Most people have got a Sean Connery or Michael Caine. Some still insist on parading a Frank Spencer or Tommy Cooper. But only one impression really does it for us.
It starts with a constriction in the back of the throat. You’re looking for a sort of breathy, tremulous, Estuary purr. There’s something of a slur involved, but don’t overdo it. If you get to Keith Richards, you’ve gone too far. The same goes for the vibrato. You’ll need just enough quiver to make it recognisable, but not so much you end up yodelling like Jimmy Saville.
Remember the low-level buzz behind each word. It might help to imagine you’ve permanently left a Remington rotary shaver on in the background. What you’re really after is the sound of a man with a chequered past and a family of bees living in his windpipe.
And then there’s the laugh. This is no titter, no guffaw. It’s a crescendo of perfectly pronounced ‘Ha’s, as if you’d lined up the cast of Cats in decreasing order of size and punched them one after the other in the diaphragm. It’s the laugh of a goblin king.
A David Bowie impression is a precious thing, and not to be undertaken lightly. We’ve scoured the realm for the ten best and brought them to you on this, the twenty-fifth anniversary of our favourite goblin royalty grooms pubescent human-child movie, Labyrinth.
Ladies and gentlemen, we present a run-down of our ten favourite on-screen Bowie impressions:
10. Spitting Image
A latex take on an early 80s Bowie, the good folk at Spitting Image seem to have spent more of their time getting the trademark fluffy hair and bad teeth right than they did the accent here. They also went for something of a questionable Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence joke, though, love him as we do, Bowie has admittedly spent more time as a clap than cracked actor over the years.
9. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Brian Slade in Velvet Goldmine
Back when they still let Eddie Izzard be in movies, Todd Haynes made the uneven but undeniably gorgeous glam retrospective, Velvet Goldmine, a trip of a film, which reimagined Bowie’s career trajectory from long-haired hippy to sparkly codpiece-wearing alien rock god.
Before Jonathan Rhys-Meyers started slinking around dissolving monasteries all sexy-like in The Tudors, he donned a series of elaborate costumes to take on the role of Brian Slade/Maxwell Demon/David Bowie. Meyers gets top marks for being snake-hipped and cheekbone-y, pulling off the Bowie look better than anyone else, though when it came to the singing, we’re afraid there wasn’t really much doing.
8. Zombie Bowie in 1987 straight-to-video horror The Video Dead
As far as we can work out, there’s no reason whatsoever that this 1987 direct-to-video horror movie about a TV set haunted by zombies features a Bowie zombie, but we’re not ones to nit-pick. Perhaps Bowie was such an integral part of the zeitgeist in 87, the people behind The Video Dead felt compelled to include him, we can’t say. Neither can he, apparently, as there’s barely a zombie groan off him. He does eat someone’s hand later on, though, I’m told.
7. Michael Sheen as Castor in Tron: Legacy
Fittingly for the chameleon of pop comes a solid impression by chameleon of the big screen, Michael Sheen. Though not strictly a Bowie impression, Sheen has confessed he devised the characterisation of Castor as part Bowie, part Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Despite the Ziggy hairdo, it’s Jareth from Labyrinth that Sheen seems to be channelling here. Fine work, Mr Sheen.
6. Ricky Gervais in 1998’s Golden Years
It turns out that David Brent wasn’t the first cringe-making boss Ricky Gervais played. In fact, he wasn’t even the most cringe-making.
Before The Office, writing team Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant created Clive Meadows, the manager not of a paper merchants in Slough, but a chain of high street video shops. Thing about Clive? He was a bit of a Bowie fan. Well, quite a lot of a Bowie fan, truth be told.
Going out as part of Channel 4’s Comedy Labs in 1998, the pilot episode of Golden Years wasn’t commissioned for a full series, but prepared the ground for Gervais and Merchants’ success with The Office.
Despite not quite having the physique to pull off the look, Gervais bravely dons a midriff-baring crop top in this clip and gives several polished Bowie impressions. Oh, and when you’ve finished watching it, look up a band called Seona Dancing on YouTube. You won’t regret it.
5. Will Ferrell in Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth spoof
Christmas 2010 was brightened up by this little beauty from Funny or Die. A word-for-word (well, give or take a few at the end) remake of the extended Little Drummer Boy video released in 1982, it stars Will Ferrell as Bowie and John C Reilly as Bing Crosby.
Ferrell has a pretty intense fringe going on and John C Reilly is wearing quite a cardigan. A festive treat for Bowie fans.
4. Phil Cornwell in Stella Street
John Sessions and Phil Cornwell took on a lot of legends in BBC comedy series, Stella Street, including Sir Roger Moore, Jack Nicholson, Michael Caine and umm, Jimmy Hill. The show’s brilliant conceit was that all the greats now lived in leafy Surbiton on a street served by Mick ‘n’ Keef’s corner shop.
Cornwell’s Bowie is strictly post-Serious Moonlight era, a man of slim-fitting suits, untied bowties and that special splayed leg, knee raised, side-to-side toe tap dance Bowie trademarked in the mid-eighties. It’s a fine example of a Bowie impression. Stellar work, Phil.
3. David Bowie as himself in Extras
Technically, as it’s Davy Jones playing himself, there might be some debate as to whether this one counts, but we maintain that here, like all the cameos on Extras, Bowie is doing a very passable impression of himself. The cockney growl, the slight buzz, the clenched jaw, it’s all there.
On top of that, we even get a piano sing-a-long. Som double points to the man himself.
2. Jemaine Clements and Bret McKenzie in Flight Of The Conchords
Like Gervais before him, Jemaine Clements doesn’t quite have the androgynous physique required to pass as a body double for Bowie, but what he lacks in litheness, he makes up for in dressing up as Jareth from Labyrinth, and doing a killer Bowie voice.
In this episode’s song, the pair not only don a selection of some of the finest Bowie costumes seen this side of Velvet Goldmine, but perform a spot-on musical homage to the thin white duke that’s as funny as it is well observed. A first class entry from the Conchords there. Well, second class, technically.
1. Adam Buxton
There was only one person who could really top this list, and that’s the man who’s done more in recent years for the humble Bowie impression than anyone else. I am talking, of course, about Count Buckules himself, Adam Buxton of Adam And Joe fame. Scratch that, make it two people. They both deserve the glory.
High functioning Bowie obsessives and experts in Bowie dialectology, Buxton and Cornish have harvested the fruit of their decades-long Bowie fixation to bring us a special gift, the one size fits all Bowie impression. They’ve managed to distil any utterance by the man who sold the world down to just two beautifully precise, repeated syllables, wuzza wuzza.
It’s a capsule Bowie impression and there’s no other way to describe it but genius. Sheer wuzza wuzza genius. Congratulations, Adam and Joe. We think a celebratory Bowiesnack might be in order.