October 5, 2023 - 7:00am

Once upon a time, when the tabloids reigned supreme and the cult of celebrity was at its peak, David Beckham was the unofficial prince of our nation. He was handsome, athletic and slightly dim: all the qualities one needed to achieve heroic status at the turn of the millennium, those years of growing discord and scandal in public life. 

Now we have an origin story for one of the few remaining figures in national life clinging to a sense of waning innocence. Rampant press interest in the four-part Netflix series suggests that the cult of Beckham, even after the controversy over his ambassador role in Qatar, still has legs for a global audience. 

There is perhaps a sense of quiet desperation at play. As the Russell Brand revelations sweep the land, and a reassessment of the “nasty Noughties” takes place, here, surely, is an inoffensive story — a tale of working-class aspiration and success — that the nation can take comfort in. 

Sadly not. Beckham’s documentary, made by his own production company, reveals him as another victim of the period. His family has described the films as akin to “therapy”. This is a roll call featuring everyone who troubled him: from the paparazzi (“you wouldn’t do it now, the times have changed,” they confess today) to his complicated relationship with father figure-cum-psychotic boot-launching manager Sir Alex Ferguson. 

All flirt around one of the more overt mysteries that linger over the four hours charting the course of his success. Here was one of England’s greatest footballers, who rode the wave of fame, scandal and tabloid obsession. Somehow, he survived. 

In part, this hagiography is driven by the medium itself. Director-interviewer Fisher Stevens is eager to indulge, a perfect mediator to the spectacle of the modern Netflix documentary as a globalised therapeutic experience. England and its footballing culture is a place to be overcome — a strange, backward maelstrom of feuds and death threats driven by the passions of neocolonial conflict and baying mobs of football fans. 

His former PA Rebecca Loos features as the villain. Here, she is a nightmarish product of the tabloid culture that obsessed over him, who betrayed David with false allegations of an affair, reaping her reward with a bounty of ÂŁ1 million for her story and an appearance on Love Island.

By the end Beckham is smiling and content with his family. The one lesson that emerges from the series is that all, for his famous dimness, he is a strangely mysterious figure. There are nervous, unsuccessful attempts to categorise him by Stevens. “I feel like everything’s gotta be kinda perfect,” he suggests to little avail when David serves him a coffee from his favourite Espresso machine.

Who, then, is the real David Beckham? A designer, a footballer, a beekeeper, a man praised by Gary Neville for his stoicism yet also an emotional creature who confesses to struggles with his mental health. The result is a hodgepodge of identity, a testament to his craft as a shapeshifter of not just hairstyles but crafted brands eager to move with the times.  

He does, however, leave a clear legacy. He helped the national religion transition away from the era of flawed alcoholic geniuses and career-ending mudslides towards the Premier League’s global hegemony of pristine pitches and shirt sales. 

The former Manchester United footballer was also an inoffensive bellwether for the modern metrosexual male. Men could be successful and wealthy but also kind. They could be stylish but masculine. Like Beckham they could be boring, yet also strangely charming. 

Over the four hours, we learn less about the psychology of this legacy and more about how Beckham wants to be remembered in 2023. In trying to present himself as another victim of that era, however, he inadvertently reveals himself as one of its key architects.

Fred Skulthorp is a writer living in England. His Substack is Bad Apocalypse