'I've come to entertain you you you,' Robbie shouts,
picking out individuals in the vast crowd with his outstretched
forefinger, clocking them with a one-to-one look. Then, just
as he's established this moment of intimacy, he jumps, fist
in the air, and swaggers powerfully away across the stage. He
throws his arms wide, inviting everyone in. He crosses his hands
on his heart and gives his audience a little-boy-lost look as
he sings of his anger and pain. He holds out the mike to get
them to join the choruses; he puts his hands to his ears; he
sits with his head hung and lets them sing to him (they know
the words). Near the finale, he invites them to hold up their
hands, so the entire stadium is a wonderful swaying forest of
His performance is so engaging, powerful and apparently effortless,
that you might be forgiven for imagining that he just gets up
on stage, struts his stuff, then rocks back home for a cup of
tea. Needless to say, it isn't that simple. Behind the scenes
there's an army at work keeping the show on the road; more important,
keeping the star in the right frame of mind to do the show.
Let's start at the centre with the complex, mercurial figure
of Rob himself - and it's Rob, not Robbie, to those immediately
around him. Robbie is what the public calls him, the fans, the
press, all those outsiders who follow him wherever he goes,
endlessly wanting a piece of him, not just a look or a smile
or a joke, but something tangible: an autograph, a scrap of
clothing, an interview. 'This mad world of Robbie' is the way
Rob himself describes it.
In one way Rob is the character you see on stage. He's funny,
highly intelligent, charming, good company. More important,
he's one of those people you want to please and impress; if
he's pissed off, you care; he has serious presence, offstage
as well as on. But the other side of him is a nervous, genuinely
under-confident performer, who repeatedly worries that he's
not up to the job. On tour with him round Europe earlier this
year, I was initially shocked to discover the level of this
private anxiety. 'I developed a front a long time ago,' he told
me in his dressing room before one gig, 'that hid my insecurities,
my lack of self worth, and that front is one hundred times bigger
than myself. Whatever picture I paint of who they think I am
cocky, cheeky, confident, arrogant is not who
I am. Rob is different from Robbie. Robbie is the one who gets
on stage and goes, Let Me Entertain You. If I'm
offstage I wouldn't ask anybody if I could entertain them. I'd
be scared if they said no.' Rob smiled as he said this, and
I wondered at first, when he spoke like this, whether he was
taking the piss. But watching him day in, day out, I soon realised
he wasn't. His angst is all too genuine.
So perhaps the most crucial figure in Rob's entourage is the
man whose job, by his own admission, is 'to keep Rob happy'.
Fifty-seven years old, ex-public school (Harrow, no less), strict
teetotaller for fifteen years, manager David Enthoven is at
first glance an unlikely figure to be Robbie Williams's mentor-cum-best-friend.
You'd imagine this genial, balding, bespectacled figure to be
chairman of some City stockbrokers, not the rock veteran he
is, one time manager of Roxy Music, King Crimson, ELP, T. Rex
(so called because David couldn't spell Tyrannosaurus).
At the centre of David's relationship with his current star
act is alcohol and drugs: the avoiding, rather than the taking
of them. Both men have indulged to excess, and then some. For
David, addiction destroyed his earlier life: he lost his business,
his wife, his houses in town and country and almost his life.
Recovery is consequently a deeply serious subject for him; as
it is for Rob. Indeed, Rob credits David with saving his life.
'That sounds very dramatic,' he says. 'But this compulsion to
do whatever I have done is still with me. It might return tomorrow,
it might return tonight, and I might still die.' David, meanwhile,
talks of Rob as a surrogate son and is immensely proud of his
huge and successful effort to leave drink and drugs behind forever.
It's an effort that has transformed Rob's life: the European
tour that began with Rob saying how much he hated touring ended
with him hardly able to believe how much he was enjoying himself.
'I'm on stage going, I'm ace,' he laughed. 'And
there's 13,000 people going, We agree. What could
be better than that?'
On the road, David is there for Rob at all times. On his tour
bus, in his dressing room, back in his hotel suite after the
gig, which is where Rob goes these days, rather than out to
the parties organised in his name in the clubs. David will join
the star drinking Evian or tea, playing a round of Uno, the
children's card game that was Rob's obsession earlier this year;
or one of the other games Rob likes to instigate and, ideally,
win. Word association is one favourite. The Hat Game, where
the names of famous people are put in a hat and two teams have
to guess who their representative is impersonating, is another.
'I always say to Rob,' David says, 'If you wanted an elephant
to keep you amused backstage, I'd go and find a fucking elephant."
It sounds very pandering, but it's not, because at the end of
the day, come nine o'clock at night, he's got to get up there
and do his stuff. The boss gets looked after because the boss
delivers the bacon.'
The second main figure in Rob's immediate world is his PA Josie
Cliff, whom observant fans may spot boogying enthusiastically
on the edge of the stage during gigs. A dark, pert thirty year
old, don't be fooled by her engaging giggle and friendly manner
into thinking that she is anything other than a Ph.D in the
dark arts of people management. 'She's all give and I'm all
take,' says Rob; but she manages him as skilfully as a top trainer
manages a thoroughbred horse. She is at his beck and call, yes;
she does fill his fridge and run out to buy him and his friends
takeaways and help him choose furniture for his new house, and
all the rest; but watch her over several weeks, and you see
how she quietly gets her way. With Rob, often; with those close
to Rob, generally; with those wanting to get close to Rob, almost
Not strictly part of the official Rob machine, but a key member
of what his entourage only half-jokingly call 'the inner sanctum',
is Rob's flatmate Jonathan Wilkes, whom Rob has known since
he was five (when Jonathan was born). With mums who were best
friends, Rob and Johnny grew up together in Rob's home town
of Stoke. As kids, Jonathan was the 'right nuisance' who wasn't
old enough to be Rob's proper mate; ' a little twat,' in Rob's
words, 'I used to beat him up regularly.' But as adults, since
Jonathan turned up in London at the age of eighteen to seek
his fortune, things have changed. Invited by Rob to crash in
his flat for a week, Jonathan ended up staying four years. When
Rob was in the climactic days of his drinking and druggy life,
Jonathan adopted the role of minder, going round parties begging
people not to give his friend cocaine. 'He was helping me out,'
says Rob, 'by the very fact that he was there and he was somebody
that I trust and love.' Now Rob's clean, Jonathan reckons they're
closer than brothers. 'It's quite frightening,' he says. 'People
say when they meet us, God, you two absolutely love each
other, don't you? It's true.' But as Jonathan observes
perceptively, his role is crucial in another way. 'I'm probably
the only one in Rob's life who can tell him to fuck off.' Everybody
else, he reckons, 'is part of the Robbie Williams Empire'.
Moving outwards from this central trio, we come first to Tim
Clark, David's partner at IE Music, of similar vintage and experience,
who runs the tour's Mission Control in Shepherd's Bush, as well
as managing the marketing and packaging of the Robbie phenomenon.
Onetime managing director of Island Records, Tim has a similarly
impressive rock CV. Responsible for signing Roxy Music to Island,
worked with ELP, Cat Stevens, Free, Traffic, Steve Winwood,
Mott the Hoople, Bob Marley (when I first met him I had to control
the teenager deep inside me and not drop to my knees.) And you
have to admire his ideals, intact, he insists, from the heady
days of the Sixties. 'More power to the artist,' he says, 'simply
put. The artists have a vision and we help them realise it.
Rob's created the way he wants to look.'
You'd have to meet Tim to understand quite what this means.
Put it this way, I wouldn't want to sit on the opposite side
of a negotiating table from him; and the IE office, where he
and David preside on a dais above a long table of hip and busy
young women, is visibly a highly efficient operation, with no
time for wasters.
Sitting in the middle on one side of this table is Gabby Chelmicka,
perhaps the final member of the 'inner sanctum'. Now an IE director,
she was Rob's PA when he began his solo career and knows him
as well as anybody. 'Absolute bull terrier,' Rob says of this
skinny, blue-eyed, thirty-something blonde. 'My confidante and
loves me to bits.' Which is true, but it's not an uncritical
love, and with experience dating back to the start of his solo
career, Gabs can be as tough with Rob as anyone. But it is,
she admits, 'very difficult to say no to Rob. And it's a tricky
situation when you work for him. Why piss him off? He's far
more important to IE than I am.'
