exactly as I had asked – proceeded to have their meeting as if I was not there. The way they joked and gossiped you would have thought they were in some trendy wine bar. I began to wonder if the glamorous inmate had been through all this ‘prison lark’ before. I resisted the temptation to ask in case anything that emerged might endanger my pictures. I – and I suspect my guide – could not believe my luck. I thanked them, gathered my equipment and moved towards the exit.

My guide needed to have a few words with the officers in charge of the room before we could leave, so I found a quiet corner, and with my cameras safely back in my bag observed what was going on around the room as discreetly as I could. Several small groups were engaged in subdued conversations across the tables. In the far corner I observed a woman prisoner having what seemed like a fairly relaxed conversation with a child. The woman was in a secure cell like room and spoke to the child through a small slit in a large panel of toughened glass. I could not see the child’s face. I could hardly bare to imagine what it must have been like for either of them. Embarrassed at the possible inappropriateness of what had become my fascinated gawping, and distracted by sobbing I turned to see a young African woman slumped in a chair with her head in her hands. Opposite her sat an African looking man and a white woman – possibly a lawyer – with lots of paper work. It was sad sight. They seemed indifferent to her distress as they chatted away to each other. I do not know what was upsetting her. Her despair was horrible to watch. All sorts of questions sprang to mind about how she might have ended up there and what she’d been forced to leave behind in the outside world. My guide was ready to leave. For the first time that day I was very glad to be leaving a location. I took up a few more very useful photo opportunities elsewhere in the prison, and started to enjoy myself again, but could not forget the sad scenes in the visiting suite.

The last subject brought things nicely full circle. We decided that it’d be good to get some genuine interaction shots between my guide and the inmate with principle responsibility for the gardens. She’d been quite elusive for most of the afternoon but we eventually tracked her down hanging some new baskets in the area adjacent to the pond with the lilies and goldfish. She was probably in her early thirties, with a very relaxed and friendly manner. She chatted away to the guide with an ease that suggested they were more like colleagues or friends than prison officer and inmate. As time passed the prison officer and inmate element of their relationship became more evident in the language used, but there was obviously trust and respect on both sides. She was obviously very proud of her role in the creation of such a pleasing environment After taking some shots of her tending to some well ripened tomatoes I was invited to sample one. It was delicious. I groaned with pleasure and was rewarded with the offer of a bag of them to take home with me. I’m not normally much of a tomato man, but knowing what had gone into the production of these particular specimens certainly sharpened my senses.

That episode nicely summed up and symbolised the day: a series of pleasant surprises, poignant moments and challenges to my assumptions about prison inmates and the people who look after them.



3. Painting with Light

Creative Partnerships is a government-funded national initiative, established to develop schoolchildren’s potential, ambition, creativity and imagination. It supports sustainable partnerships between schools, creative and cultural organisations and individuals. I was commissioned to do some work in a South London school for children with severe learning difficulties and autism.

Our project was to facilitate the creation of individual photographic artworks with each pupil. There were also some group ‘compositions’. Using a torch in totally blacked out improvised studio, each pupil ‘painted’ their own design in space with a light beam during a 10-15 second exposure. An aspect of their engagement with what they were doing was captured in an instant with a single burst of a flashgun. It required from the pupils a degree of coordination, creative self expression, self discipline, consideration of others, and repeated generous acknowledgement of each other’s efforts.

I and my assistants arrived on the first day with good heart but rather limited expectations. We had energetic assistance with general communication and setting up from two dance students based at the nearby Laban Centre. The Laban students had been working on movement with the pupils for some time and were able to make a number of very useful suggestions and practical contributions.

The pupils’ responses to the project were remarkably creative and enthusiastic. We set it up so that each pupil ‘performed’ their light painting with all of the others looking on, and each child got an enthusiastic round of applause from all the other pupils at the end of their two ‘performances’. They seemed genuinely excited and rather pleased with themselves. To my great and pleasant surprise, at the end of the overall session several pupils came up to me to thank me. They’d so obviously enjoyed themselves. I was quite choked. I had not realised either that it had meant so much to them, or that they had understood so much about the process and our respective roles.

It got even more emotional when we returned to the school to show them the results. The idea was that we would ‘help’ them decide which images of each of their individual efforts would be chosen for a wall display of 10” x  8” prints. Again, I was surprised at the degree to which the children were able to identify themselves on the contact sheets, take such pride in their own efforts, express clearly reasoned preferences, and – perhaps most heartwarmingly – be so complimentary of each others efforts.

To summarise. Experiencing their responses I am clear that it worked for the pupils. Many of the resulting images are fascinating and beautiful. The big surprise was seeing what a very rich, rewarding and moving experience the process provided for me and my assistants.

I would love to create other projects, either at that school or further afield.

A postscript. I have a friend who is a senior educationalist in Oxford with considerable experience in the field of learning difficulties etc. She speculated that one of the reasons why the project may have worked so well for these particular children may have been the fact that they were being creative and communicative in almost complete darkness, and thus relieved of a lot of the sensory input and challenge that normally affects their social interaction. Who knows?


4. BLACK DIVAS a Channel 4 Documentary

     (25 minutes – 8 week production)

This is a personal account of the making of a 25 minute documentary film about the connections between an amazing range of charismatic black women singers and their gay fans. It is presented as a novice associate producer’s informal diary. The term ‘associate producer’ can mean many things. In this production it meant that I was the joint recipient of the commission from Channel 4 to make the film. I was responsible for coming up with the basic idea and working closely with the director, executive producers and researcher to try to turn my fantasies into broadcast ‘reality’.

14 February 1996 At Channel 4 headquarters sitting in front of Jacquie Lawrence, Deputy Commissioning Editor for Independent Film and Video, wondering if I am having an amazing dream.

I was just an innocent freelance stills-photographer with a nagging curiosity about film-making when  I bumped into Dominique Harvey, a young relatively inexperienced director/producer. She had some information about Channel 4’s film budgets and generously suggested that if I came up with a good idea for a film, we could write a joint proposal to Channel 4. Six weeks later, against all expectations, Channel 4 was offering us a commission to make Black Divas, a 25 minute documentary about black divas and their queer fans, one of four films in the Celluloid Icons series.

Dominique and I stumbled out of the building towards the nearest pub in deep shock. My mind raced through endless half formed ideas about what the next couple of months were really going to be like. There were suddenly lots of things to sort out. There had to be properly worked out treatment/plan for the film. We had to get a tight production team together. Whilst much of this would be sorted out with the help of a proper production company, there still seemed to be no end of decisions looming. I looked across the table at Dominique, and in the midst of all the hysteria and excitement, I reflected for the first time that I hardly knew her. And now we were to be locked together in a creative clinch for the next two or three months.

4 March 1000 At Dominique’s flat, frantically finalising priorities for the first big meeting with Inge Blackman and Heather McAdam at Cultural Partnerships (CPL), the production company chosen by Dominique and approved by Channel 4 for the task of implementing our efforts.

As a complete ‘virgin’ in film I had to take a lot on trust from Dominique about what would happen and what things really meant. Her energy and creativity seemed ample compensation for the fact that this was to be a departure from her more usual magazine format, and her first film of longer than 10 minutes!

4 March 1400 At the office of (CPL). The primary purposes of this meeting were for Dominique and me to deliver an outline treatment and explain what we thought the film was about. CPL had to begin to explain to us how this might be achieved with £60,000 and an 8 week production schedule. The nominal 8 weeks were to be divided into pre-production (research, tightening up the shape of the film, and organising 1001 things), the filming week, and post production (editing, and delivering the finished product to Channel 4)

At about the same time as all this new experience I was invited to dine at my partner’s Oxford University college. I found myself being introduced to the guest of honour, the Oscar winning film producer Sir David Puttnam. I asked him what he was up to. He said that he had just got his first Channel 4 film commission. To my great delight I was able to say “so had I”. He advised me not to make too much of being a newcomer, as bullshitting and incompetence were quite normal in the industry, and one might just as well get on with trying to achieve one’s goals without taking too much notice of what people were telling you you could not do.

As I understood it Dominique and I were – in our very different ways – responsible for the creative direction of the film. It was agreed that however much she and I might function as a team informally, in strict professional terms, come shooting week, Dominique would be in absolute control and free to be ‘pragmatic’ if necessary. This was going to be nothing like still photography. Praise, blame, decision-making and the determination of any strong sense of direction were all to be shared.

The notion that I was to be the respected guardian of the ‘soul’ of the film proved to be rather naive. It was a much more crude and competitive process in which Dominique and I joked, slugged and manipulated our way towards our often quite apposing goals. Sadly there is nothing unusual about this in the film world.

