Robbie Williams is a national institution. Like free healthcare and Greggs, he represents something beyond himself: an ethos, a set of fundamental principles, a way of life. He represents romance, scrapping and banter. He is football hooliganism, the faint memory of teletext and having a carvery with your nan. He is the beginning, middle and end of a night out. He is an entertainer, but he is also a collective state of mind. A vessel of ordinariness particular to British culture.
Look deep into the glinting eyes of anyone two and a half pints deep at 6PM on a Friday – nothing but daily toil behind them, nothing but carnal possibility ahead – and there you will find him: Robert Peter Williams, Robbie, The Robster. His music dominated the UK charts between 1997 and 2002, guiding us through the unsure transition from one century to the next, but what if it hadn’t? What if… Robbie Williams left Take That, never to return to music? What if… Robbie Williams had never released “Let Me Entertain You”, “Rock DJ”, “Millennium” or, heaven forbid, “Angels”? It’s a bleak thought, but one worth considering so that we may not take the gift of his impact for granted as we settle into a new year together and reflect on those gone by. Let us enter the void: a Britain without Robbie Williams.
Another miserable sun rises over rows of identical office blocks on 13 February 2002. Barely illuminating the sprawl beneath, it hangs silver in a grey sky like a button on a worn cardigan. The roads are eerily quiet, the pavements slick with wet. Each building leans knackered into the next. Every town in the UK is this way now: lifeless, prosaic. A shiver passes through constantly, like a ghost at the top of the stairs, carrying with it the sense that something has been lost.
Regular guy Robert Williams is walking down the street, kicking an empty can out of his way with the cheery nonchalance of someone who was once significant but now is not. A discarded newspaper blows past him in the wind and plasters itself up against the wall of a boarded-up pub. Out of the corner of his eye he clocks a photograph of the Home Secretary, Gary Barlow, spread across one of the pages, wearing an expression that somehow manages to be both neutral and smug at the same time. “TAKE THAT? TAKE THIS!” the headline above it ran. “Celebrating seven years of a gloriously joyless Britain since unruly Robbie dropped out and vanished from…” Robert Williams winces. Then, remembering himself, quickly shakes his unremarkable head like a horse trying to get rid of a fly. “No,” he tells himself sharply, “It’s in the past.”
Robert Williams approaches The Ministry of Admin, where he works along with everyone else, because admin is one of the four employment sectors left in the UK along with The Ministry of Journalism, The Ministry of Tax Avoidance and The Ministry of Consultancy and Project Management. All part of the new government’s Twelve Months, Eleven Days Plan. The sound of automatic doors rushing open fills Robert Williams’ two very ordinary ears as he steps inside.
“Good morning, Robert Williams,” the receptionist says, flatly. She looks at him with her dull brown eyes with her dull brown hair pulled back into a low ponytail. A sign above her head reads: NO COLLOQUIALISMS / NO NICKNAMES / NO SHARING OF AMUSING ANECDOTES. In return, Robert Williams delivers a single firm nod in silence. He takes the elevator, which is playing Toploader’s “Dancing in the Moonlight”, to the fifth floor. He sits down at his desk, and opens his emails.
Among the usual flurry of invitations to top-up courses on how to use Microsoft Excel, and all-office emails outlining once more the difference between the regular bins and recycling bins and could employees please be careful to use the correct ones, he clocks something else. Another one. That makes six in the last ten days. They’re becoming more frequent. PLEASE READ, the subject states. And, although he knows exactly what it will say, Robert Williams opens the message.
We know it’s you. We have the material.
Please contact us.
Robert Williams starts to feel things. A rush of blood flows suddenly to his face, a lump forms in his throat that almost resembles excitement. Deep within him, something is stirring. Trying to keep his composure, the absolutely average, totally regular guy, Robert Williams, takes a big gulp of milky tea from a mug that says ‘I’m a twat’ on the bottom. Ministry of Admin standard issue item.
“Robert Williams,” comes a monotone voice from behind him. Robert Williams jumps, quickly closes his inbox and turns to greet a man in a loose-fitting grey suit aged literally anywhere between 26 and 40.
“Yes, Line Manager?”
