Peter York On Ads: Will you answer Robbie Williams' call?

T-MOBILE
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The Independent Online

Robbie was the only one in Take That. A year or so ago they had a rather poignant documentary about the band deciding to reunite and tour and wondering - the other four that is - whether Robbie was on for it. Of course he wasn't, but they were hoping against hope, half believing that he'd join them in their reunion hotel. So the film moves from their encampment to Robbie at home - everybody being seriously emotional. Robbie said he'd only ever wanted their difficult-seeming manager to love him. He went on to say that Gary Barlow - who he'd been unflattering about for years - was talented and deserving.

But the hard reality was that Robbie Williams never budged from Notting Hill. He was the only member to have made the Great World, and he wasn't going back. The others had nice enough places. Barlow had a big provincial spread somewhere Northern. There was something Grade II listed-looking in the Lake District and a West Country beach house. They had all done tolerably well but it sounded as if they weren't set up for life. But Robbie had a huge EMI contract - worth £80m they said - one of those 10-ton new Rolls-Royces and a place with the cosmocrats in W11.

Robbie Williams always played it both ways, being authentic with Oasis and mainstream pop elsewhere, being interesting, "vulnerable", fat and thin in interviews, but completely triumphalist on stage. Swaggery and pimp-rolling but at the same time completely Olde Englishy camp, he worked on many levels, had lots of sub-texts and reference points for cultural studies types - RW's a favourite thesis subject - and kept more people interested than his output might warrant. Somehow he'd Hoovered up London in the late 1990s becoming a metropolitan, getting to scale, learning what you had to do. Which meant being anthemic, an international stadium act, but being able to flex it with moments of 1940s pastiche, with videos that looked more like Frankie Goes To Hollywood than, say, Radiohead. Even the dull middle-class audience that loves dull middle-class acts like Coldplay could never completely dismiss him, could never deny the CD in the rack or singing along to "Angels".

Now - and it's difficult to imagine what it's like for Robbie 2006, though I suspect it feels like coasting - he's in a T-Mobile commercial. It's an ad that looks as if it's made to run wherever he's got a High Recognition factor - most of Europe probably.

It's an ineffably old-fashioned way of selling a very new platform, the mobile medium. T-Mobile's the first network to lead in their advertising on delivering the internet - all of it, not just snippets, they say insistently - to your mobile. And all the other stuff that goes with full medium status, like alerts to Robbie's new output, discounts for his concerts and messages from Pizza Hut.

There's a long tradition of "star cameos" - US TV of the 1970s and 1980s especially - where the star pitches up as his wonderful self and puts all the fictional people around into a deeply embarrassing, skin-crawlingly kind of tizz. The T-Mobile commercial conforms in every particular. There's a Robbie fan, a wonderfully ordinary woman with an Anglia TV local reporter 1992 kind of look, getting an alert on her mobile, "Robbie seen in hotel", and plunging into Hotel Babylon to find him.

Inside, everyone's a bit Robbie - the man on reception, a child on a sofa, a floor-cleaner with a machine, a groom in an awful suit - have all been computer-tricked to look Robbie-ish. The poor girl's looking distinctly flakey when she steps back and bumps into the real, completely evolved jacket and T-shirt, wry charm and laddish swagger Robbie thing.

I can't tell you how often I've seen this bit of choreography, but I know it's completely formula-compliant. The quizzical acknowledgment, the momentary eye-contact, the moving on. There's probably an American word for it, and it's own dissertation ("fiction and reality in the post-war celebrity cameo"). The product's called Web and Walk, T-Mobile's German and Robbie's back in the Rolls to W11 by now.

Peter@sru.co.uk

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