Bowie and Rickman were both heroes of social mobility

Both came from humble origins: Bowie from Brixton and Bromley and a state technical school; Rickman going from an Acton estate to the Chelsea College of Art and Rada. Back then, such journeys up a social mobility ladder seemed eminently feasible, even in the previously elitist arts

I t is a week now since David Bowie died, only to be followed by Alan Rickman. Like many, I admired both, although only Bowie was a poster-on-my-wall hero. If their deaths at 69 have reminded us of anything other than what a bastard cancer is, it’s that we all need heroes. Last week, I finally became the long-dreaded old fart, as I tried plaintively to engage my daughters in my generation’s collective mourning; to get across to them exactly why “devastated” was not an inappropriately exaggerated response.

I pointed out – yawn! – as others have, that Bowie, a little like the Beatles but not really the Rolling Stones or anyone else (save maybe Michael Jackson), enjoyed an influence extending well beyond music to film, art, politics, science, sexuality, philosophy, gender, social mobility and fashion. 

 A whole generation of children rolled its eyes as parents waxed lyrical, with just a hint of frustration that their offspring didn’t quite get it. And then Snape died. Rickman had a glorious stage and screen career before the Harry Potter franchise came along. But as Severus Snape (pictured), he left as indelible a mark on our children as “Starman” Bowie pointing down the camera on Top Of The Pops did in 1972.

 The Rickman news, I’m reliably informed, spread like wildfire around my daughter’s school. Social media revealed that many schoolchildren and students all over the world were left in disbelieving tears at the passing of a man who had made such a distinctive impression on their young imaginations. 

Some recalled him with almost equal fondness for Love Actually, a film truly adored by a generation of teenage girls. Their mothers loved Rickman for different films, Truly Madly Deeply and Les Liaisons Dangereuses among them.

Rickman and Bowie were two very British celebrities. Bowie, in particular, cultivated an image of mysterious aloofness in public at odds with the kindness, humour and grace with which he conducted himself in private. 

Part of the attraction of these magnificent talents was their accessible backgrounds. Both came from humble origins: Bowie from Brixton and Bromley and a state technical school; Rickman going from an Acton estate to the Chelsea College of Art and Rada. Back then, such journeys up a social mobility ladder seemed eminently feasible, even in the previously elitist arts. Such mobility was deemed important, desirable – even heroic. David Bailey, Twiggy, David Hockney, Michael Caine and Dennis Potter – we all know their stories. 

Education is the key, particularly unfashionable education in the fine arts and “soft” subjects like drama and design. It feels like an apposite follow-up from criticism of the Government’s tokenist council estate measures last week to observe that many would view David Cameron and George Osborne’s tributes to Bowie with cynicism, however unfair that may be.

But in a climate where art colleges and drama schools are regarded askance by an ever more mercenary Establishment, such tributes resemble crocodile tears. As for the rest of us, yes we need heroes; particularly heroes we can see ourselves in. For if they can reach for the stars, then so can we.

Stefano Hatfield is editor-in-chief of High50

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