It was, incontestably, the pop story to end all pop stories, the unlikely triumph to beat all unlikely triumphs. When Gary Barlow, Howard Donald, Jason Orange and Mark Owen released "Patience", the first single from the second coming of Take That on November 20, 2006, it was more than a decade since the band's famous split, and the world, it seemed, was ready for them. More than that, perhaps without knowing it until then, we needed them. The return of Take That to their rightful place at the top of the charts became the most compelling tale in British pop music, not to mention the most heart-warming.
"Patience" had a grandeur to it as well as a sweeping, heartfelt emotionality, and a classic, crowd-pleasing British pop sensibility. No wonder it became Take That's ninth UK number one and a hit across Europe, nor that it was voted Best British Single at the 2007 BRIT Awards. "Beautiful World", the album that followed it two weeks later, sold 2.5 million copies in Britain. And "Shine", the feel-good second single, an infectious pop stomp featuring Mark's distinctive lead vocal, also went straight to number one. At the 2008 Ivor Novello awards "Shine" won PRS Most Performed Song, and at the 2008 BRITs it took Best British Single. I'd Wait For Life was the third single.
Then in the October of 2007, Take That released "Rule the World" which appeared as the theme to the film Stardust. And that winter the Beautiful World Tour – Take That's most ambitious and successful to date - played to sell out audiences across the country over 32 nights. Bring on yet another BRIT, Best British Live Act, plus the award for Tour of the Year at the Vodafone Live Music Awards, and you've got an unprecedented comeback and a wave of popular and critical acclaim for a band most people, including its members, thought they'd never hear from again.
"None of us saw it coming," says Mark of Take That's return. "I don't think we even wanted it. It's not like one of us was calling the others for years saying, ‘Let's get back together'. It was never going to happen. And then it happened."
"Our story is so far fetched," says Gary. "It's crazy, really. I think it's taken a while for us all to get our heads round it, some maybe longer than others, but everyone's enjoying it this time. And that's what's most important to me. That and our audience. I really don't think any other group has got an audience like ours. It's like we'd won before we'd even sung a note."
No story is ever quite that simple, of course, and this one is particularly complicated. The members of the most successful British pop group of the Nineties had spent almost ten years apart, seldom seeing each other or even speaking. Each had been bruised, in different ways and to different degrees, by their time in Take That, and then by their experiences away from the boy band hothouse. While Robbie became the biggest British solo artist in history, Gary's career started promisingly but then stalled. Mark's was longer but less commercially successful. Howard returned to his first love, dance music, as a DJ. Jason tried acting, and travelled. It was a difficult time for everyone, but not without its compensations. Gary, Howard and Mark became fathers, and all four slowly constructed identities distinct from their ex-boy band personas.
They were first reunited in 2005 to discuss the idea of a greatest hits album. Then an ITV documentary was proposed to celebrate ten years since they split. To the others' surprise, Robbie agreed to appear in the film, though not with the rest of the band.
The documentary was a ratings winner, attracting over seven million viewers, and as a direct result, on November 25, 2005 Gary, Mark, Howard and Jason appeared at an official press conference to announce a British tour. They sold 560,000 tickets in record time, and the tour ran from April to June 2006, taking in 32 arenas and stadiums across the UK and Ireland. Again, Robbie put in a virtual appearance, beamed at the audience as a 20-feet high pre-recorded hologram during performances of Could It Be Magic. In all, Take That have played to close to a million people since reuniting.
"I think it was inevitable that after that we'd make an album," says Mark, and on May 9, 2006, bowing to that inevitability, Take That signed a £3 million deal with Polydor, and hired manager Jonathan Wild to look after their affairs.
That summer, they travelled to Los Angeles and co-wrote and recorded Beautiful World with the experienced American producer John Shanks, opening a new chapter in a book we'd all thought was closed.
Following the phenomenal success of Beautiful World the band regrouped in April 2008 at SARM Studios in Notting Hill, west London, and began work on a new album, just the four of them in a room. By the summer, when producer John Shanks arrived to start recording, they'd already written 25 new songs.
"There was a real energy when just the four of us were in the studio putting those demos together," says Mark. "And recording the album was all about trying to capture that. It's not over-polished. It sounds great but it feels real. I feel we've kept that original spirit. It feels very British to me. It feels like a British album."
Any pressure to repeat the success of Beautiful World was internal rather than external. "We've proved how good we are time and again, how successful we are at getting in the pop charts," says Jason. "What matters now is whether we like it. We want it to represent us, who we are and where we're at. We want it to be authentic."
"When everyone came back to the studio in April it was like a new band," says Gary. "Everyone really wanted to be there. Everyone was feeling good in their own skin again. It felt very natural to be doing another record."
"I've had such a good time this time," says Howard. "I've felt much more involved. It just felt so easy and relaxed. I think it comes across in the album. The second album is supposed to be the difficult one, but this was anything but."
Howard senses a change in the band's outlook this time. "It was a little bit uncomfortable, coming back in 2006," he says. "You were always asking yourself if you were doing the right thing. Will we look stupid? Will people think we're too old? What are people going to say? I still care about that stuff. I want people to like what we're doing. But I'm more proud of being Howard out of Take That now than I ever was before. I think we all appreciate things more now than we did."
"What's always interested me is the dynamic in the band," adds Jason. "And it still interests me: these four lads, it's like a relationship: we keep moving, keep finding out things about each other. But it's fun, it feels good, working together, being in a gang, being creative. We laugh all the time. Even with all the tensions and the tiredness… it feels right. It makes sense."
So Take That came back. And now they're back again. And guess what? They've topped "Patience", and they've beaten "Beautiful World", and no one need wonder any longer whether they're back for good, or just back for now. Because right now it doesn't matter.
"For the first time ever really, I feel like I'm in a real band," says Mark. "I'm really proud of this record. It feels like a proper album. I think it's better than Beautiful World. I think it's a record for record buyers. I think Take That fans will love it and I think – I hope – people who just like music will like it too."
The songs on The Circus are both vintage Take That and a bold step into the future. They're widescreen, stadium-sized anthems and they're intimate, heartfelt ballads, they're lyrically challenging and musically diverse, theatrical and rooted, appealingly naïve and strikingly mature, simple in design but epic in execution.
"I'm grateful every morning to be in this position," says Gary. "I know what it's like not to work. I love being involved in music. I really need it. When you're not allowed to do it, it's really tough. Now I'm just trying to get the most out of every day. I feel better about it than I ever have because everyone else feels better about it. I'm in my element, big time. And I think we all are."
Democratic, defiant and dramatic, The Circus is the sound of four men fully in control of their own destinies, perhaps for the first time in their working lives. Like the song says: learn to listen.