Remote galaxy of shooting stars

 

The most affecting sight in The David Beckham Story occurred, most improbably, in Gary Neville's kitchen.

Beckham, hero cast in modern armour, was over in his mate's pad to cook some pasta. It was a beautiful kitchen, the sort of palace that the Oliver of "pucka" fame could but dream about. Beckham, about to serve a fettuccini appetiser, asked his pal for a wooden spoon.

Neville obligingly hopped up from his seat and slid open a drawer. A line of chrome kitchen accessories was laid out, pristine as a surgeon's tools. But there was no spoon. He tried the next drawer, which was also laden with gleaming and frankly complicated looking cooking ware. But old woodie was nowhere to be found. He tried the next and still that spoon, the most basic and treasured of cooking implements, proved elusive.

Conscious of the cameras now, Neville abandoned all pretence of sang-froid and began rummaging through uncharted cupboards and presses the way a movie thief pillages for that vital piece of evidence. It was as if the missing spoon was an affront, a blemish on the perfection of his house.

Beckham had since solved whatever culinary obstacle had required the use of the spoon and was happily tending to boiling potatoes while looking fantastic. But his friend, in the midst of all his material splendour, looked lost.

It was the seminal moment in a documentary where image and appearance were everything. There is a tendency these days to dismiss everything about David Beckham's life as `empty' or "soulless" and this hour-long clever portrait will probably do little to alter such glib perceptions. The Manchester United star is married to a woman who makes a career out of image and he himself is not exactly averse to the flashing lens.

Why should he be? He is naturally more photogenic than most people whose very livelihoods circle around their looks. In an age that is chronicled remorselessly by a saturated market of glossy, celebrity candy for the brain, Posh 'n Becks have undisputed royal status.

They are little England's version of DiMaggio and Marilyn, the sports star and the showgirl for the DVD generation. Except, of course, it's all warped. In all the sequences of the pair doing the publicity rounds together, there was little sign of old-style hero worship.

The public thrives on the notion that Beckham is stupid and on his way to do Parkinson, the player himself fretted about getting stumped on big words. "It really irritates me 'cos he's not thick," defended his wife. Beckham just shrugs, accepts it as a pitfall and over the course of the programme tells a couple of genuinely good jokes, punchlining his own alleged dim wit.

For sure, he isn't the most flowingly articulate when answering questions on TV but so what: does he mock Will Self for an inability to bend a cross, on the run, in front of a 40,000 crowd, many of whom would be yelling obscenities at him? The lad, as the pundits tell us every Saturday morning, is a class footballer. And that alone takes smartness but he is also clever enough to understand the fame game.

So he rides the rough with the smooth. When he famously elected to wear a sarong, he called his father in advance to prepare him for the media furore. "And I said, `you Jesse, you'll look like a bloomin' tart'," recalled Beckham senior. "But to be fair, he did look quite smart."

And after he was sent off for his petulant little World Cup kick at Argentina's Diego Simeone, one of the tabloids hung an effigy of the player (in sarong) from a lamp post. It didn't break him and two years on his media profile is greater than ever, this documentary cannily timed to surf the waves created by his book.

Much of the documentary was filmed in Beckham's house, where the star would moon about in his wife's absence or lark about whenever she was home. He candidly admits that there is an element of both of them that is addicted to the fame game. But he knows that it is transitory and vowed not to be remembered as "that fella who was captain of England - once."

Anytime the footballer is put in front of a camera, he comes across as fairly likeable, willing to hope that whoever he is dealing with has a good side, that they might be fair. He has been burnt before and will be again; the recompense is all the cash he can handle.

Because that's what being a sports idol comes down to now, more so than ever. We watched Beckham watching himself on Match of the Day and the impression was not that of an empty life so much as that of a distant life. Sports heroes, the people we inch through the turnstile to cheer, have been elevated way beyond our ken.

David Beckham is no different than hoop players like Allen Iverson, or Tiger Woods, or the post-Olympic Maurice Greene. There is an unreality about our sports stars, a gap between their lives and ours that make them appear as one-dimensional.

There are so few great sports stories anymore, no offhand one-liners to make ordinary folk laugh hard at and feel, if only for a moment, that they know their hero. The contact, the vital connection, has been erased and it's all carefully drip-fed.

There is an implicit pessimism about Beckham that is reassuring, as if he knows that his own shelf life is finite. He is the star, the name, for this moment but so dense is the environment of cheap celebrity overkill that endurance is all but impossible.

The relationship between fan and idol is all but gone. That's why the sight of Neville fumbling in his kitchen was so rare; it was so ordinary. A wooden spoon; a child could find it.