The star man of Ferndown
Nick Churchill on Laurence Bolwell, the man who continues to bring David Bowie to the stage
Published in October ’16
At home in Ferndown most of the time he’s just Dad to his two boys, but at least two or three nights a week – sometimes more – Laurence Bolwell dons make-up, wigs and a series of outlandish costumes to become a starman; the Starman in fact, David Bowie. For 19 years Laurence has kept a roof over his family’s head by playing the part of the late rock star in the BowieXperience, a successful club show that has evolved into Bowie Experience, a full theatrical production currently touring UK theatres.
‘It has taken me all this time to get to where I wanted it to be when I first started out – the producer and I have talked about a theatre show for at least four years and started putting the wheels in motion about eighteen months ago,’ Laurence explains, stifling any suggestion of opportunism.
Not that he should feel the need to, for David Bowie let it be known through a third party conduit (such was his way) that he was ‘flattered’ by Laurence’s act. Bowie also asked for a disc of the band’s acoustic performance and in 2013 the BowieXperience was the only tribute act to be invited to the private view of the V&A Museum’s landmark David Bowie Is exhibition. They also performed as part of the closing event.
‘Receiving the news that Bowie was flattered by what I do was quite unsettling,’ says Laurence. ‘I mean, what was I supposed to do with that? He was flattered, what about me? I’m very clear that what I do is not an impersonation; it’s an act, a tribute, it’s my interpretation of what people expect to see. As with any kind of acting, the role is eternal and the words are the same, but there are many actors so it doesn’t need to be me playing the part.’
As Bowie said, the song went on forever, but night after night pretending to be one of the most singular stars in the rock ’n’ roll firmament can take its toll and when the applause rings a little too loudly and the lines between Bolwell and Bowie begin to blur there’s only one place to decompress. Home.
‘Usually I can pack Dave away at the end of a show and return to the ‘real’ world, but if ever I’m getting a bit above myself I know I can go up to Badbury Rings and just sit there with my eyes closed until I can feel the people who lived there before and know I am just a tiny drop in a continually flowing stream. It’s not just the rooted sense of the past, but particularly in south-east Dorset, there’s an incredibly powerful and forward-looking dynamic that understands where it comes from because its history is right behind it, literally: it’s a matter of geography not metaphor.’
In his early teens, the sight and sound of the chameleonic Bowie made an instant impression on Laurence: ‘I knew I had found my man. It would be easy to overstate it, but it was a purely sensational reaction. Only later did it take on deeper elements.’
A decade of travelling followed before, in his mid-20s, Laurence stopped wandering in order to make music in a cottage in Lytchett Matravers in the company of David Singleton, now Wimborne-born rock superstar Robert Fripp’s right-hand man. ‘There was no heating, no hot water, I was sleeping on cold stone floors, but waking up each day and seeing the magnificent spread of countryside before us with the Purbeck hills in the distance. No wonder it felt like home.’
He studied environmental management at Kingston Maurward and legal services at night school, before settling on a music course at the old Knighton Heath Music Centre where he hatched a plan, forming a tribute band called Spaceboy, the name inspired by a song from Bowie’s Outside album. From there it was a relatively short step to the BowieXperience and within a few years Laurence was playing the Royal Albert Hall.
‘My first child was on the horizon and I had to make a decision about how I was going to live up to that responsibility – should I get a nine-to-five, which had never worked out very well before, or should I follow this Bowie thing? Could I be professional enough to give the people what they want? Well, here I am. I have two sons, Dominic who’s 15 and not in the least bit interested in what Dad does, and Alexander who’s 11 and a lot more sanguine about it. He’s tried on some of the costumes and wigs and struck a few poses, which is pretty funny.’
The vagaries of show business being what they are, it clearly helps to have such grounding forces in his life and for Laurence the lure of the Dorset countryside and the unfiltered honesty of his children mean that, whether floating in a tin can, travelling in a tour bus or waiting in the wings, he’s secure in the knowledge that the man who fell to Earth won’t land too far from home.
Bowie and Bournemouth
Long before Ziggy played guitar, the then-unknown David Bowie made his debut in Bournemouth as his creator tried out a new name. In 1965 David Robert Jones, the man who subsequently sold the world his alter-ego, David Bowie, was fronting Davie Jones and the Lower Third every Friday and Sunday night from the end of May until the first week of July at the Pavilion Ballroom in Bournemouth.
Keen to avoid confusion with the actor Davy Jones, later to find fame with the Monkees, he told local reporters he had been trying various names, including a three-week spell as Tom Jones inspired by Albert Finney in Tony Richardson’s hit film of Fielding’s novel. The name he chose to appear under in Bournemouth was Bowie and local press adverts proclaimed David Bowie and the Lower Third. The name was made official in a press release issued on 16 September 1965 and although the world’s media barely batted an eyelid at the time, they soon would.
Bowie returned to Bournemouth with his next band, the Buzz, to play basement night spot Le Disque a Go Go in March 1966 before the town witnessed the rise and rise of Ziggy Stardust as Bowie’s creation appeared twice at the Chelsea Village in March and May 1972, again at Starkers in Boscombe in August and, finally, at the Winter Gardens in May 1973, an appearance that was filmed by the BBC for a caustic Nationwide report.