Tanith Carey

Why David Bowie was the model of a Renaissance Englishman

He embodied the best of British virtues – as a new film shows

  • From Spectator Life
David Bowie in 1973 [Getty]

It’s hard to imagine how baffled the British public must have been by the arrival of David Bowie on to TV screens in the early 1970s. With his saffron hair, make-up and androgynous clothes, superficially he looked like a rejection of everything his post-war south London childhood had taught him.

One of the most pivotal scenes in Moonage Daydream, the recent film about his life, is his 1973 interview with chat show host Russell Harty. Throughout this awkward cross-examination, Harty searches for a label he can stick on Bowie for the benefit of discomfited viewers. ‘Are those men’s shoes? Or women’s shoes? Or bisexual shoes?’ Harty inquires, looking down at Bowie’s strappy red and gold platform sandals. ‘They’re shoe-shoes, silly!’ shoots back Bowie, helpfully adding that his spangly tights are from Woolworths.

The exchange is classic Bowie, and not just because it shows how skilfully he dodged any attempts to pigeonhole him. It’s also a joyful reminder of how, despite his shape-shifting personas, there was one constant – his Britishness. After all, only an Englishman schooled in Winnie the Pooh, Enid Blyton and Monty Python could have used the word ‘Silly’ to disarm his inquisitor with such faux innocence – and on such a controversial subject for its time.

Only an Englishman schooled in Winnie the Pooh, Enid Blyton and Monty Python could have used the word ‘Silly’ to disarm his inquisitor with such faux innocence

Throughout the two hours and 14 minutes of the film, we see many, many more interviewers try and fail to pin Bowie down. He eludes even the best of them, leaving another veteran interviewer, Dick Cavett, to ask in anguished tones: ‘Where did he come from? Is he a creature of a foreign power? Is he a creep? Is he dangerous? Is he smart? Dumb? Nice to his parents? Real? A put-on? Crazy? Sane? Man? Woman? Robot? What is this?’

The film attempts to tackle those questions with a whirlwind of concert performances, interview clips and musings from Bowie himself.

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