Remembering David Bowie through his greatest TV appearances
In loving memory of the unique genius who was David Bowie, who sadly passed away at the age of 69 on Sunday (10.01.16) after an 18-month battle with cancer, we’re looking back at the history of his small screen appearances and performances, from his spot in a Ridley Scott-directed ice cream commercial to his historic performance of “Starman” on Top of the Pops, to his scene-stealing cameo on Extras. We think it’s fair to say that few figures in our time have had such a consistent and welcome presence in our homes, while maintaining absolute creative integrity. So here’s to the one and only Starman – a true artist who was without parallel in his strikingly original sound, look, spirit and showmanship. He will be greatly missed.
Back in 1964, a 17-year-old David Jones (as he was known then) was interviewed on the BBC’s Tonight by presenter Cliff Michelmore as the founder of ‘The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-haired Men’. “We all like long hair, and we don’t see why other people should persecute us because of this”, young David says confidently to the camera, embarking on his long career of challenging gendered identity conventions.
In 1969, Bowie lent his youthful looks to this Summer of Love-esque TV commercial for Lyons Maid ice cream (which was directed by Ridley Scott, no less!). According to those with sharper eyes than I, that’s a 21-year-old David running up the bus steps with an ice cream in hand, and he can also be seen playing guitar with the band Mint at the 7 second mark. Nicholas Pegg writes in his book The Complete David Bowie that the soon-to-be megastar also auditioned to appear in a KitKat commercial around this time in his career – just a week before his new recording contract with Mercury was secured.
Now let’s flash forward to 1970, where a longer-maned Bowie delivered a faultless performance of “Space Oddity” at the Ivor Novello Awards. This was where Bowie won the Special Award for Originality with the track, which was also his first UK Top 5 hit. We can’t get enough of that instrumental breakdown at 3:20, and of course his infectious grin at the end.
Those of you who were around in the 1970s tell me that Bowie’s performance of “Starman” on Top of the Pops was one of those world-changing moments. And even all these decades later, I can see why. From that Freddie Burretti-designed outfit, to the moment where he casually drapes his arm over the late great Mick Ronson’s shoulders, the appearance marked not only the first of Bowie’s many dramatic reinventions, but also signalled that broader society was shifting with him.
In 1974, the BBC dedicated an hour’s programming to David Bowie in the infamous documentary Cracked Actor, about his life and career during the Diamond Dogs Tour. We wonder if the producers noticed the cocaine on the table at 15:48.
Matching hair-coloured Cher and David Bowie crooning some old classics interspersed with “Young Americans”? It sounds too good to be true, but it really happened on The Cher Show in 1975. See if you can count how many massive tunes they managed to pack into six and a half golden minutes.
That same year, a rake-like David showed he was intelligent, polite and adorable in this humorous karate session on Dinah Shore’s daytime gabfest, Dinah! “I’d scream very loudly” he says, as hearts melt across the world.
1975 also brought us this cherished moment in which Bowie presents Aretha Franklin with the Grammy for the Best Rhythm and Blues Performance by a Female Artist. Addressing the audience (which included John and Yoko) as “ladies and gentlemen and others”, he was way ahead of politically correct surveys, and made those in attendance squeal just by slipping on some cool aviator shades. I mean just look at them.
You knew this was next in the list, didn’t you? In 1977, Bowie performed this unforgettable duet with Bing Crosby on the American entertainer’s last Christmas TV special, Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas. According to the show’s writers Larry Grossman and Buz Kohan, Bowie was against the original pitch to sing “Little Drummer Boy”.”I won’t sing that song. I hate that song… I’m doing this show because my mother loves Bing Crosby”, he reportedly said, resulting in the ingenious introduction of counter-melody “Peace on Earth”. And the rest is history!
In another Christmas-themed appearance, two British institutions were married together when Bowie gave this special introduction to The Snowman in 1982. It makes us feel like we’re sharing a wistfully intimate moment with David in his family attic, and it lights the imaginary log fires in our hearts.
Also in 1982, Bowie made one of his famous (if not entirely convincing) acting appearances in the BBC’s adaptation of Baal by Bertold Brecht. Baal is a young musician with a penchant for striking a few chords on his tin-stringed banjo and breaking into angsty ditties with such lyrics as these:
Sick from sun and rain storms lashing…
Grinning and cursing with
A few old tears of contrition…
Loafing through hells and lashed through paradises.
He would follow up the performance the following year in Yellowbeard, as an uncredited pirate henchman who provides sexual favors for his boss when he’s not torturing witnesses.
“I’d like to dedicate this song to my son, to all our children, and to the children of the world”. On a more serious note than the above, reliving the sheer magnitude of this flawless performance of “Heroes” for Live Aid 1985 really brought us to tears today, as I’m sure it has done to all those still watching it in 2016.
Now here’s Bowie and his quiff being interviewed by Jools “Julian” Holland in a 1987 episode of The Tube. Sure, this wasn’t his most popular era musically, but the appearance clearly exhibits David’s intelligence when approaching the subject matter of his records, as he discusses his indictment of America’s “uncaring society” towards homeless, destitute people who are neglected by the system. And only an interview with Bowie could employ this trippy mirror effect so effortlessly.
Bowie took more of a backseat in this notoriously awkward 1991 Tin Machine interview with Terry Wogan, although visually that green suit pretty much screams over whatever the Sales brothers were saying.
Worshipping all things weird and wonderful, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks made a natural home for a David Bowie cameo. We see him dressed in an incredibly dated suit and sporting what might be the worst Southern accent ever in this memorable episode of the 1992 series.
The raucous banter between Bowie and Evans in this episode of TFI Friday was so incredible that I still remember watching it at the tender age of six (although I’m sure I didn’t understand the awkward silence following Chris’s question of “who are the best kissers, men or women?”). What it must’ve been to experience it all live in the studio audience.
While fans and critics have spent the past couple of days looking back on David Bowie’s countless unforgettable tracks, an overlooked song that deserves a mention is “The Little Fat Man With The Pug-Nosed Face” – an impromptu ditty that Bowie performed about Ricky Gervais when appearing in this stand-out episode of his sitcom Extras. It’s too good.
In perhaps his most surprising cameo, the Space Oddity became an Underwater Oddity when he lent his voice to the long-haired, long-eyelashed, lipstick and high-heeled boots wearing Lord Royal Highness (or L.R.H. for short) in the 2007 Nickelodeon TV movie SpongeBob’s Atlantis SquarePantis. If you don’t believe us, check out the clip below.
Of course, yesterday saw broadcast channels in the UK changing up their evening schedules to incorporate programmes commemorating David Bowie. BBC One’s 7:30pm airing of David Bowie: Sound and Vision was watched by 4.5 million viewers, while Channel 4 commissioned a quick turnaround one-hour tribute show from ITN called Starman, which was watched by half a million viewers. As millions of fans continue to turn out to pay tribute to the star across the globe, we expect to see more of his great life gracing our screens over the coming weeks.