This Thursday, a new comedy-drama begins on children's BBC. It's called Miami 7, and it follows the adventures of a "loud, wild, fresh, ballsy, sexy" pop group called S Club 7. So far, so easy to ignore. Indeed, in the wake of Channel 4's recent pop comedies, Boyz Unlimited and The Young Person's Guide to Being a Rock Star, the only comment that seems worth making about Miami 7 is that it's a year behind the times. Even the scheduled release of some S Club 7 records is nothing new. These days it's standard practice to tie in a single with any TV series that contains more than two bars of music.
But the spin-offs don't stop spinning there. After the 13-part series and the records there will be another 13-part series. And after that, a feature film will be coming soon to a cinema near you. Meanwhile, S Club 7 fans will be enrolled in an international youth organisation linked by the group's website. Add these elements together, and you're looking at an entertainment package on a scale that has never been attempted before.
If this all seems too apocalyptic to be true, consider this: S Club 7 is the brainchild of Simon Fuller. And Simon Fuller was the manager of the Spice Girls. It was he who marketed them with a vigour that the music business had never seen before. It was he who had them endorsing cameras, selling their own range of toys and advertising crisps and Pepsi and Channel 5. Without him, there might never have been a Spice Girls deodorant.
Other pop stars have been sponsored by Pepsi, but commercialism as shameless as this was a whole new ball game - of which the Girls eventually tired. They fired Fuller in November 1997, an act which Mel G, as Scary Spice is now known, has cited as their finest hour. Julian Henry, Fuller's PR man, sees things differently. The Girls made an unfair U-turn, he says, after Fuller had acted only in accordance with their wishes. "Victoria would come into the office and say, `I want us to be as well known as a packet of Daz'."
Fuller is probably not shedding too many tears. His pay-off, after 31 months' work, has been estimated at between pounds 15m and pounds 20m. As for the Spice Girls, sacking their manager either prompted, or coincided with, a media backlash from which they've never quite recovered.
It may be a few years before we know the story in any more detail. Fuller refuses to give interviews - apparently, he doesn't want to distract attention from his charges - and references to him are notably absent from the Spice Girls' official books and magazines. What we do know is that the 38-year- old was an A&R man - a record company talent scout - before he went into management. Among the talents he has looked after are Annie Lennox, Gary Barlow and Paul Hardcastle, who made the only-in-the-Eighties, Vietnam- exploitation single "19." But Fuller's crowning achievement - so far - has undoubtedly been his building the Spice Girls into a global institution.
The Girls' two albums have now sold a total of 39m worldwide - and remember, the first copy did not change hands until November 1996. They're the band whose politics made the front pages, the band who met Nelson Mandela and pinched Prince Charles's behind. Crucially, they were the band who were just as well known in the United States; no other British pop group has ever hit No.1 in America with their debut album. Maybe it was a never- to-be-repeated fluke, a mystical conjunction - of the Girls, the promotion, and the zeitgeist. On the other hand, maybe Fuller was just warming up.
The Girls didn't want to see his plans through. They had their own ideas - and anyway, the group had been devised and nurtured by another Svengali, Chris Herbert, before Fuller took over the reins in April 1995. With S Club 7, Fuller started from scratch.
His collaborators on the project are Initial TV - makers of Get Your Act Together and the televising of the Brit Awards - not to mention an army of writers, producers and web-page designers. The S Club 7 Internet site will soon be up and running, and it in turn will be the linchpin of the most novel part of the operation. The "Club" in S Club 7's name is there for a reason. Fuller and co are hoping to raise the concept of the fan club to a new level. Members won't just receive newsletters and badges; they'll join an interactive society, conceived as an up-to-date rival of the Scout movement.
While all this was being prepared, Fuller has had yet another matter to attend to: forming the band. "We didn't just want seven actors," says Henry of the auditions. "We wanted maybe two who had really good voices, two who could dance, one who was into fashion, one who was the big brother figure ..." Not since Take That has a manufactured group had its division of labour calculated so logically.
With ages ranging between 16 and 22, S Club 7 has someone for everyone. The Spice Girls covered a good few bases with a clothes-horse, a cutie, a wild child, a tomboy and a bossy-boots, but they were, let's face it, all female. S Club 7 has boys as well, so the schoolgirls will have to fancy as well as copy.
