Boys will be boybands

They're everywhere. From Take That to 911, boybands have become the British pop institution of the decade. So, Boyz Unlimited, Channel 4's new boyband spoof is long overdue. Mind you, how do you parody a genre that's already parodying itself? By Steve Jelbert
It is a fallow period for pop when the elderly enjoy the same music as their grandchildren. Or when grown men in their fifties make comments like "Boyzone! Now that's the single of the year! No contest!", as was recently overheard on licensed premises. With the demise of traditional light entertainment shows, there is a shortage of work for hoofers who can grin and mime at the same time, so it is no surprise that boybands are cluttering the hit parade, each one largely indistinguishable from the last, and so much a part of wonderful New Britain that the time has come to honour the genre with a comedy series. Though as industry rumour has it that the average age of Smash Hits readers is now seven or eight, down five years in half a decade, it may be on too late for some of its target audience.

Boyz Unlimited - not so much a "rockumentary" as a "popumentary", if you will - tells the story of a fictitious gang of ingenues unleashed on an overcrowded market. Richard Osman, the writer and producer, should know a bit about this pop lark - his brother, Mat, plays bass in glam theoreticians Suede. But Osman's initial inspiration was a documentary series a few years ago about the creation of also-rans Upside Down, an unashamedly inorganic attempt to cash in on the success of Take That. The series has serious credentials, reuniting Frank Harper and James Corden, who played gangster Ronnie and ungainly son Tonka in Shane Meadows' acclaimed TwentyFourSeven. The songs are produced by Phil Harding and Ian Curnow, successful with East 17, and one of the Boyz is played by Billy Worth, once a member of GMTV's pet boyband, The One.

It is not the first time anyone has attempted to make comedy capital out of the idea - BBC1 sitcom 2 Point 4 Children once featured the teenage son in a boyband called Boyband, appropriately enough. But the inherent absurdity of the genre almost defies parody. Take Osman's search for the most inappropriate song for the group to perform. He felt that Dr Hook's gruesomely sultry "A Little Bit More" ("when your body's had enough of me and you're layin' flat out on the floor") was just too tasteless for a pre-pubescent audience, and thus ideal for comic purposes. But 911 have a version of the song currently in the charts. "Ours is better," states Osman. He won't, however, be drawn into criticising the real thing. "I can't be rude about boybands - they're reviewing our show for all the papers," he says.

By Worth's account, his former band never quite fitted the template. "You have to take it with a pinch of salt. We'd be backstage drinking and smoking while other boybands were pumping themselves up. There'd be people walking around with their shirts off until the last minute," he says, recalling his days on package tours. "We had gym memberships and never went," he shrugs, a proffered cigarette in hand. The One knocked it on the head when the only offer of a contract came from a German company. Worth then worked in a video store to pay the bills.

Manufactured pop groups are hardly new. Such scams have an honourable history. Simon Napier-Bell, Sixties manager and producer, and later Wham!'s earthly representative, admits in his hilarious, scurrilous autobiography You Don't Have To Say You Love Me, to creating acts such as Fresh, Plus, Brut, Bang, Splash and Pudding (I am not making this up) solely to take advances from gullible record companies. A publicity shot for one of these fictitious groups consisted of Napier-Bell's chauffeur, "a man who was cleaning the staircase", and business partner Ray Singer's wife wearing a false moustache.

From the earliest days of British pop, when Reg Smith and Ron Wycherley were re-christened Marty Wilde and Billy Fury by proto-svengali Larry Parnes (wonderfully spoofed in Boyz Unlimited), to the invention and sale of the Monkees to American TV as a homegrown riposte to the Beatles, young men have naively trusted their elders.

Ultimately, it's good business. A few years ago, Boston's gory New Kids On The Block were MCA's most profitable act. The label didn't actually release their records - they just held their merchandising rights. Boyzone, whose hilarious debut on Gay Byrne's Late Late Show was shown again recently on Before They Were Famous, happily admitted to a severe talent deficit, but were canny enough to see that anyone could have a go. Soon their native Dublin saw a boyband explosion - every school had at least one group of hopefuls. Once they bodypopped; now they perfect elaborate dance routines.

The next logical step is a return to the theatre for all those singer/actors. Yes, Boyband is a musical telling the story of a... well, you get the idea, scheduled to open in the West End in May. Producer Adam Spiegel knows his audience. "This is the West End. There has to be room for an upbeat ending," he says, but he's aware of the potential for drama. "What's particularly interesting about boybands is that they're ill-prepared for success, but hungry for it."

Damien Flood, cast as a band member, is just delighted to get the role. Something of a veteran, he toured as a solo artist with the likes of Boyzone. "This is my last chance to do a show of this genre. I'm 26," he points out. "There will be a record deal in our contracts. They'll release depending on how it goes." With material from the likes of Conor Reeves, we could see a fake band played by actors, having real hits in the real world. Perfect pop.

And if it doesn't work out, there's always straight theatre. Or PR - Brother Beyond's Carl Fish is now head of press at Columbia records. Or even catering - flashy restaurant Denim is apparently backed by a couple of ex-teen sensations. And to think that a member of the Yardbirds once quit, complaining: "I'm too old at 23 for all those screaming kids leaping about."

`Boyz Unlimited' starts on Channel 4 on 6 February