One night in Cardiff, one night in heaven

That was how it was for Serena Mackesy. For Tony Blair - and thousands of other M People fans - it could be one night in Wembley. And tonight's the night.

Despite the fact that the point of pop music, like any other profit-making business, is to shift as many units as possible, the taint of commercialism is hard to scrub off. M People may have been championing the use of real instruments and performance through the "Who Sings? Who Cares?" dance scene years, but there is one word with which they remain synonymous: Peugeot.

Not that they mind that much. The James Terminator Cameron-directed ad that"Search for the Hero" accompanied (or was it the other way round?) was one of their smartest career moves. As Heather Small, the pint-sized soul diva whose voice has probably inspired more shouting on more dance floors than any other over the past six years, says, "It's the fact that the Peugeot ad was so successful that's the galling thing. But that's why you can't knock it."

"The first time it showed was during News at Ten on a Friday night, three minutes long," says Mike Pickering, the band's 41-year-old Svengali. "I kept thinking, `this is one of the best pop videos we've ever done'. We could never have got James Cameron for a video; they spent something like $3m. And then it got resurrected because the one with Kim Basinger was so awful; all the dealers kept telling them to put ours back on. We got a few holidays out of that."

Plus mega-sales, of course.Bizarre Fruit, the album from which "Hero" came, charted for two-and-half years. Fresco, released on 13 October, is selling like hot cakes; "Fantasy Island", the single released on Monday, notched up advance orders of 64,000, and tonight M People hit Wembley in an 18-date arena tour for which 200,000 tickets have been sold. The Blairs are going to Wembley, apparently, darlings.

They are unlikely to go away disappointed; M People know how to put on a good show, and the spread of their audiences is remarkable. At Cardiff on Monday, the 7,000-strong crowd ranged from school children to pensioners. Gaggles of twentysomething women wore their hair piled up in imitation of Small and men with trimmed beards and serious tonsures hugged plastic pint glasses to their chests. Everyone was there: cool kids and their grannies, people who dress to match their pit-bulls, wine bar devotees. Many had obviously never been near the dance scene from which the band originated, but they were dancing their support-hose off on Monday. Egged on by the performers. The four-piece - Pickering, Small, Shovell and classically trained guitarist/keyboardist Paul Heard - kept the house rocking with the help of seven other musicians. "One Night in Heaven" appeared sixth in line and the election night theme tune, "Moving On Up", closed the set. "Search for the Hero" reduced the matron behind me to screams of delight, while the entire audience sang along, each wrapped in a conviction that the lyrics applied uniquely to themselves.

Key to it all was Small, who, despite a reputation for shyness and an aversion to self-publicity, stalked the stage like a tiger in a burr-patch, while Pickering performed Supremes-like hand and hip movements by his microphone. Small is energetic, fierce and blessed with a voice straight from the darker recesses of the soul. Her volume, poise and control are hypnotic. Sod the Spicies; if you want your daughter to have a good role model, start here.

Now, 32, Small paid her dues with the rated soul combo Hot!House before becoming one of Mike's people (that's what the "M" stands for) in 1991. Pickering, 41, has a music business pedigree that's hard to knock - spinning dance discs at the Hacienda in the glory days of Manchester; heading house outfits Quando Quango and T-Coy; A&R-ing for Factory Records and producing the Happy Mondays. Hardly an appearance from nowhere. And they are adept at managing themselves, playing the market, catching the wave of New Labour optimism and riding it all the way to shore.

Touring, though, is both strain and pleasure. Small, particularly, suffers badly from nerves before a show: "Going out on stage takes up a lot of my day. I have a routine, and I have to take time to be by myself to gear myself up. You have to focus, because however I wake up at 8.30am, come showtime I have to transcend those feelings and enjoy the show. If it's a good show," she adds, "I get an adrenalin rush." Pickering laughs. "You're like a woman possessed when you get out there. Her muscles ripple. She frightens me." Small cackles; for a tiny women, her laugh could demolish walls.

She is vegan, teetotal, non-smoking - mostly for the sake of preserving that voice - and, with the exception of Shovell, who raises hell for all of them, all are more into their families than the party circuit. Pickering has a daughter at home and another on the way; James, Small's eight-month- old son by the Rugby star Shaun Edwards, is on tour with them. It's working out well. Small is amazingly cool about the whole thing, and Pickering is an enthusiastic extended family member. "It's great having James. It kind of makes up for missing my daughter, you know: you can have a great play with him. He gouges your eyes out and grabs on to your ears. He has got certain traits of his father you have to watch for. He'll be biting your nose off soon."

"I hate showbiz parties," says Pickering, "really hate them. I just think, well, I don't have to be your friend just because we're in the same business, and I find everyone is totally false at these parties, well, most people. We usually go and stand in a corner and have a laugh, and the odd person of the same nature will come and stand with us." They confess to enjoying the recent Downing Street party where they met Mike Leigh, a great hero, and got to see the rest of the house.

Heather generally sticks to home in Maida Vale, occasionally popping down to Ladbroke Grove, where she grew up: "They're really nice to me there. They've seen my career, and they're just glad that a local girl's made good. It's very, very busy, you know, but it's nice to go there and visit."

If there's one thing they hate more than showbiz parties, it's the critics. "Their attitude didn't really change when we got the Peugeot ad; they hated us all the time. There are exceptions, but the more popular we got the more they disliked us," says Pickering the next day in the hotel, hung over from post-gig partying but still fresh from a heavy workout in the gym. The band have been called manufactured, cynical, mainstream elevator music, "calculated soul charlatans".

"Musicians in Britain, every one of them, are all in despair about the critics. A lot of them don't even come and see us play live," says Small. This must be a sharp thorn in the side of someone who can match live version with the recorded one every day of the week. "Our inspiration comes from people like James Brown," says Pickering. "All the old soul, artists, the dance acts, used to play live; I used to go and see them all. At the moment there are a lot of people going around with DATs, [Digital Audio Tapes] even at lot of the big shows. Sometimes it's necessary, of course. The Spice Girls have a 40-track one at the back with all their vocals on, and they quickly fade them out so they can go `thank you'.

"I'd find it soul-destroying to go out there and know that night after night it's going to be exactly the same," Heather continues. "There can be times on stage when all the musicians are in synch, and you do something that is so magical, and the audience realise it, and you realise it, and you're all in on it, and that's what you aim for."

Suggested Topics
Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

    £300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

    High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

    £70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

    Teaching Assistant

    £50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

    Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

    £400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

    Day In a Page

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits