My friend Nos was on the phone doing his David Bowie impression. Having heard Mr Bowie speak for the duration of a press conference, come away with a recording of it, listened to it several times and then re-edited chunks of it for broadcast, I can say that Nos’s impression is pretty spot-on. In fact I did say it. Nos explained that he’d essentially ‘cracked’ the impression by imitating the way Phil Cornwell does David Bowie on Stella Street. It’s interesting, he noted, how it’s often easier to do an impression of someone when you’ve heard someone else’s impression of that person.
Opera director and occasional brain surgeon Dr Jonathan Miller, pointed out some time after helping launch the 60s satire boom with Beyond the Fringe that no one in Britain ever really did an Indian accent, but rather did their impression of Peter Sellers doing an Indian accent. This was probably mostly true, at least until the dawn of Goodness Gracious Me.
In a similar way, Nos says, he sometimes finds it helpful to see how someone else has caricatured a person, in order to work out how he’ll go about drawing a caricature. It would seem that the process is about working out what particular features communicate the essential nature of the face you’re trying to draw or the voice you’re trying to imitate. Sometimes it’s easier once you’ve seen what features someone else has latched onto – then doing it your way.
I often find myself doing the same thing as a writer, especially when I have to review a film or an album that I don’t particularly care about, and I haven’t yet worked out what exactly I think about it, or why. It helps to read what someone else has thought – what bits of the film or the music stood out for them. Usually I disagree with them, either on what they’ve latched onto, or what they’ve concluded from it, which is a good thing. When you agree, it’s much easier to paraphrase, rather than to construct your own set of arguments and conclusions.
Sadly, rather than constructing their own set of arguments and conclusions, or even paraphrasing, some people find it easier still just to change the byline at the top of the article, their only original input being their own name. What is most annoying, however, is that this level of plagiarism is nowadays an accepted mode of journalism. Particularly in a country like Australia, that has, per capita, more print media than any other nation, readers don’t appear so keen on reading anything original or in-depth; it just has to cover the bases. Journalists, therefore, don’t have to be particularly original or in-depth – they just need to submit something by deadline that covers the bases. Which is why you can browse through the arts pages of even the respected news dailies, and find that an underpaid staff writer has re-jigged the same press releases with only slightly more flair than the barely paid scribes at the free entertainment weeklies.
It’s probably worth noting that both Phil Cornwell and Nos ‘do’ Bowie by half singing everything in a heavily vibrato’d cockney tenor. That’s not how Bowie speaks, of course, but it’s quite often the way he sings. So if Bowie rings you and starts ‘singing’ his side of the conversation, rather than merely speaking it in a cockney accent, it’s probably Phil Cornwell or Nos on the phone and not the Dame himself.