David Bowie: Finding Fame review – a pretty tough watch for fans

Still think of Bowie as the last word in cool? You’ve obviously forgotten his novelty single about gnomes, his dire mime days ... and his cover of Chim Chim Cher-ee

The verdict on David Bowie’s first demo for the BBC with his mid-60s combo The Lower Third was disastrous. “The singer,” went the report, “is a Cockney type but not outstanding enough.” You can almost hear the author wiping his lorgnette disdainfully on his smoking jacket.

The band’s underwhelming Kinks and Who knock-offs were woeful enough, but it was their misbegotten version of the Mary Poppins clunker Chim Chim Cher-ee that tipped BBC bosses over the edge. The cover, the report charged, “kills the song completely”.

For those of us for whom Bowie remains the last word in cool, pick ’n’ mix musical genius, avant garde gender-bending and transgressive self-reinvention, there were some pretty tough moments in David Bowie: Finding Fame (BBC2). I had steeled myself for his novelty single The Laughing Gnome, with its unacceptable animation and its Bernard Cribbins-and-Benny Hill-on-helium-impersonate-Pinky-and-Perky vocals. And yet, when the back story of how it was made was related, I contemplated the middle distance with rueful mien.

Then there was the miming. My God, the miming. Even the dance/mime teacher Lindsay Kemp was not impressed by the spandex-stretching routines Bowie inflicted on early audiences. “He was,” recalled Bowie’s one-time lover, not unpleasantly, “a lot of shit.”

For all that, Bowie’s early years revealed him as a heroic outlier, a proto Gok Wan persuading a series of unreconstructed white English blokes in the band to free their minds and wear makeup. In the back of the ambulance that served as The Lower Third’s tour bus, Bowie argued they should emulate groovy mod bands in London with their sharp suits, amphetamine intensity and makeup. “Graham [Rivens, the bassist] turned round and said: ‘Fuck that’,” recalled guitarist Denis Taylor. Which is why the world has never heard of The Lower Third.

‘When they realised how many girls they could pull while looking otherworldly,’ recalled Bowie, ‘they took to it like a duck to water.’
‘When they realised how many girls they could pull while looking otherworldly,’ recalled Bowie, ‘they took to it like a duck to water.’ Photograph: PA

There was another fabulous moment in which Bowie induced members of his band Riot Squad to retool the Velvet Underground’s Waiting for the Man. They performed a sort of homosexual conga on stage while, unless I misheard, Bowie sang: “I’m just waiting for a good friendly behind.” Sweet, but probably not what Lou Reed meant at all.

Later, Bowie convinced Mick Ronson, Woody Woodmandsey and Trevor Bolder, who have – I would submit – the most hetero names in the glam rock pantheon, that not only should they stretch silver satinette over their beer guts but conceal their stubble with foundation. Only then could they become the Spiders from Mars to his Ziggy Stardust. “When they realised how many girls they could pull while looking otherworldly,” recalled Bowie off-camera, “they took to it like a duck to water.”

But how did the boy from suburban Bromley mutate into lubricious alligator, Major Tom, funky thigh collector, pierrot junkie, not to mention squaddie amusingly buried up to his neck in sand by Japanese captors in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence? One theory, advanced by his superbly named cousin, Kristina Amadeus, was that he was always trying to please his mum, Peggy, who came across here as a very cold fish indeed. Childhood friend Geoff MacCormack, writing to Bowie after her death, said he thought she never approved of him. “She never quite took to me either,” Bowie wrote back.

I wanted to learn more about his half-brother Terry, who Bowie here recalled as a rebel outsider and the catalyst for his escape from suburbia. It would have been intriguing to hear his early song Bewlay Brothers, in which the laughing gnomes make a comeback. “Please come away, just for the day,” they chant. It is as if little David is singing to his lost sibling who, we learned, ended up hospitalised with schizophrenia, while David made a career from slipping into and out of different personae – as if applying Oscar Wilde’s principle: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

The mask did slip once. Bowie’s first love was Hermione Farthingale, with whom he played in a band called Feathers. In contemporary footage, this wan ballet dancer was a dead ringer for Bowie, as if glam Narcissus had fallen for his feather-cut Echo. But like Ziggy Stardust, she had to break up the band. And worse, break David’s heart. In 1969, she left him to dance in an MGM musical called Song of Norway, while he made her a muse (“It’s a godawful small affair,” he sang on Life on Mars, “to the girl with the mousy hair”).

Hermione, now a yoga and pilates instructor in Bristol, recalled him with fondness, while we heard audio of her late lover remembering: “I didn’t get over that for such a long time, it really broke me up.” Bowie was, for once, not master manipulator of sound and vision, not virtuoso of a thousand disguises, but something sweeter: unguarded boy with a broken heart.


Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Hansa Studios: By the Wall 1976-90 review – the most thrillingly creative place on earth
The legendary studio in West Berlin, where David Bowie made ‘Heroes’, and Iggy Pop, Depeche Mode and U2 recorded some of their best music makes a brilliant subject in this resonant and romantic documentary

Emine Saner

11, Jan, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Kate Humble: My Sheepdog & Me review – puppy love over David Bowie eyes | Emine Saner
This a heartwarming story about Welsh sheepdog Teg’s journey to become a herder of sheep – and have her first Tango in Monmouthshire

Emine Saner

16, Aug, 2016 @6:20 AM

Article image
Finding Me a Family review: matchmaking children and parents
It may sound like The X Factor for adoption, but it’s actually a good idea. Plus: have a tatty Christmas with Kirstie Allsopp

Sam Wollaston

06, Dec, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
Westside review – Netflix's own Fame, minus the legwarmers or the charm
The new unscripted reality series brings eight blossoming stage performers together – and predictably, there’s drama

Lucy Mangan

09, Nov, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Finding Alice review – thank god for Nigel Havers and Joanna Lumley
Keeley Hawes’s Alice deals with her husband’s death and uncovers sinister secrets in ITV’s uneven new series, which is somewhat saved by the actors playing her parents

Lucy Mangan

17, Jan, 2021 @10:00 PM

Article image
Stath Lets Flats review – finding the funny in generation rent’s plight
There’s plenty to like in Jamie Demetriou’s new comedy, but I’m going to need another viewing before exchanging contracts

Sam Wollaston

27, Jun, 2018 @9:30 PM

Article image
Three Wives, One Husband review: it’s pretty much one long OMG WTF
The softly softly approach of this Channel 4 documentary doesn’t make it any less extraordinary, with Enoch the polygamist’s multiple wives and massive wheelies

Sam Wollaston

24, Mar, 2017 @7:20 AM

Article image
Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings review – country legend sells us a bum steer
This rhinestone-studded schmaltzfest on Netflix inspired by the star’s greatest songs is a terrible misstep. What she was thinking we will never know

Lucy Mangan

22, Nov, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
Pose finale review – a razzle-dazzle spectacle of pure infectious joy
Ryan Murphy’s voguing drama has been a delight from start to finish, and its big showstopping finale combined showmanship with some ruthless tearjerking

Ellen E Jones

09, May, 2019 @9:00 PM

Article image
Tina review – celebration of a singer who is simply the best
Made with the full cooperation of its 81-year-old subject, this one-off about the astonishing life of Tina Turner is not a gritty documentary, but rather a loving swan song

Lucy Mangan

28, Mar, 2021 @10:10 PM