Grace Dent on TV: The Big Reunion

I am truly thankful that we live in an era when washed-up stars can make TV comebacks

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The Independent Culture

Sometime back in January a small TV brain-fart named The Big Reunion appeared on the schedule. Real low-rent reality TV fodder. The sort of thing I lap up at home with my ankles raised, eating noodles, while you are possibly ironing your own face to stay alert during that new Poliakoff five-parter. I won, however, and hooray for me, because The Big Reunion has been bloody fantastic. The series aimed to reunite pop-acts from the 1990s: 5ive, Liberty X, 911, Honeyz, B*witched and Atomic Kitten. By the end of the series Blue had joined in – at the behest of no-one – but everyone seemed too polite to complain.

In episode one, ITV2 set about knocking on the doors of ex-popstars, now mostly in their late thirties, taking the packet of Hobnobs/screaming baby/bottle of prescription pills from their laps and cajoling them back out for one show. These people were older, balder, post-natal, vaguely bloated and owned much less reliable hips than in 2001. They were exactly like all of us at home, aside obviously from myself, who could certainly don a Liberty X latex catsuit at a moment's notice and blast through five or six high-kicking uptempo tracks under media scrutiny without need for an NHS recovery gazebo and several cognitive behavioural therapy sessions. Sadly, the rest of my generation has not been so blessed.

In all seriousness, the show has been a poignant look at the emotional scars pop fame leaves. Like wounded lovers or the bereaved, all of the stars seemed to recount a vaguely similar parable: “I wasn't remotely famous. Then suddenly I was very, very famous. I was taken away from my mum before I could really cope and stuck in the care of managers who didn't give a hoot about my wellbeing. I formed bonds with my bandmates closer than brothers or sisters. Like hostages. Like care-home kids. Like in Lord of the Flies. Then one day the logistically impossible schedule, the lack of sleep and the liver-damage drove one of the band to a nervous breakdown which happened in Singapore/Stockholm/ Nuneaton. They quit. We all turned on them. Then we all turned on each other. Then we were dropped by our label. And now here I am 15 years later and I can't talk about it without weeping and rocking. The end.”

Pop, I have decided, after watching The Big Reunion, is not ethically harvested. After watching soft-hearted sorts like Abz and Sean from 5ive, or Lee from 911, or Kevin from Liberty X tell their tales, I was led to think of modern global pop phenomena such as One Direction. I'm almost wholly certain – kill me with sticks if I am wrong – that the welfare of Crown Prince of Pop Harry Styles is not truly being looked after. Little 19-year-old Harry. Can't step onto the street without screaming chaos. His recent birthday party filled with A-list celebs 20 years his senior, a stripper and a retinue of hangers-on. Then quickly off to Africa to sit with children dying of malaria, then off to Sweden on 10 minutes' sleep to answer questions about his socks, possibly quietly worrying his ex-girlfriend Taylor Swift won't annihilate him in her next pop ditty. Harry Styles, I wager, has no more freedom right now than a battery hen. He is the luckiest, yet most spiritually doomed boy in the world. I hope he has pop's wise elder Robbie Williams's number to hand for the inevitable day he too is discarded.

But pop music, these days more than ever, has room for comebacks. I went to see The Big Reunion in Hammersmith this week and it left me quite emotionally gibbering. 911 leapt on springs out of trapdoors and battered through “Bodyshakin'”. Girls screamed. Gays screamed. I screamed. 5ive – all slim and ecstatic looking – appeared as just “four”, opting to carry on without a replacement for Jay, who refuses to play ball. I bet Jay is fuming now.

Honeyz had their chance to be that En Vogue-style, close harmony trio they always dreamed of when singing “Finally Found”. B*witched appeared in denim and Irish-danced to “C'est La Vie”. Atomic Kitten appeared in a ticker-tape snow-storm and sang “Whole Again”. Liberty X appeared looking exasperatingly hotter than they did the first time around to do “Just A Little Bit”. Michelle Heaton from Liberty X – who had a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery three months ago – blitzed through dance routines in a rubber crop-top and five-inch stilettos.

This made me think, 'yes, I liked the Nineties, but we live in a golden age now where this sort of bounce-back from surgery can occur'. Whether their glorious pop comebacks will ultimately bring these stars increased happiness is completely up for debate, which is exactly why The Big Reunion as a TV concept could run and run. Well for me at least. You'll probably be watching Borgen on BBC4 while wearing a hair-cloth tabard.