Craig Austin drinks in the glamour of a headlining Shirley Bassey at The Sounds of 007 charity concert at The Royal Albert Hall in London.
Shirley Bassey lives in Monaco these days, because of course she does. A lavish and rarefied lifestyle tempered only by the sobering knowledge that there are no more worlds for this dame to conquer.
Her public appearances are infrequent these days, her public performances even more so. She remains a contemporary recording artist, let’s not forget – her most recent album, I Owe It All to You, having been released as recently as 2020 – but there is nothing more to prove, her legend is long-since sealed. The girl from Tiger Bay, the golden girl, a Grammy Hall of Fame-er; an artist replete with a body of work that shines like a Fort Knox vault.
For many, Shirl is inextricably linked with the staggering commercial success of the Bond franchise; her masterful Goldfinger vocal making a huge contribution towards that film’s pivotal role in defining the archetypal 007 template. And Wales’ contribution to Bond folklore is not insignificant: Newport’s own Desmond Llewelyn, the movie series’ definitive Q, went as far as using his appearance in the ludicrous Octopussy as a means of proudly parading his Malpas Cricket Club tie; while Timothy Dalton, the franchise’s sole ‘Welsh Bond’, would surely have cheered his fellow countryfolk when unleashing an exasperated cry of “You bloody idiot!” – in 1989’s License to Kill – that is pure Colwyn Bay. But it’s Shirl, above all, who continues to shimmer throughout its lineage like Welsh gold.
There were audible gasps (in this house at least) when she was announced as the undisputed headline act of this week’s The Sound of 007 charity concert, a celebration of the songs that have soundtracked the series’ first 60 years, and there are further audible gasps – from thousands, this time – when she finally takes to the stage of the Royal Albert Hall in a glistening gold dress. An entrance that takes place to an ecstatic standing ovation and the offering up of multiple bouquets.
It is her role – of course it is – to open the show, but in doing so she is surely aware that she is closing it too; setting a bar so giddily high that it becomes beyond the reach of the performers who will follow her. Their own sense of celebrity – whatever that means these days – soon to be tinged with pangs of civilian anxiety. Poor Lulu.
Shirl opens with Diamonds Are Forever, and immediately lays waste to any pre-show audience apprehension; it’s signature opening line delivered with smoky pin-point precision. “I’ve still got it”, she swaggers, her expression set to tease: “how did you ever doubt me?” In common with tonight’s other performers, she’s backed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, an outfit not used to operating as a support act, and though its performance throughout the night is suitably spine-tingling in itself, all eyes remain firmly fixed upon the Nigerian Welsh girl from Bute Street.
And yes, we inevitably get Goldfinger; its opening volley transporting us back to the heady working-class cabaret glam of 1964 – to an era of flamboyance, renewed self-confidence, and a genuine sense of possibility. A song that first fired itself out of Dansettes and café transistors with the power of a Walther PPK, lodging permanent fragments of golden shrapnel in the hearts and minds of those who were first bewitched by its heart-stopping bombast. It retains the same power today; the ability to fill up your senses to the point of bursting, to raise the hairs on your arms – and as Shirl’s arms begin to slowly coil like snakes, to seal the emotional deal.
There’s no time for Moonraker, no need. Shirl’s no doubt signed a legally binding contract (whose terms are not subject to further debate) in any event. The big guns having been swiftly unleashed in a seductive six-minute salvo, she leaves the stage to a second standing ovation and a sea of smartphones, brandished in the main by collections of ruddy-faced men in their LinkedIn dinner suits.
And me, I’m just thrilled to have been witness to the whole shebang; to have an understanding of what the notion of ‘celebrity’ truly means – and to have been, if only briefly, in the presence of her majesty’s public service.
Craig Austin is a Wales Arts Review senior editor.
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