Gay clubs and jelly wrestling: The strange origins of Take That

Boy band Take That in the outfits they wore in their controversial first video, Do What U Like, with Robbie Williams and Gary Barlow on the end. Photo/Getty
Boy band Take That in the outfits they wore in their controversial first video, Do What U Like, with Robbie Williams and Gary Barlow on the end. Photo/Getty

Gary Barlow has done considerably better than many boy band lead singers. The 45-year-old from small town Cheshire has created some of the country's best-loved songs, is the Royal Family's entertainer of choice and, this weekend, will take a stab at becoming the new face of Saturday night TV with his talent show, Let it Shine.

To look at Barlow now, newly trim and artfully grizzled in a well-tailored suit, it's difficult to imagine him hungry for fame. But his first foray into pop stardom was far from the squeaky-clean spot he occupies now: just out of his teens, naked and covered in jelly, the young Barlow - along with the rest of Take That - created a music video that was considered too blue for children's television. Here's how it was made.

The formative years of any manufactured pop band are very similar: an opportunistic manager looks for a niche in the market, then young, starry-eyed talent to comprise a group to fill it. Disparate hopefuls, often only just out of their teens - if not still in them - are brought together, paid a pittance and trained, hard.

The group, whose name will invariably change at least once, play gigs in working men's clubs and makeshift outdoor stages around the country at a relentless pace.

If they're lucky, they will be the ones with "chemistry" or "spark", whose collective ambition will propel them to the bright lights and the top of the charts. There will probably be rumours of drug and alcohol abuse, internal strife - inevitably, a statement will be issued from the band saying that the good times have come to an end, thank you to the fans.

In the summer of 1991, Take That had been together for about a year. They had already been through one name, Kick It, and were being put through gruelling daily dance and exercise routines at the instruction of their manager, Nigel Martin-Smith.

Take That in 1992. Robbie Williams (left), Jason Orange, Howard Donald, Gary Barlow and Mark Owen. Photo/Getty
Take That in 1992. Robbie Williams (left), Jason Orange, Howard Donald, Gary Barlow and Mark Owen. Photo/Getty

Martin-Smith had been wanting to form a British equivalent to New Kids on the Block since the late Eighties. He was given a demo by a teenage Barlow, who had been making a living singing covers, while writing his own material, in venues around Manchester since he was 15. The demo contained A Million Love Songs, and Martin-Smith realised that he had found a lynchpin for his group.

By 1990 Martin-Smith had added four other members to Barlow's prodigious singing and writing talent: Jason Orange, a jobbing dancer and Howard Donald, a vehicle painter, were brought in for their breakdancing skills, buff bodies and chiselled good looks; Mark Owen, an 18-year-old bank employee, and Robbie Williams, barely out of school at 16, would back Barlow up on vocals.

As Barlow would later surmise upon meeting his new bandmates: "Robbie had all the cool gear on and Jason had a real natural physique and Howard just looked like a model, you know. They looked like they all looked after themselves, they dressed well, they were all quite fit. And I thought, I've got to work at this."

Martin-Smith swiftly deployed his tactics to get the group noticed. "Nigel had the idea that we had to be quite controversial," Orange recalled in the 2005 documentary, Take That for the Record. "To dress ludicrously. When I look back now it was ludicrous. Bondage gear and chains and lycra and all sorts of stuff."

Keen to foster support across a broad demographic, Martin-Smith booked Take That to play gay clubs by night, and school halls by day. "A lot of gay clubs is where we started off," Owen remembers in the documentary. "We'd be running through this crowd, having our arses pinched and our front bits pinched, trying to get to the stage," Donald said, "Pushing past everybody and almost missing the cue for the beginning of the song."

The leather chaps and chains followed regardless: "We'd go into school halls and invade their assemblies," Orange recalls, "all our bondage gear on, and these teachers and their pupils were there."

Martin-Smith had good links with the producers and directors at Granada, the Manchester-based TV studios, in the late Eighties and early Nineties. Rosemary Barratt, who had been a presenter on Radio One and The Old Grey Whistle Test on BBC Two in the mid-Eighties, was working as a producer for both late-night dance music show The Hit Man and Her and The Wide Awake Club. Aside from the fact they were co-hosted by Michaela Strachan, both also depended on up-and-coming pop acts to fill slots, and Martin-Smith was frequently plugging his acts.

A leather-clad Take That at the start of their first video, Do What U Like. Photo/YouTube
A leather-clad Take That at the start of their first video, Do What U Like. Photo/YouTube

"We knew Nigel pretty well because he was trying to break pop acts," Barratt tells me. "We established a good friendship and I helped him as much as I could. Donald was a dancer on Hit Man and Her, and Barratt suggested he contact Martin-Smith. A few years later, she saw Take That rehearse for the first time: "what a breath of fresh air they were," Barratt wrote in 2011, "charmingly polite and friendly with an eagerness to please."

In 1990, three months after they formed, Barratt gave the band their second television appearance (a day before they had done Look North West), on a children's show called Cool Cube: "They performed a dance routine to Gary's song Girl wearing red velvet bomber jackets over bare chests and lycra cycling shorts which left little to the imagination."

Record labels, however, weren't taking any notice. Martin-Smith took the plunge and re-mortgaged his house to set up his own label, with the intention of releasing Take That's debut single, Do What U Like, written by Barlow and songwriter Ray Hedges, under it. A single release needed a video, and he turned to Barratt to produce one, who in turn brought in her friend and Granada colleague, Angela Smith, to direct.

"Angela was a director, so that's where the creative concept came from," Barratt explained. "We were coming from Hit Man and Her, late-night telly, where things were risky but all in good fun - there was nothing sort of overtly sexual."

"We were given virtually no money, zero budget aside from studio hire and editing, and we were told what they were going to wear," Smith explains. "Our sole brief was to break the band and make some noise, so I thought about having a shot of a bare bum with a blob of jelly wobbling on it. It was the kind of thing, in more prudish times, that would get banned by the kid's shows and make a bit of controversy."

"With it being your first video, you're being told what to do and you just say, 'Yeah, ok then! Ok then!'", Donald remembered. "I got my a___ wiped off, with a mop, and loads of jelly, as me and our of my mates lay on our fronts naked," Williams recalled.

"I was cleaning jelly out of my a_______ for two years after that video," Barlow reminisced in the documentary, grimly. "It was fun but I never thought I'd ever be doing anything like that."

The jelly and custard was part of Smith's creative vision, inspired by the song's lyrics that mentioned "sugar sweet", "jam" and "cherry pie", but also to add colour to the staunchly monochrome video.

"Rosemary and I had scripted the camera angles and the direction really tightly," Smith says, "but we hadn't planned the shot of the bare bum and the boys didn't know. When they turned up for the shoot in the morning we told them that we'd need a shot of it, but we didn't know which bum it would be: they would have to audition. They were just so excited at that prospect, we ended up shooting them all - that shot of them all lying down naked, covered in jelly, that was the point of that. We just went freestyle from there."

A young Robbie Williams in his first ever music video. Photo/YouTube
A young Robbie Williams in his first ever music video. Photo/YouTube

Barratt maintains that the group were easy to work with, having had professionalism drilled into them by Martin-Smith: "I remember thinking, it's great this! They were such naturals in front of a camera. It shows that there really was such a good spirit between them. In the end Howard began prancing around with a mop."

"Howard had an unfeasibly large package," Smith recalled, "we had to be really careful with the camera angles to make sure we didn't get it on film. And Mark's mum had turned up with the MiniMilk Lollies, so the models ended up prodding the band with those. Despite our really tightly planned script, the video just descended into a food fight."

Barratt and Smith were left with the clean-up: they had hired an expensive, all-white studio, that was now covered in jelly and custard: "We were there for hours and hours with mops and buckets thinking we were going to get a massive bill, we were really really panicking and worrying."

Martin-Smith, a fan of showbizzy touches, had booked a meal and invited the group and crew out to a nightclub as a form of wrap party. "There was a meal, everyone sat around and Gary played piano while Robbie did his Norman Wisdom impression," Barrett recalls.

The video, with its crashing zooms on chainmail-clad crotches and the young men's naked buttocks filling the screen, was deemed inappropriate for children's television. Initially, it could only be screened on Hit Man and Her, until Barratt made enough edits to create a version safe enough for younger audiences.

"There were versions where the band were naked but for a towel, and threw their towels off at the end, and all sorts," Barratt recalls. "It became apparent that perhaps it wasn't appropriate. There are umpteen versions of it out there because we had to edit together one that would be acceptable for kid's TV."

A banned video for an artist of Madonna's heft was one thing; a banned video from a group of nobodies from Manchester was quite another. "At the time the important thing was to get them seen," Barratt explains. "They didn't want a video that couldn't be shown. It's not like they were famous enough to benefit from a video being banned."

The video didn't help Take That dominate the charts. Do What U Like charted at 82; it would take second single, Promises, to land the band in the Top 40 (initially at number 39), and on the likes of Wogan. But its legacy has lasted: "After the video it came out that it was quite gay," Barratt confesses, "but it wasn't done with that in mind, it was done as a bit of a laugh to be honest."

A young Gary Barlow gets tickled for Do What U Like. Photo/YouTube
A young Gary Barlow gets tickled for Do What U Like. Photo/YouTube

The band, at least, were very excited to see the fruits of their labours. Barratt remembers watching the video through with them for the first time: "They were so excitable, they'd never done anything like that before." Their glee was somewhat dampened by Martin-Smith's insistence that each member cough up a tenner for a VHS tape on which to record a copy to show their friends and family - a tall order for a band on the make.

Do What U Like is the only single not to be included on Take That's compilation, Never Forget - The Ultimate Collection, but the video is one of the band's more memorable, partially because of its perennial appearance on round-ups of the worst music videos ever made.

For Barratt and Smith, it launched their careers as much as it did the band's. Barratt went into video production, making other videos for pop chart acts. Smith went on to produce shows including The Big Breakfast, before founding her own Los Angeles-based production company. "I've had a glittering career in television for 30 years and it's still this one thing that has had the most attention!" Smith says, "It's a great party piece, people are always bowled over when they find out. "

Neither of them imagined such things for Take That at the time: "Nobody could imagine they would go on to have the success they did. Nigel had spent an awful lot of money. I think we all thought, 'What is he doing spending all this money on them?' They were trying to establish themselves. It would take another year before they took off - it was 1992 before they took off, and radio play that did it."

Take That, Barratt and Smith never worked together again. Barratt remembers, a little wistfully, checking Barlow's autobiography for a namecheck and being "quite upset" that she was referred to merely as "some girl that Nigel knew". Perhaps a little more fond regret hangs over the fact she didn't take the band up on their offer to play at her wedding, which took place shortly after the video shoot ("I don't think we thought it would fit in with the style. I wish now perhaps they had done, it would have been good!")

As Barratt points out, Barlow now makes headlines for surprising newlyweds at their receptions, serenading them on the smallest stages he's played since the early Nineties - this time, however, he wears a suit, and jelly is nowhere to be seen.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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