Garstang drama professor taught young David Bowie

A drama teacher from Garstang played an influential role in the early career of enigmatic pop icon David Bowie.
David Bowie. Photo: Myung Jung Kim/PA WireDavid Bowie. Photo: Myung Jung Kim/PA Wire
David Bowie. Photo: Myung Jung Kim/PA Wire

As the world paid tribute to the flamboyant Bowie who died last week aged 69, retired lecturer Professor James Dodding recalled the “exceptionally quiet and courteous” student he taught at the City Literary Institute (‘City Lit’), London, in the mid-1960s.

James was teaching at the institute when south London teenager David Jones, already a talented saxophonist and singer with ambitions to be a star enrolled on two courses - mime for actors and speech for actors.

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James recalls the serious, determined and diligent side of the student who within a decade had become an international superstar.

Speaking at his home in Garstang James said: “He was exceptionally quiet, showed courtesy at all times and carried out his course work with care and a great sense of detail.”

He added: “He was good at both mime and voice and was very supportive of his fellow students. He was always cheerful, and always prepared to work hard. He made notable progress on the courses, particular in voice. He did not throw his weight around like some of the others.”

“He would have been 18-years-old at the time. I remember writing in his report that he was totally dedicated and hard working.”

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James recalled that David did not show any of the flamboyancy of lifestyle or fashion which he later adopted, prompting controversy and pushing cultural boundaries.

“There was no flamboyancy, except when it was part of the exercise,” said James.

It was a few months after completing his City Lit courses that David Jones changed his name to David Bowie, partly to avoid confusion with the British-born star of The Monkees, Davey Jones.

Within a few years, with singles such as Space Oddity (1969), Jean Genie (1972) and Life on Mars (1973), Bowie had become an artist of world class status and a household name.James admits to not initially following his former student’s rise to stardom.

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“He went into the pop world and I did not follow pop. I didn’t link David Jones as David Bowie until several years later when a fellow tutor at City Lit told me that Bowie was David Jones, the ex-student! I thought ‘crikey.’ It came as a surprise ... it delighted me.”

James, now in his 80s, taught drama students in both Britain and the United States as well as working for BBC radio and as a freelance theatre director on both sides of the Atlantic.

He believes Bowie was wise while in his teens to get a thorough grounding in several aspects of the theatrical and music world - a versatile approach James says he has encouraged in his all students.

Bowie is not the only former student James has seen become famous. His other one-time drama students include British actors Tom Baker (Dr Who), Pam St.Clement (Eastenders) and Gary Oldman (Sid and Nancy, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy).

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In America, where James taught at top liberal arts institutions, his students included Tom Hulce (who played the title role in Amadeus) and Lee Sellars (Groundhog Day and the Broadway production of West Side Story). Another protege is Steven Schipper, one of Canada’s leading stage directors, who puts his successful directorial career down to James’s influence.

Another British actor trained by James is Malcolm Hebden (Norris Cole of Coronation Street). Malcolm and James last year took to the stage of Garstang Arts Centre for a question and answer fundraiser about the Corrie star’s life on stage and televsion.

James spent most of his career in London and the USA before returning to live in his home town of Garstang, where he remains active in the community’s artistic circles. He directed the Garstang Passion play in 2007.