There were some quite deep rooted tensions between us. As director, Dominique had overall responsibility for the creative element of the project. I was less than confident that some of the issues arising in a film about black women and their relationship with a predominantly gay male audience were going to be properly grasped by a relatively young and inexperienced woman who was neither black gay, nor – it has to be said – very sensitive to some of the things going on around her. As a late thirties black gay man I felt very close to the film’s subject matter. We had some fabulously furious arguments – something I had never experienced before in a professional creative environment. These were mostly over matters of ‘taste’, but occasionally and more depressingly, over who’s identity politics were more impeccably and compellingly relevant to the particular issue in hand.

To Dominique’s credit, there was always a smile and fresh energy for the next task, no matter how grim the last row had been.

The production company (CPL) meanwhile were to oversee the myriad strategic and practical tasks. CPL were also to try encourage us – without actually taking over – to keep our creative ambitions clear and realistic. They were executive producers, as opposed to just producers. As I understood it, the addition of ‘executive’ meant that they were less directly involved in the creative aspects of the film, and more concerned with general guidance and supervision.

It had not occurred to me that there were going to be so many meetings, phone calls and decisions.

We took a small separate office at CPL’s premises. It was hard to imagine that we would create a film in this bare lonely little space. I plastered the walls with large photographs of my more exotic and charismatic portrait subjects in an attempt to create some atmosphere. It worked to the extent that most people really liked them, and they made the space ours for the duration of the production.

I was shocked to learn how easily £60,000 could be gobbled up. In theory Dominique and I were getting £60,000 – what seemed like a huge fortune – to go and make a film. In practice she and I were to be paid equal salaries for our work over 8 weeks (in reality spread over 14 weeks). In addition, a proportion of the total budget, called the production fee (15% of the total budget) was to be divided between Dominic, me and CPL. The remaining 85% of the money would be paid to CPL in installments to cover:

artists and interviewees fees

film crew (camera, sound and lighting) fees and equipment hire

art director’s fees and materials

wardrobe/make-up/hair etc. fees and materials

editing  fees and edit suite hire

studio hire


archive material

rostrum shots of still images and graphics

music (copyright and performance)



finance/legal costs

miscellaneous overheads (inc. office, telephone etc)

Suddenly it was obvious that we’d barely have enough to do a good job. Whilst these items all cost more than I had expected, in my personal opinion, the prohibitive cost of music and footage were to have a particular and profound effect on the quality of the finished product. We ended up not being able to afford to buy the classic footage and videos that would properly illustrate the extraordinary qualities of the women the film was about! Dominique made brave attempts to create the essence of a black diva by other means. Principle amongst the devices was the creation of a character known to the crew – if not a wider public – as Miss Dubois; a sort of every woman black drag diva played with great flair by Alan Jarman. His performance, whilst fabulous as a spectacle in itself, could not really conjure up the essence of all the ‘real’ black divas in the film footage we could not afford to buy.

Alan’s roles included punctuating the film with a series of rhetorical questions about ‘divaness’, strutting up and down Old Compton Street (the supposed heart of young gay London at the time) in a shimmering full length evening dress, and preening and pouting in various diva guises to the soundtrack of ‘experts’  and fanatical fans reflecting on the key ingredients of a classic black diva.

7 March  At WKD night-club in Camden. This was the first of many meetings between Dominique me and third parties to check out or procure people and locations for the film. In this particular case we were considering the club as the venue for a party scene that was to feature Chaka Khan. (she was a personal friend of the club-owner) Neither the venue or Chaka came off in the end. Ms Khan’s Japanese concert commitments clashed with our filming schedule. However, there were many fruitful outings and surprises such as a delightful and fascinating lunch with George Melly reminiscing about the early divas. Other great moments included winning singer David McAlmont over to the project and witnessing his Shirley Bassey ‘impression’, complete with flying dreadlocks, learning some of the finer points of what it means to be Lawrence Armatrading (cousin of Joan), and being treated to a spontaneous armchair rendition of ‘Stormy Weather’ from the fabulous 92 year old Elisabeth Welch in her nursing home for retired stars.

W/C 11 March Several long meetings over 2 weeks with Dominic to work on the treatment for the film. This was crucial for lots of reasons chief among them being that CPL could not settle the details for the final budget until they could be reasonably certain of what Dominic and I wanted the film to be like in its content, scope and style,. They could then work out what could be afforded on a number of fiercely expensive competing items such as footage, music copyright, artists fees, studio sets, location fees, lighting equipment etc.