“Have the stuff for the thing on my desk for 5PM.”
“Yes, Line Manager.”
“Very good. Also, this is from everyone at The Ministry. Happy birthday.”
The Line Manager hands him an envelope, turns on his heels and walks away. Robert Williams opens it to reveal a small slip – a £5 gift voucher for Tie Rack. With a quiet sigh, Robert Williams shuts his extremely conventional eyes.
It’s a relatively quiet afternoon inside The Something & Something. The only public house left in the town after all the others were shut down as part of the Twelve Months, Eleven Days Plan, The Something & Something changed its name and posed as a student’s union. According to regulations, a sign hangs above the bar: NO PINTS / NO GOING “WHEYYY!” OR “LADS!” / NO KARAOKE.
Groups of young people are dotted around the room, drinking San Miguel out of Fosters cans (as is the case with most pre-Plan activities, drinking isn’t banned, it just isn’t allowed to be enjoyable). A television set in the corner plays reruns of the first and only series of Big Brother, before it got taken off air and all broadcasting was replaced by endless episodes of Heartbeat interspersed with the news, hosted by anchors James Fleet and Dido. Gathered around a table near the door, three twenty-somethings speak in hushed tones.
“I just can’t believe these exist and nobody knows about them,” says a girl with her blonde hair pulled taught and tied up in a high bun, a few strands of stiff waxy hair dangling in her eyes. As a personalised gold necklace confirms, her name is Olivia. She’s holding a bundle of unmarked CD cases, and begins to drop them on the table one by one. “Life thru a Lens, I’ve Been Expecting You, Sing When You’re Winning, Swing When You’re Winning…. And who knows what else could be out there.”
“How do we know they’re legit?” asks Josh, who runs the bar and is wearing really big jeans.
“Trust me,” she says, rolling her eyes, “They were left on top of the bins around the back of The S&S wrapped in a Port Vale FC scarf. It’s like someone wanted us to find them.”
“There must be something we can do to get them out there,” a second girl, Kiara, says, “Storm the news, hack the radio. Anything..."
“Hack the radio!” says Josh, incredulously.
“Well, I don’t know! But I can’t take much more of this,” Kiara says, slamming her half-empty can down on the table, “I’ve been bored stiff for fucking years. I want to en-joy something. I want to be able to shout ‘GO ON MY SON’ at a football match. I want to drink a pint outside. I want to do karaoke in a local pub where the whole room can be brought together by the resonance of a single iconic song. I want to be entertained.”
“OH FOR ROB’S SAKE!” Josh yells and, with a flick of the wrist, throws the remains of his lager in his own face. “THERE! HAPPY NOW! IS THIS FUN!”
The whole room pauses for a moment, then erupts into laughter. Kiara takes a sip of her can and, grinning, calls Josh a tit.
Suddenly, a huge cracking sound fills the room as the double doors fly open. The whole room falls silent. Olivia grabs the CDs off the table and stuffs them into her bag. Everyone sits frozen still, trying not to wince as the harrowing sound of Oliver Sweeney brogues tap heel toe, heel toe, on the old floorboards.
“Well, well,” a voice snivels, “What’s going on here? Wouldn’t be having any FUN now, would we?”
A man emerges from the haze of settling dust wearing navy tailored trousers approximately an inch too long held up by a tan belt, a lilac shirt, and a blue tie with a small pin on it in the shape of a fire extinguisher. The Banter Police. Swiftly comes flurry of responses:
“Of course not, sir.”
The Banter Policeman looks at Kiara, then Olivia, then Josh, who still has drops of San Miguel trickling down his face, and then around the bar. “What’s this!” He says, pacing smarmily over to the TV. “Are you watching… BIG BROTHER???”
Josh curses under his breath. “You can’t arrest us for that. It’s a legal VCR. Besides, nobody was enjoying it. We hadn’t even got to Vanessa Feltz’ meltdown.”
“ARREST YOU!” He yells, aghast. “Of course not. There’s only one place agonising enough for the likes of you. I hope ‘clear’’ is your favourite colour of desk tidy, because you’ll all be spending the rest of your lives at The Ministry of Admin.”
