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Cracked Actor – Hooked To The Silver Screen With Bowie
John Tatlock , January 11th, 2016 10:59

Lifelong Bowie fan John Tatlock decides to get to the bottom of that age-old pub debate – can David Bowie actually act? – and unearths some priceless clips and details from an alternate but no less chameleonic career


Act 1 – The Looking Glass (1967-1970)

Though conventional wisdom has it that Bowie’s acting career began in the mid-70s, the reality is a little more complex.

Bowie had been releasing singles since 1964’s ‘Liza Jane’ (under the name Davie Jones and The King Bees), but with little success. By 1967, Bowie and his then-manager Kenneth Pitt were far from certain that music was the field in which to make him a star. And making him a star, by any means necessary, was at the top of their agenda. Pitt was a manager of the Brian Epstein school, characterised more by adoration of his artist than any real showbiz acumen, and he promoted Bowie in various directions with all the impracticality of a doting parent with a prodigiously talented child.

Pitt hustled up various film and TV role auditions, but largely to no avail; Bowie’s earliest acting credit appears to be this miss-it-without-even-blinking profile shot, about seven seconds into a Lyon’s Maid ice-cream commercial:

Another of Pitt’s hare-brained schemes, a one-man show designed for the then-thriving London cabaret circuit featuring ‘The Laughing Gnome’ performed ventriloquist-style with a gnome glove puppet, was equally ill-fated.

The Image

Eventually, in 1967, Bowie landed a role in Michael Armstrong’s 14 minute silent short The Image:

The Image is absolutely terrible, but relevant to our studies here for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s pretty much a gay film, referencing Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and portraying a male artist obsessively painting Bowie’s (unnamed) character over and over again. These paintings become a means by which the Bowie character cheats death, just as Wilde’s Gray retains eternal youth. As we now know, the more-or-less heterosexual Bowie was to make great play throughout the 70s initially hinting at and later definitively claiming to be gay, giving The Image some historical interest at least as an early paddle in these waters.

Secondly, it establishes his keynote weakness as an actor, which is his tendency to Just Be Bowie At The Camera For A While And Cash The Cheque. In fairness, this is specifically what the role calls for, and no doubt Pitt was ecstatic to have what was effectively a commercial for his dear boy’s general fabulousness. On release, though, the film achieved the obscurity it deserved, before a brief cash-in revival in the early 70s at a porn cinema on Trafalgar Square (don’t get excited, it’s not porn).

Perriot in Turquoise / The Looking Glass Murders

Things get more interesting a couple of months later. Upon discovering that the mime artist Lindsay Kemp had been using tracks from Bowie’s largely ignored debut LP in his act, Bowie went to a show and, impressed, decided mime was his new forte. He began attending Kemp’s classes in dance and movement, and pestered his way to a role in Kemp’s Perriot In Turquoise.

“I was desperately keen on mime at the time” he recalled years later. “I thought it was the greatest thing, the way in which you could transform an open space and create things by suggestion”.

Kemp worked several of Bowie’s songs into the show and gave him the role of Cloud, the show’s narrator. The Stage praised Bowie’s “striking appearances” as “a multi-guised character” and The Oxford Mail commented upon his “superb, dreamlike voice”. Certainly, Kemp considered his contribution significant enough to persuade Bowie to reprise the role a couple of years later when it was re-made for TV as The Looking Glass Murders:

Threepenny Pierrot from “The Looking Glass Murders”:

Time has not been kind to Pierrot but this was a significant turning point for Bowie’s live performances, which began to incorporate much of what he had learned under Kemp. Kemp remained a very significant influence on Bowie, later directing his breakthrough early Ziggy Stardust shows at London’s Rainbow Theatre.

Love You Til Tuesday

Pitt’s next move was to finance a made-for-TV special showcasing Bowie’s various stage and musical skills, named Love You Til Tuesday after one of the few stand-out tracks from the David Bowie LP. It’s a quixotic and uneven work that went unreleased until 1984, aside from the remarkable ‘Space Oddity’ sequence, which became that song’s de facto promo video.

The most interesting section, however, is a short mime piece entitled ‘The Mask’:

‘The Mask’ tells the tale of a boy who steals a mask from a shop and rises to fame through the simple act of putting the mask on, which alone inexplicably raises ecstatic applause. Eventually, the boy discovers onstage he cannot remove the mask any more and dies of suffocation. “The papers made a big thing of it”, observes Bowie’s voice over. “Funny though; they didn’t say anything about a mask”.

The links with Bowie’s later creation Ziggy Stardust, and his own uncertainty over “whether I was playing Ziggy or Ziggy was playing me” are obvious, but more relevantly, the piece shows an increasing confidence in front of the camera. Writing as someone who doesn’t really get mime, both this and ‘Pierrot’ leave me somewhat cold, but the Bowie’s genuine dedication to the form is tangible, and it remained part of his stage performance for years to come:

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