14 years after her death, wishin’ and hopin’ for the real Dusty on screen

Films and a musicial about Dusty Springfield jockeying for position


Decades before Adele, there was Dusty. Indisputably the greatest white soul singer of all time, the woman who was born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien is always left off that now all-too-familiar roll-call of great musicians of Irish descent. We have tested and tasted too much of the “Irishness” of The Smiths, Oasis, John Lydon et al. But, in truth, Dusty was bigger and better than any of the boys.

Next year will see a flurry of activity around the woman who always described herself as “just an Irish Catholic girl”. A film starring Nicole Kidman has been on-off-on again for a number of years now and may finally be green-lighted in 2014. But first out of the blocks should be a film by Boardwalk Empire writer David Stenn, who is keen to focus in on a pivotal period of Dusty’s life: her move to Memphis to reinvent herself in the late 1960s and the resultant classic album, Dusty in Memphis.

To add even extra interest to Stenn’s script, Adele has been approached to play the star and is close to making a decision. Adele is a massive fan who credits Springfield with “putting women on the map”. (If you were to be unkind about it, you could see Adele as the Oasis to Dusty’s Beatles.)

To further Dusty things up next year, there will be a West End musical based on her life and work, written by Sandi Toksvig and produced by Dusty’s manager, Vicki Wickham. Both say they are intent on portraying the full picture: the diva strops that hid a debilitating shyness and social anxiety; the drinking and drugging; her sex life; her self-harming; and a towering talent that remains as potent today as it did when she was battling it out with Sandie Shaw, Cilla Black and Lulu in the 1960s.

TG4, as part of a fantastic but unheralded series of programmes, Guth, ran a special two months ago that looked deep into Springfield’s Irish roots. The programme artfully examined the crucial distinction between the woman Mary O’Brien and the singing star Dusty Springfield.

Whether Nicole Kidman or Adele or the West End musical have the wherewithal to really understand these two very different people remains to be seen. One can only hope they avoid the clichéd “tortured by her sexuality” angle, which so many use to superficially “explain” Springfield.

Discussing her love life in a 1970 interview, Dusty stated that “I know I’m perfectly as capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy”. She went on to have relationships with women, but any sense of “torture” was – one imagines – confined to her record company’s press and marketing division.

Of more interest (and this is not widely known about her) is Dusty’s role as the first music star of note to focus attention on the apartheid regime in South Africa way back in 1964, long before it became a cause célèbre for musicians. Refusing to perform to white-only audiences, she was deported for “defying the government” and “refusing to observe the South African way of life”, as the official government communiqué had it at the time.

As Springfield was escorted by armed guards along the tarmac to her plane, all the airport’s black workers lined up, removed their berets and formed a guard of honour for her.

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