Still taken by That

`The boys' split up in February, but Take That fans still cross Europe to worship at shrines in the back streets of Oldham.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Smokie's Hotel is a single-storey brick unit with a flash neon sign, squatting on the road between Ashton-under-Lyne, in east Manchester's industrial hinterland, and Oldham, the mill town at the foot of the Pennines. It is straight off the hotel production line - a place for minor meetings, local discos, the odd wedding reception - but Carla Linthorst, 16, from Deventer in eastern Holland, can think of no more glamorous setting for the holiday of her lifetime.

"I had been asking for four years," she says, her pale blue eyes watering a little. "Finally it happened."

She has come with her mother, Truus, a nurse, sister Linda, 13, and Mum's friend Ankie, to pay homage to Take That, a band who, nine months after they split up, still hold thousands of teenage girls around the world entranced. "The boys" have gone their separate ways - Mark Owen is the latest to launch a solo career, in the wake of Gary Barlow and Robbie Williams - but for fans like Carla their collective spirit lives on. She brings with her a fantastically unlikely list of shrines to visit: parental homes in dreary Manchester suburbs; hospitals where the boys were born; schools; the British Legion Club, Runcorn, where Gary sang as a lad. It took her two weeks to finalise the itinerary. "I watched all the videos again, read all the interviews and wrote all the places down," she smiles. "Now I am here I am very happy."

On every girl's list is the Sangam, a decent enough Indian restaurant among the dense curry-house cluster in Rusholme, south of Manchester city centre. Its place on the Take That pilgrimage dates from a 1994 video, Everything Changes, a two-hour confection of music and chat.

"I come here all the time on my days off," Jason said on camera. Inside, he ate vegetable madras, pilau rice and nan, forking a couple of mouthfuls during a five-minute ramble around the band's dietary adventures and his childhood reminiscences: "I'm from Wythenshawe - second biggest council estate in Europe. I had my first kiss in Hollyhedge Park."

The Sangam waiters reckon that since the video came out, they must have served 2,000 fans. "They come from all over - Germany, Italy, France, Japan, even Australia. They all want to sit where Jason sat. We tell them a madras is hot, but they always want to have what he had. The funny thing is, he never really came here before he made that film."

In the tourist office annexed to Manchester Town Hall, this summer's visitors' book is smothered with adolescent homage. "I LOVE MARK FOREVER," steams Katharine from Berlin. "I was in front of his house but he wasn't there." "We've seen Jason and met Howard!!!" gush Amke and Nora of Holland. "We'll definitely come back."

When Carla landed in Manchester, she kissed the ground. The first day she dragged Truus, Ankie and Linda round Mark's house, the house where he was born, the Holy Rosary Junior School, Oldham, then Castle Quays in Manchester for a gawp at Jason's flat. The next day they went to 7 Flint Street, Droylesden, a nondescript suburb where Howard was born and where his mother still lives, then the Apollo Theatre in ramshackle Ardwick, where, a video said, Jason and Howard met.

Mark, her favourite, lived in Copsterhill Road, a row of red brick terraces fronting a back-to-back estate in Oldham. "It's here," Carla whispers, at number 56. There, on a very ordinary northern gatepost, she had fought for space amid the trans-European graffiti: "I love you Mark, Carla from Holland."

A neighbour, Terry Ainscough, 45, emerges. He doesn't mind the visitors: "We're proud of Mark. Oldham's in the shadow of Manchester; we've only had a few stars. Winston Churchill [MP for Oldham], Dora Bryan, Cannon and Ball. Mark's done his bit for Oldham."

He has also moved out - three years ago. The family went to a bigger place 18 months ago. Sandra Blades, 27, moved in, knowing the terrace's place in teenage yearning. "I never thought they'd still be coming," she says of the 20 letters a month she gets from all over the world, and at least one visit a week from some sorrowful teenager, often bearing gifts for Mark: "He must have said he liked yellow jelly sweets - they bring bags of them. And pictures of dolphins. They're often crying. It's pretty distressing. I mean, I was mad on Duran Duran when I was a teenager, but nothing like these girls. They're obsessed."

When the band split, Carla was hit hard. "It was terrible," she sighs, "very terrible." She cried for weeks. "Then I read the interviews, and I understood they had been six years a band and they wanted their own careers."

She would love to meet Mark, admits she thinks of him a little as her boyfriend: "But I know it can't happen. I know it isn't real," she says, suddenly making eye contact, an intelligent girl. "I know it's a fantasy."

Carla can't explain why she cleaves, still, to her Take That world. Whatever the reason, having bought all the CDs, videos, books and five T-shirts and festooning her room with Take That, she reckons she has spent pounds 1,000 on the band.

"They were my life," she shrugs. "They still are."

No such sentiment clings to Nigel Martin-Smith, the manager who manufactured Take That. "He doesn't talk about Take That," his secretary said last week. "It's out-with-the-old, on-with-the-new kind of vibe."