Christmas Day traditionally brings some of the biggest TV audiences of the year in the U.K. But this year, instead of the Queen’s speech, the queen of rock ‘n’ roll will be holding down a key spot in the schedules.
On Christmas night, BBC Two will air “When Tina Turner Came to Britain,” a documentary that looks at the rise, fall and rise again of Turner’s career, and the key role Great Britain played in her story.
It will broadcast opposite such ratings heavyweights as “EastEnders” (BBC One) and “Doc Martin” (ITV1), but director and producer Dhivya Kate Chetty hopes the Wise Owl Films production will still win an audience.
“I can’t quite believe we’re on on Christmas Day,” Chetty tells Variety. “I’m still pinching myself; it’s great news. We’re up against something big, so we’re hoping for the diehard Tina fans [to tune in]. The pubs will be closed so it’s a captive audience!”
Wise Owl approached Turner to participate in the documentary, but the singer — who officially retired after her 50th anniversary tour in 2009 and has had a number of health issues in recent years — was unable to appear. Turner’s most recent major project was “Tina,” the jukebox musical that tells her story, which premiered in 2018 and is currently running at London’s Aldwych Theatre and a number of other global locations.
“It became apparent that [an interview] was going to be tricky,” says Chetty. “So we worked with various partners to get hold of previously unheard interviews. It was important to have Tina’s voice throughout so that [we have] her first-person testimony on some of the challenging things that she’s talking about. That also brings an intimacy to the documentary.”
Indeed, the film doesn’t shy away from the difficulties Turner experienced during her abusive marriage to Ike Turner (her musical partner between 1960 and 1976), or the widespread prejudice she faced in the music industry of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
“It felt like an important part of the story that had to be present in the film,” says Chetty. “The challenges that she faced as a woman of color and how she negotiated all that is really quite astonishing. The ageism, the misogyny, the sexism, the racism… I’m really hoping that the documentary has a sense of the journey she’s gone on and that you’re rooting for her, having overcome all those hurdles. Her great life reinvention, her so-called comeback, is all the more joyous because of everything that she had to do to get there.”
The U.K. – where Turner was a huge live draw ever since she and Ike supported the Rolling Stones on their 1966 tour – played a key role in that career revival. The doc features many who worked with her, including British Electric Foundation/Heaven 17’s Glenn Gregory and Martyn Ware, the producers who helped restore her to the upper reaches of the charts in the ‘80s.
Also featured are the likes of P.P. Arnold., a former member of The Ikettes, the backing singers/dancers to the Ike & Tina Turner Revue show that was a huge hit in the 1960s; Arlene Phillips, who did the choreography for the “Private Dancer” video; and Skin from rock band Skunk Anansie, who acknowledges the influence Turner had on her as a Black woman singing rock music.
“There are numerous performers that owe a lot to Tina,” says Chetty. “Her legacy is the doors that she opened. When Tina made that step into rock, people were trying to pigeonhole her and keep her in R&B. Her legacy is that music is music and, if you’ve got the talent, you use it.”
“When Tina Turner Came to Britain” — part of a series that has previously featured Nirvana and Bob Marley and will also include “When Motown Came to Britain,” broadcast on the BBC on New Year’s Day — is Chetty’s first music program, after working on projects such as “Bee Whisperer” and “Glasgow, Love and Apartheid.” But the director says she now has another, as-yet-unnamed music project in development with Wise Owl.
Chetty says she was not a huge Tina Turner devotee while growing up but, having made the documentary and unearthed some remarkable performance footage, is “newly in awe of her music and her voice.” And Chetty is hoping the doc will have a similar effect on others and help people discover — and rediscover — the singer, who has sold over 100 million records across hit albums such as “Break Every Rule” and “Foreign Affair” and singles including “The Best” and “What’s Love Got to Do with It.”
“There’s an entire generation who adore her, she’s the Queen of Rock to so many people,” says Chetty. “But there are younger people who maybe don’t know her as well. We’ve created a beautiful, human story with Tina’s music and her journey at its heart, which will hopefully showcase her extraordinary talents to a new generation of people. We hope we’ve done the story justice for Tina.”
“When Tina Turner Came to Britain” airs on BBC2 and BBC iPlayer on Dec. 25 at 9:25 p.m.