David Behrens: Mumbling complaints upstaged by talent show boy band fans

Take That's Gary Barlow.
Take That's Gary Barlow.
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THERE IS seldom a week in which the BBC does not catch some flak, and this one has been no exception.

On the one hand, there was mumble-gate, the issue of actors in Happy
Valley and Jamaica Inn swallowing their lines rather than shouting them to the rafters as if they were Donald Wolfit.

On Tuesday, that went all the way to the House of Lords, which, you might have hoped, would have more to worry about than whether a Yorkshire or Cornish accent was audible under a background score and without turning the volume up to 11.

But it was a commotion at the other end of the decibel scale, and one with which I might have had some distant involvement, that piqued my interest.

Politicians notwithstanding, there is no noisier section of the audience than teenage girls, and the corporation was caught on the back foot by complaints from some of them that a boy band for whom they had voted in a Saturday night talent show called Let It Shine would not, as they had apparently believed, be the stars of a forthcoming stage musical.

I won’t bore you with the tedious details, but the essential facts are that the musicians Gary Barlow and Tim Firth, who wrote a musical about the delightful Yorkshire WI ladies who posed for a saucy calendar, are producing a new one about Barlow’s band, Take That, which in the 1990s made a million young girls come 
over funny. It will feature the winners of the talent show, but not in starring roles.

I am not suggesting that the BBC deliberately misled its audience over this; maybe they just mumbled the details in Cornish. But the corporation had certainly let itself become part of the entertainment industry’s publicity machine.

However, and this where I may
have come in, there is form for this
sort of thing where Take That is concerned.

Back in 1992, I was producing a daytime entertainment show on BBC1, on to which Mr Barlow and his chums had been booked to appear. It was a routine engagement; Take That had enjoyed some modest chart success, but they were not household names, and no-one considered that their appearance on our programme should give any cause to alert the Radio Times, let alone the papers.

But in the fortnight before the show, we began to receive phone calls in our production office at Pebble Mill in Birmingham, from excited teenage girls. Was it true that Take That would be appearing? Yes? Then they would turn up at our studio to try to catch a glimpse.

We took so many such calls that we started to believe we had pulled off a booking coup... and we began plugging the heck out of it. If the audience hadn’t heard of Take That when we started, they certainly had when we were done, and their inference must have been that their appearance was very big news indeed.

Come the day of the live transmission, in the middle of the autumn half-term holiday, we put a camera on the studio gate, so that we might cut to a shot of the crowds we now expected to assemble in their hundreds.

But there were not hundreds of screaming girls; there was not even one. The camera saw only a weary BBC car park attendant who thought the place had gone downhill dreadfully since they stopped making Pebble Mill at One.

After the show, we took stock. Had the fans somehow all got on the same late-running train and missed the party? Or was it possible that the whole thing had been a put-up job? Had the music industry used “plants” to phone us up, to generate interest in an act it wanted to promote?

What is beyond question is that a record plugger who finds himself 
with a fish on the line is not going to quickly let it off the hook, because promotion is nothing if not unpredictable.

By way of example, some 18 months later, I found myself in Leeds, making a music series for ITV. Among the bands we engaged were two whom, the record companies assured me, would be the very next big things. The next Take That, in fact.

One was a Scottish outfit whose name is lost in the mists of time; the other, Oasis. Some you win, some you don’t.