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Tiger Bay star Hayley Mills returns to Cardiff as film turns 60

Hayley Mills says revisiting scenes from her childhood is 'a gift'. Photo: ITV Cymru Wales

“It’s a spiritual home. This is where my life began as an actress.”

Hayley Mills is standing on the waterfront of Cardiff Bay, on the exact spot where she filmed her very first scene in her very first movie.

“Coming back here now is a real completion of a circle,” she says. “And we don’t often get a chance to do that in life".

In the crime thriller, Hayley stars as a spirited young girl who witnesses a murder. Credit: ITV

Hayley has returned to Wales to mark the 60th anniversary of Tiger Bay, the docklands drama that launched her career. While many British films from the 1950s have faded into obscurity, Tiger Bay has stood the test of time.

“It was real,” says Hayley. “You believed in those characters and the lives they led. People respond to the reality and the truth of it".

The film has an authentic feel, with many scenes featuring local people and real-life locations. Credit: ITV

Much of the movie was shot in real-life locations - terraced streets, dockland pubs, industrial quaysides - which gives the film a gritty, authentic style that still feels contemporary.

Viewers are first introduced to Hayley’s character as she fights with a gang of children down the docks. As she explores that location 60 years on, she’s surrounded by a steady flow of day trippers, dog walkers and cyclists. It’s a world away from the noisy inner harbour of Cardiff docks, where Hayley filmed that famous scene.

Hayley Mills was just 12 years old when she made her acting debut in Tiger Bay. Credit: ITV

“Nothing stays the same and life moves on,” she says wistfully. “Part of me mourns what’s gone. But docks have a special quality and it’s still got that".

As Hayley continues her Tiger Bay trail, she visits St Mary’s Church in Butetown. It was the setting for some of the film’s most memorable moments, as Hayley’s character - tomboy Gillie Evans - performs a choir solo while carrying a stolen gun in her cassock.

“It was the perfect part for me,” she says. “And they don’t come along very often. I’ve learnt that, as my life has progressed. Really good parts are few and far between".

Some of Hayley's key scenes were filmed at St Mary's Church in Butetown. Credit: ITV

What a gift to be able to go back to the scenes of one’s childhood - and to come back to this beautiful old church.

It’s an extraordinary experience of being in the here and now, and being back when I was twelve.

– Hayley Mills
Hayley's Tiger Bay trail brought her to back to the same church, six decades on. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

Hayley’s performance in Tiger Bay is so instinctive and self-assured, it’s easy to forget that this was her acting debut. But as the daughter of John Mills, who appears alongside her in the film, she already knew the nuts and bolts of movie-making.

“I’d been to many film sets and studios and watched my dad acting," she says.

"So when it was my turn in front of the camera, I was very comfortable. I slipped into it like it was a familiar, old pair of shoes!”

Hayley stars alongside her father, John Mills, in Tiger Bay. Credit: ITV

Tiger Bay was Hayley’s springboard to stardom. It got the attention of Walt Disney, who signed her up for six films during the 1960s, including The Parent Trap and Pollyanna, for which she won an Academy Award.

The film also proved a turning point in the careers of Hayley’s co-star Horst Buchholz (The Magnificent Seven) and director J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone).

For Welsh film fans, Tiger Bay is a time capsule, preserving the country’s landmarks and locations as they appeared in the 1950s - from the docklands of Cardiff and Barry, to the rolling hills of Talybont-on-Usk.

Parts of Tiger Bay were filmed at other Welsh locations, including Talybont-on-Usk. Credit: ITV

And for Hayley, no trip down memory lane would be complete without tackling the glaring anomaly in Tiger Bay. What is the Newport Transporter Bridge doing in Cardiff’s docklands?

“I know, it’s a bit naughty isn’t it?” laughs Hayley. “But it’s such an amazing bridge and structure. Obviously the filmmakers couldn’t resist it".

“But you don’t get on the Newport bridge and get off at Cardiff! Anyone who knows anything about anything knows that!”

In the film, Newport's iconic transporter bridge is situated in Cardiff - something Hayley describes as 'a bit naughty!' Credit: ITV

Movie Memories: The Making of Tiger Bay is on ITV Cymru Wales on Wednesday 15th May at 8pm. It will then be available online at itv.com/walesprogrammes.

Watch: Hayley Mills revisits Cardiff and reflects on her memories of making Tiger Bay: