Of course, when I say I’ve slept with him, I mean it as a metaphor. All I’ve really done is experienced the tingling impact of a sexy new video portrait of the reclining David produced for the National Portrait Gallery, with absolutely corking timing, by the artist Sam Taylor-Wood. Just in case you don’t know, Sam is a Samantha. So she’s slept with David, too. And soon, absolutely everyone in the world will be able to claim they’ve done it because Sam’s video portrait goes on show to the public on Tuesday. Back off, Rebecca. We’ve all been there.
I had arranged to talk to Taylor-Wood exclusively about this sizzling new display a couple of weeks ago, just before the ordure hit the cooling system and when David Beckham was merely the perfect modern being, a saintly father and loyal husband who was also a ball-bending football god. With this guy you get, or got, the heart of a saint in the body of an angel. That was just more than three weeks ago. The arrangement was to have another conversation after I’d seen the piece, which is now. And now … well, now, it’s all become a lot more complicated, hasn’t it? So it’s an unusually nervous Sam Taylor-Wood who sets about detailing how all this came about: how she got Beckham into bed, how she filmed the results, and what she wants us to make of them. American marines tiptoeing through a minefield in Iraq would be more carefree with their decision-making than Taylor-Wood is with me, as she describes how she ended up sleeping with David Beckham in a hotel room in Madrid, metaphorically.
The process began well over a year ago and dragged on and on. Once a year, the trustees of the National Portrait Gallery meet, specifically to decide whom they want portrayed from the contemporary British firmament, and this time they decided they wanted David Beckham. Taylor-Wood was chosen to do the deed because she has a track record of working with celebrities and making something meaningful out of them. But she hesitated mightily before saying yes to Beckham.
“At first, I thought I didn’t want to do it. He’s been photographed in so many ways. We’ve seen him in so many magazines, on so many covers. What can you do that’s new?” she worried. “I had to do something I was proud of. And not just something for the thrill of doing something with Beckham.” Having thought about it some more, she had the idea of showing him at his most human and most vulnerable. That would be different. She’d show him sleeping.
Beckham agreed quickly enough, but lots of negotiation had to be embarked upon with his people. The problem was that Beckham’s image is a thing of immense financial value that doesn’t really belong to him any more. It belongs to Real Madrid and all the other paying slice-takers. His people couldn’t understand why this non-paying slice of Beckham’s time was worth giving away. In the end, Taylor-Wood, allowing herself a short giggle, remembers pointing out that at the National Portrait Gallery he would be hanging alongside Shakespeare and Elizabeth I. It was a delightful carrot, and they took it.
The next hurdle was to find the time in his diary. She wanted him tired enough actually to fall asleep for her, and the best occasion to do this was after training in Madrid, when the Beckham custom was to take a siesta. Thus, in conditions of spectacular secrecy, she booked them into a hotel room in Madrid, and one afternoon earlier this year the two of them, and nobody else, locked themselves up in there and got on with it.
Beckham seems to be naked, though you only ever see him from the waist up. I think this full nakedness is a deliberate illusion, but Taylor-Wood is coy about it. He’s lying on crisp, white, Spanish bed linen that shows off his tan, perfectly, and the camera angle has been set up deliberately to make it look as if you are lying next to him and examining him closely while he slumbers, in that entirely intimate way that lovers do after sex. Risking another giggle, Taylor-Wood admits to imagining scores of excited visitors to the NPG contorting themselves onto their sides in front of her piece so that they too can lie next to David Beckham.
She’s worried that the NPG hasn’t grasped the scale of the situation it has got itself into. In Japan, after the last World Cup, excited Japanese girls booked themselves into his hotel after he left just to sniff his toilet seat. “He’s probably the most famous person in the world right now, isn’t he?” she demands, and I suppose he could be. What is certain is that this is the closest the rest of us have ever got to him, and ever will. The piece really does take you under his perimeter fence and deep into his intimacy zone. Basically, all that Beckham does for the one hour-plus he’s on screen is to toss and turn as he slumbers, flashing enticing glimpses of his tattoos at you, and leaving you entirely free to look at him and, yes, adore him. If he really is asleep, then all I can say is that he sleeps as perfectly as he does everything else. No dribbles. No snoring. Mouth shut. No farting. Just an occasional drowsy toss of the hair that elegantly reveals his diamond earrings.
He’s a truly beautiful man, who’s popped out of the mould with wondrous proportions. I don’t think she’s joking when she says that she thought of calling the piece David: A Study in Perfection. Now it’s just plain David, a bold nod in Michelangelo’s direction, though the lighting is darkly Caravaggiesque and makes his skin feel entirely touchable. I compliment Taylor-Wood on this. She tells me that all she used was the standard lamp in the hotel room, from which she removed all the bulbs except one.
Another of Taylor-Wood’s fancies is that this is Beckham as Sleeping Beauty, and that visitors to the NPG will always encounter him in exactly this delightful fairy-tale state, time and time again. I must say, even I felt the urge to lean over and kiss his lips.