Pete Waterman, who pulled the strings of Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan and many of the 1980s' other pop puppets, has considered the advantages of a boy-and-girl band already. Steps, his dilution of Abba, sold two million albums last year. But to any casual Top of the Pops viewer, the people in Steps are interchangeable, characterless, sexless and saccharine. You'd hardly say they put the personalities of the Spice Girls and Take That together in one group.
Now meet S Club 7. There's Jon, 16, an EastEnders alumnus and "a total romantic"; there's Hannah, 17, and as bubbly as a bottle of Vimto - "life's always a bit of a party when she's around"; there's Bradley, 17, the black clubber, and "most definitely a laydeez man"; there's Jo, 19, who has already had a minor hit single in Germany, and is "loud, full-on and a bit mad"; there's Rachel, 20, a model who "could shop all the time"; there's Tina, 22, a professional dancer and "confessed shopaholic"; and there's Paul, 22, a heavy rocker with "a grown-up head on his shoulders". Allow me to be the first person to ask you: who's your favourite S Clubber? I won't be the last.
When Fuller and Virgin Records were first drumming up Spice publicity in 1996, they circulated information cards on which the Girls' identities were neatly delineated. They hadn't yet been christened Ginger, Baby, Sporty, Scary and Posh, but Victoria was already "cool and classy," Mel C was "fit and funky" and so on. S Club 7's fact sheets take the concept a step further, so I can know the members' star signs, turn-ons, distinguishing features, likes, dislikes and nicknames. (Bradley McIntosh's nickname is Tosh "because of my surname", he explains.) I'd call S Club 7 the most manufactured pop group ever, if "pop group" weren't too narrow a term to encompass the cross-media franchise.
S Club 7's most obvious precedent is the Monkees, the clean-cut but wacky young pop group developed in 1965 to cash in on Beatlemania. They too were launched by their own TV series; they too sang along to songs written and performed by seasoned professionals. They even made a film, Head, although not until the four actors had broken away from their bosses. While acknowledging the parallels, Julian Henry prefers to compare Miami 7 to Fame, the 1980s series about the lives and loves of a gang of stage- school pals. Every episode had its obligatory musical numbers. And the subsequent singles and albums were hits on both sides of the Atlantic.
Another facet that the above series have in common is that they are set in America. And, as the title suggests, Miami 7 is too. In the first episode, the band travel from "dank, grey, miserable England" to Florida for what they think is going to be their "once-in-a-lifetime big break". Obstacles are thrown in our heroes' path, but "one thing the manager and hotel owners haven't reckoned on is the S Club 7 spirit". While the choice of location is no doubt crucial to the plot, its main job is to boost the series' popularity in America, and thereby cultivate a US fan base before the film comes out. The twist is that Fuller had similar ambitions for the Spice Girls. Before the release of "Wannabe", their debut single, he had discussions with American TV executives, but the sudden blast-off of the Girls' records pushed television by the wayside.
Now Fuller can fulfil his dream of creating a truly multimedia phenomenon. He is involved with other pop groups, too. He manages Next Of Kin, three brothers who would like to be Britain's answer to Hansen; and his new record label opens for business with 21st Century Girls, four teenagers who - shock horror - can play musical instruments. But it is S Club 7 who are the Spice Girls' true heirs. Miami 7's head writer is Kim Fuller, who scripted the Spiceworld movie (you may not be surprised to learn that his brother's name is Simon). S Club 7's records are being put together by a stable of writers and producers who pen material for the Spice Girls and Geri (formerly Ginger Spice) Halliwell, among others. The music, says Henry, is "modern, soulful, dancy stuff ... very like the Spice Girls".
S Club 7 even has its own vaguely positive, empowering slogan - and one that's yet more inclusive than "girl power". Jon, Tina, Rachel, Jo, Paul, Hannah and Bradley say, "Everybody is a Somebody." And as they say it, they trace an S in the air with the index finger of each hand. The Spices may have had a catchphrase, but they never had their own hand signal, Scary Spice's frequent V-signs excepted.
One final indication of the enterprise's scope. The first S Club 7 single is released on Polydor records on 7 June, and the choice of this date, claims Henry, is "a bid for ownership of the word seven". He laughs as he says this, but don't dismiss the notion as too far-fetched. How easy it is now to read the word "spice" without thinking of the Spice Girls.
`Miami 7': Thursday, 5.10pm, BBC1