As I watched Francis Whately’s fine and revealing documentary David Bowie: Finding Fame (9pm, 9 February), the third part of his trilogy of films about the singer, I kept thinking of Shelley Winters. Specifically, of her famous adage that if ever you want to marry someone, it’s best to have lunch with their ex-wife first. Whately had persuaded two of Bowie’s old girlfriends to appear, and as they spoke, their voices rather plummy, it was obvious that not only would lunch with them be huge fun; more importantly, they would do nothing, or nothing much, to dent one’s view of him. If they were clear-sighted – “he loved himself extremely,” said Dana Gillespie, the singer for whom he originally wrote the song “Andy Warhol” – they were also deeply fond, and by being so, they only made you love him more.
“He wasn’t lost; he just wasn’t found either,” said the dancer Hermione Farthingale, of the period covered by the film (1966-1973), when Bowie was trying on multiple guises for size. Farthingale, with whom Bowie briefly lived, broke his heart when she went off to appear in Song of Norway, a movie adaptation of – this is God’s honest truth – an operetta about Edvard Grieg (it starred, among others, Harry Secombe). In those days, he was, you gathered with some amazement, as prone to clinginess as to infidelity; according to his cousin, Kristina Amadeus, as a child he feared he would be “given away” – his beloved older half-brother, Terry, had at first been brought up by his maternal grandmother – and perhaps that feeling stayed with him. He longed to please his mother, Peggy, but it was impossible; unlike his girlfriends, passionate to a fault, she was cold, undemonstrative. After her death, a school friend wrote a letter of condolence to Bowie in which the friend confided that he felt Peggy had never quite taken to him. “She never quite took to me, either,” said Bowie, by reply.
His primary engine was freedom, the idea of escape. Gillespie recalled a visit to the family home in Bromley. Having offered her tuna sandwiches, his parents fell completely silent: a deadening hush she took as a metaphor for all the things their son most feared and despised (“the tyranny of the mainstream,” he called it). From here, Whately traced the many influences on the stylistic smorgasbord of his early career, from Anthony Newley, with whom he was for a time obsessed, to Lindsay Kemp, the mime artist and choreographer with whom he had an affair (he appeared “like the archangel Gabriel” announced Kemp, of their first encounter). Every moment was interesting, and every other moment, surprising. Those early incarnations. Those starter bands! Weren’t they so absolutely quaint?
We think of Bowie now as so much an artist of the Seventies, but the cauldron was bubbling away long before the Sixties were out: a reminder that true creativity is made as well as born; that even alchemy requires time. Ever since, I’ve been listening to “Let Me Sleep Beside You” on a loop. I always liked its rakish combination of artifice and sincerity. The lyric is straight out of Andrew Marvell; it’s for any woman who cannot quite bring herself fully to loathe that charming ratbag she slept with. But I find now that it works on me in new ways. Its peculiar sensibility, just a little bit hey nonny-nonny, speaks of a time when to be interested in Englishness marked you out as the right kind of weirdo, not the wrong.
What is Britain good at? Not much, these days. But even as the car industry whimpers, and the politicians walk in circles with blinkers on their eyes, at least we can still do a nice makeover show. The Great British Sewing Bee (9pm, 12 February) has a new presenter, Joe Lycett, a comedian (think cut-price Julian Clary crossed with a porpoise) who knows nothing whatsoever about pattern cutting. I want Juliet, the teacher from Penge, to win, for her asymmetric jump suit alone (how it skimmed her model’s bum). But to be honest, I can’t watch a show like this now without worrying about what lies ahead. Forget remodelled Rihanna-inspired denim blousons. In six months’ time, we could all be living in our jeans – I mean, having first turned them into tents.
David Bowie: Finding Fame
The Great British Sewing Bee
This article appears in the 13 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The revolution that fuelled radical Islam