25 March The honeymoon was suddenly over. That feeling of fun and discovery had all but evaporated to be replaced by the constant worry that we could not do this or that because of lack of funds or time or agreement from other people.

On the other hand there was the pleasure of meeting and briefing our researcher Joy Russell (JR) . She turned out to be a treasure with a real feel for the subject matter, and a knack of finding and getting the best out of juicy potential contributors to the film. She worked her magic on Elizabeth Welch, Paul Burston, Stephen Bourne, Tina c (aka Chris Green) and Carol Leeming to great effect, eliciting all sorts of intimate revelations about the role that divas and their music played in their lives. All of our contributors came up with wonderful material. However, we were shooting on a ratio of about 25:1 (i.e. shooting approximately 650 minutes of material for a 25 minute film).This meant  lots of agonising decisions about what had to be left out. Quite apart from her specifically filmic contributions, Joy was a lovely presence on the production; I found her ever patient, sensitive and fun.

Production manager Marisa Guagenti (MG) came on board a couple of weeks later. She had the huge and seemingly rather dull job of carrying out the bulk of the very detailed administration required to make a very complicated set of events happen smoothly. It proved wise to listen to her advice and – on administrative matters – do her bidding. She usually managed to inject a lot of humour and drama into what could have been some otherwise pretty grim moments. Sophia  Mesphin , a recent graduate in communication studies, was brought in by CPL as a trainee, as part of their On-Line Productions Scheme. She seemed happy to put in several weeks of hard work for nothing more than expenses and the experience. I began to realise just how ridiculously easy my glide into TV had been. Most people have to work long and hard just to get a small taste of the action, and here I was being paid  to hang out in the circles of real power in the  production.

Having decided – more or less – how the shooting week was to be carved up, studios, equipment, props locations, miscellaneous clearances and personnel had to be organised, and fast. Paradoxically, the night-club scene – one of the shortest parts of the finished film – was turning out to be one of the most complicated to arrange. We envisaged a party atmosphere with lots of energetic black diva fans dancing, lip-synching and being generally gorgeous, more or less to order, and – on our sad little budget, for no fee. After a long hunt we settled for the Africa Centre in Covent Garden as a location. There were problems with the terms for hiring the space, the power supply for the huge lighting rig that our camerawoman Nuala Campbell was insisting on, bar opening times and permission to provide our own food for the revellers. If it had not been such a highly publicised and integral part of the film, by the time we came to actually shooting it, I and the executive producers would have had no hesitation in ditching it!

1 April Another fairly taxing meeting with CPL after yet more reworking of the treatment in a vain attempt to convince them that our ideas would work. I was becoming more and more aware that Dominique and I were very different people with strong personal feelings about the subject matter of the film that made us as much adversaries as allies.

W/C 15 April Joy’s extensive round of informal interviews were drawing to a close with the hand-over of detailed notes about each potential contributor. Dominique Joy and I started a series of meetings poring over Joy’s notes to work out which 5 of the 15 interviewed were actually going to be filmed. More arguments and agonising decisions.

W/C 22 April  Suddenly only 2 weeks before shooting and still lots of things for the production manager to finalise. I was becoming aware of the strange sensation of feeling excited that the film was starting to take shape, whilst mildly depressed that it was so far from what I had originally envisaged. This was perhaps best illustrated by the fact that whilst the original idea for the film had flowed from my adoration for Chaka Khan, a prime example of the sort of woman the film was about, it was beginning to look as though she might not feature in it in any way!

W/C 13 May Shooting week. The old hands were at pains to point out that this would be the point at which all the aggravation and hard work would be repaid with a lots of excitement and fun as the product took shape. There were to be three days on location around London and two studio days, all carefully organised like a nervously stacked house of cards. The first two location days went well. The first studio day came a very close second to the Africa Centre in terms of the complexity and hassle. We had a very tight programme: five monologues delivered from a specially constructed set consisting of a 7ft wide sofa shaped as a pair of bright red lips, beneath a 9ft wide pair of sparkling eyelashes. Disaster struck early with the literally last minute withdrawal of the first of the five contributors due to a serious back injury. Delicate negotiations with a previously discarded potential contributor solved the immediate problem (though this change led to big strategic difficulties later). The second studio day centred on various performances by Alan Jarman, who performed and interpreted his material with great energy style and intelligence.

Whilst there was much to celebrate in the relationship between divas and their fans, we wanted to look at the problems as well. We had wanted to look at the phenomenon of some of the most successful divas making offensive comments about gay lifestyles and describing AIDS as the wrath of a vengeful God, but we were warned that we could be sued if we named names. I wrote a poem instead which Alan delivered to camera brilliantly:

A Message To All My Wonderful Gay Fans

I used to be your diva

the queen of funky nights

the soundtrack as you satisfied your sexual appetites

but now, all that’s behind me, I have come to see the light!


So what about the mess of AIDS your lifestyle’s gotya in,

the pain and grief and waste, the hefty price of all that sin?

Me?, I say “read the Bible, let the good Lord enter in”.

I’ve sold a lodda ‘recerds’, made big bucks ouda all you queers,

but please, I’ve never harboured any hate fer y’all my dears,

I’ll always love you people, let those royalties role for years and years … (to fade)


17 May Got the first of the rushes back from the process house. It was very exciting to see some results after all that work. I was pleasantly surprised by the quantity of good material in amongst all the padding.

19 May Sadly the last filming day at the Africa centre was the fiasco that it had always threatened to be, with disappointing attendance for the crowd scenes, serious delays (on our part) and a general feeling of chaos and anti-climax. This was all rather dispiriting, particularly in the light of the transformation of the space by Tricia Boulter, the Art Director for the film who repeatedly worked minor miracles on a very small budget, never mind the everyone else’s hard work.

27 May The rest of the film stock was processed and full transcripts were made of all the material we shot. Dominique and I then settled into the paper edit. This involved attempting to construct a rough but coherent verbal version of the film from the ‘best’ bits of the transcript that would form the basis of the next stage.

3 June Off-line edit. This was for me one of the most fascinating parts of the whole exercise. I was finally getting a first crude glimpse of what the finished product could look like. No matter what the quality of the rushes, choosing the ‘right’ 10% of the material in the ideal combination was going to determine the perceived quality of our film. All of the rushes were copied into a very sophisticated computer (Avid) that could store moving images and sound digitally. This enabled our editor Simon to try out infinite combinations of bits of footage and soundtrack to create whatever composition of elements we wanted. I was often left marvelling at what could be achieved with the combination of an editor’s eye and memory for detail, allied to the capacity of the machine to move and manipulate images. I was advised by a senior TV person to adopt a ‘fresh eye’ role in the editing process. I understood this to mean taking a less involved role in the day to day stuff, and coming in from time to time to comment on what Simon and Dominique had come up with. This proved dangerously close to sitting in judgement, but we survived without delicate sensibilities being too badly trampled.

The process of constructing and refining the various combinations of images went on for another couple of weeks until we were ready to show the first rough cut to Jacquie Lawrence at Channel 4. Although she offered a general thumbs up to the glamour glitz and camp of it all, she had several suggestions for structural changes for clarity’s sake. We complied.

I thought it would be plain sailing from then on not having bargained on the tricky business of getting the final credits sorted out to everyone’s satisfaction. Refreshingly, good will prevailed and we eventually found forms and sequences of words that stroked all the egos involved.

28 June All that was left was for the film editor to hand over the record of the final combination of images to the on-line editor, who then more or less copied his edit of the film, working from the much higher quality original video film as the source (rather than the rough copy stored in the Avid machine). The final stage was a similar process with the soundtrack called the dub. Black Divas was then ready to be delivered to Channel 4 for transmission at their convenience.

September 1996 The film has been broadcast. Whilst the concept seemed to have great appeal, the film itself had a very mixed reception. We managed to be too esoteric about queer things for the straight part of the audience, and insufficiently informative about the divas and their music for just about everyone. There was a fairly depressing connection between the harshest criticisms of the film and the predictable problems we encountered on the production related to lack of funds and experience.

I found the overall process fascinating and made some delightful new relationships. I would very much like to do it again, but with a lot more control of the creative process. I regret that the finished product had so little to do with the original inspiring ideas, and with hindsight, perhaps I could have done a lot more to put that right if I’d dared to be as assertive as Lord Puttnam had suggested.

Despite all the reservations, when I look at the film I get a good feeling. I am reminded of the heart-warming enthusiasm and co-operation from the team, stars and contributors who, like Dominique and me – in our very different ways – loved its subject matter.


Robert Taylor 1 October 1996