Olivia’s stomach drops. Josh turns pale and steadies himself on a chair. Kiara lets out a guttural shriek. And with that, The Banter Policeman marches them out of The Something & Something and into the cold light of the silent streets, without even enjoying it.
Robert Williams is busy looking at a spreadsheet when The Line Manager leads Olivia to the desk beside him.
“This is you,” says The Line Manager, “Robert Williams, this is Olivia. She’s new. Keep an eye on her. Olivia, here is your mug.”
Olivia sits down and turns the mug over in her hands. Seeing the message underneath, she rolls her head to the side and begins to moan “Oh for fucks-” Then, clocking Robert Williams, who is staring directly ahead – eyes like saucers, hands hovering, frozen, above his keyboard, “Oh, sorry.” She turns back to her own screen and mouths oh my god. Out of the corner of her eye she looks over again, to make sure.
“Pssst,” she whispers. Robert Williams puts his head down and starts furiously typing, pretending not to hear. She tries again, louder.
“PSSST.” Still, nothing out of Robert Williams. “Hey you’re R-“
“Yes,” Robert Williams says firmly, clenching his jaw, “Robert. I am Robert. Williams.”
“I have the CDs you left us. We’ve been trying to reach you but…”
Robert Williams starts to seethe. Unable to stop himself, he thinks of this day seven years ago. February 13, 1995. His 21st birthday, and last he would celebrate as part of British boy band sensation Take That. Oh, the sizzling rage. All the creative differences. The left-field ideas he had brought to Nigel Martin-Smith only to have them crushed like an elephant sitting on a packet of crisps. And Gary Barlow – always the golden boy – standing behind, smugly scribbling out another irresistibly plain ballad with multiple demographic appeal. The passive aggressive eye rolls from Jason Orange for missing rehearsals, the black and white music videos, the endless rain machines. He thinks of all the songs he recorded in private, which he had been planning to release until Take That broke up a year later and Gary Barlow accelerated his mission of bland domination into international politics. Beaten into submission, Robbie hung up his football scarf and accepted a quiet life of compliance. He became, simply, Robert.
“You know if you found a way to get them out somehow you could stop all this, all this boring shite,” she continues,”It’s been seven ye-”
“Forget it,” he snaps. Olivia gives up, but it’s too late. Robert Williams is beginning to feel things again. His face reddening, his throat tightening.
Pandemonium at The Ministry of Admin. A trail of clothes leads to the desk upon which the man formerly known as Robert Williams is stood in nothing but a pair of little black briefs with a silver tiger on the front, thrusting. Olivia is picking herself up from the floor, having been pushed there by Robert Williams who, purple by this point, had leapt across the room gunning for her bag.
A steady beat thumps across the office: _dun_-duh-_dun_-duh-_dun_-duh-_dun_-duh.
“Me with the floorshow, kickin' with your torso. Boys getting high, and the girls even more so!” formerly Robert Williams raps into a whiteboard marker. Everyone in the office is crowded around the foot of the desk, their faces contorting into a gallery of shapes as they try to remember how to express joy. One by one, the men in the room reach for their ties – loosening them, pulling them off, doing them up around their heads. The receptionist shakes her hair free from her low pony and shouts “LET’S HAVE IT”. Across the room, The Line Manager is on the phone filing a formal complaint with HR. Kiara, a single tear of joy trickling down her cheek, cracks open a can.
“Wave your hands if you’re not with a man. Can I kick it?” formerly Robert Williams cups his hand to his ear and leans forward, to receive his response. Confusion.
“Can I kick it?” he tries again. A series of low mumbles.
“Listen, lads, if we’re going to do this I’m gonna need some help. Say “yes you can”, OK? Right. CAN I KICK IT?”
“Y-yes! Yes you can!!!!”
“Come on you slags,” formerly Robert Williams says, performing a ‘get in’ motion with his extraordinary arm. He looks around at his people – their ecstatic faces, their arms held aloft, their eyes bright and glinting like studs down a particularly long stretch of motorway at night. And, with two remarkable hands, he grasps at the muscle around his waist and tears all his skin off like a jumper. Robbie is reborn.
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