“Beckham” Shows Us How David and Victoria Beckham See Themselves

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“They were the new Charles and Diana, in some ways,” Gary Neville, the former Manchester United player, says in the first episode of “Beckham,” a new, four-part documentary on Netflix. They, of course, are David Beckham, Neville’s friend and onetime teammate, and Beckham’s then girlfriend, Victoria Adams, a.k.a. Posh Spice. The period about which Neville is speaking is 1997—the height of the fame of the Spice Girls, the record-breaking girl group of which Adams was one sylphlike fifth, and the beginning of the ascendancy of Beckham as considerably more than just a very good footballer. (I, like the documentary, will stick with the globally preferred nomenclature of the game.)

Posh and Becks, as the tabloids called them—nice short words, great big headlines—were a celebrity match made in heaven. They were also a match made in David’s fantasies, it turns out, even before the couple’s first encounter. He tells the documentary’s director, Fisher Stevens, about seeing a Spice Girls video while he and Neville were idly watching TV one day. “I turned round to Gary, I went, ‘See that one there? I’m gonna marry that one,’ ” David remembers. (The documentary suggests—and forensic YouTubing confirms—that the video in question was for “Wannabe,” the group’s multiplatinum début single, from 1996. It includes the characterization of Victoria as “Easy V. who doesn’t come for free / She’s a real lady,” and shows her sporting her signature look of disdain.) Neville tells Stevens, “I suppose that most blokes have done that in their life. Looked at a television set and said, ‘I like her.’ They don’t fucking end up with them.” But David was already attracting attention as a gifted, and good-looking, young player, and destiny took its course when Victoria attended a Manchester United game—an outing likely undertaken in her capacity as a Spice Girl rather than a civilian, because, as she firmly informs Stevens in one of numerous interviews he conducted with both of the Beckhams over two years, “I am not into football. At all. I wasn’t into football then, I am not into football now.”

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Even if you were not into football then and you are not into football now, “Beckham” makes for fascinating viewing—as a document of the late nineties and early two-thousands in the U.K., with its Brit-pop and its Blairy optimism; as a record of a moment when the use of private jets and the acquisition of luxury goods by newly wealthy celebrities might have been regarded as crass but wasn’t yet deemed ethically criminal; as a portrait, albeit a flatteringly partial one, of a long-enduring marriage between famous people who seem genuinely to enjoy and admire one another; as a reminder of the extent to which the tabloids and their guns-for-hire—metaphorical, this is Britain—went in pursuing their quarry. Among the many sometimes starry interviewees—they range from Ronaldo Nazário, Beckham’s onetime teammate at Real Madrid, to Anna Wintour, in her capacity as the person who put the Spice Girls on the cover of Vogue—two standouts are Eamonn and James Clarke, a pair of paparazzi brothers from Manchester. They wear matching beards and drink from matching coffee mugs, and, when asked how they feel about the photographs they took in 1999 of David cradling the Beckhams’ infant son, Brooklyn, in his arms as he carried him to a waiting vehicle, they have matching auras of shame: “You wouldn’t do it now,” they offer, inadequately.

Commentators have pointed out that the series was produced by Beckham’s company, which may explain why it skirts some of the more questionable endeavors undertaken by the player, such as being an ambassador for Qatar, a country with a problematic human-rights record that controversially hosted the 2022 World Cup—a role for which he reportedly signed a multimillion-dollar deal. (Stevens says that he asked Beckham about it but his answer “wasn’t brilliant enough to put in the film.”) It’s possible to see the documentary’s provenance as part of its strength: “Beckham” shows us how the Beckhams see themselves, and how they want to be seen. In this respect, the royal couple who come most readily to mind, as one watches the sometimes teary unspooling of intimate disclosures from handsome people sitting on expensive couches in covetable neo-rustic interiors, is not Charles and Diana but that other much misunderstood, oft-pilloried, fame-blasted couple, Harry and Meghan.

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The Beckhams are not quite able to say, as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex did in their own Netflix docuseries, that this was their first opportunity to tell their story on their terms. Both have published books: among his, the dubiously named autobiography “My Side”; among hers, the more enticingly titled fashion-and-beauty guide “That Extra Half an Inch: Hair, Heels and Everything in Between.” They have participated in countless other authorized media engagements, including one held to announce their own engagement, a press conference at a countryside spa. “I’m with the man I know I’m going to grow old and wrinkly with,” Victoria said at the time, trolling future generations of life-style journalists on the tweakment-detection beat. Then there was the million pounds they were paid by the magazine OK! for access to their wedding in 1999, not long after Manchester United became the first-ever English team to win, in the same season, the Premier League, the F.A. Cup, and the Champions League; that last victory, over Bayern Munich, saw United struggling throughout the match’s ninety minutes but securing a victory by scoring two goals in injury time. OK! got its money’s worth: the Beckhams’ nuptial extravaganza was held at a castle outside Dublin, with the couple wearing coördinating outfits in a lurid purple for their reception. This is a hue that, after spending decades in color-spectrum Siberia, was recently dignified when Pantone nominated Viva Magenta as 2023’s Color of the Year—take that and stick it, stealth-wealth greige. Honestly, the pictures are fabulous, and the four-month-old Brooklyn in a matching purple Stetson and bib? Adorbs.

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