Though not part of his management, there are four other men
closer to Rob, nowadays, possibly even than the inner sanctum
his security, who are with him, as they say, 24/7. Rob's
been concerned about his personal safety for quite a while now.
Pursued day and night by fans, who would wait with autograph
books outside his flat in London's Notting Hill, ring the doorbell
in the middle of the night, yell at him when he went out, he
got to the point where he was 'that paranoid I couldn't sleep.
I'd be shitting myself. I'd have to phone David up in the middle
of the night and he'd come over and pick me up. I used to end
up going to his house or a hotel. Then I thought, Fuck it, I
can afford to have somebody around.'
The ex-Marines who look after him now are not, they are keen
to stress, the usual 'hard men' or 'big bodies' employed in
the music industry, but sophisticated experts in Close Protection,
as they call it. They've all seen action, and should it come
to it, are ready to defend Rob with their lives. In the meantime,
they probably spend as much time with him as anyone. 'You're
privy,' says Duncan 'Pompey' Wilkinson, 'to secrets that he
wouldn't want anybody else knowing.' Not that they're going
to fess up, even off the record. Discretion is a key part of
their honourable soldier mentality.
Originally there were three, working in shifts. Since the 21st
Feb this year, when Robbie was pushed off stage in Stuttgart
by a lunatic who claimed the star was an imposter (the real
Robbie, apparently, was elsewhere), his level of protection
has been increased. 'It was a wake-up call,' says David Enthoven,
who was hugely relieved that his charge got away with no more
than a bit of bruising and a serious shake-up. 'The lesson we
learned is that he's a major icon now and we have to have every
avenue blocked.' For Rob, the experience revealed to him just
how much stronger he was now he's sworn off drugs. 'Old me would
have used that as an excuse to cancel the tour,' he admits,
'but I'm feeling much healthier these days. I just wanted to
go back on and finish the show.'
Security completes Rob's immediate posse, who travel with him
everywhere and have full access to his dressing room and hotel
suites. The next layer out in the Robbie circus are the eight
members of the band. King pin here is musical director Guy Chambers,
who co-writes Rob's songs, providing the melodies to complement
his lyrics. David and Tim were responsible for bringing the
pair together, and Rob is all too aware of the importance of
Guy's input. His most recent album, Sing When You're Winning,
has this discreet dedication: To Guy Chambers, who is as much
Robbie as I am. 'He's an absolute genius,' Rob says, 'I'm blessed
to have him in my life. Robbie Williams could have gone on from
Take That and worked with anybody and got hits, but I don't
think you can walk into just anybody and have them understand
you so well and be the perfect foil to you.'
Guy, ten years older, was 32 when he met Rob, and on the brink
of packing in his composing career to become a teacher. He talks
of their hugely successful partnership as 'a miracle'. 'He's
a mirror to me,' he adds, 'he's my voice in some ways.' Now
he not only writes Rob's music, he is also pretty much in charge
of the band. Though Rob has, of course, the 'final decision'
about who's in and who's out, Guy admits quietly that he 'has
control'. Last year one of the male guitarists was replaced
by bass player Yolanda Charles. 'It wasn't a personality thing
at all,' says Guy, 'and it wasn't an easy decision. But I did
it because the band weren't funky enough.' The band know the
score. 'He's the captain of the ship,' says backing singer Tessa
Niles. 'And he steers it in a very masterful way.'
Guy's special position is reflected in his physical proximity
to Rob. On tour, he generally travels on Rob's bus. And if Rob's
not catching up on his sleep, playing Uno, or watching a video,
the pair may sometimes get to work on a new song, which can
be then be laid down on tape in a studio in the next city they
On board as well will be drummer Chris Sharrock, who is also
particularly close to the singer. 'He's my little mate,' says
Rob. 'Even though he's ten years older than me.' Chris stays
at Rob's house when he's in London, and is a regular in his
hotel suite after the gigs. He's a funny guy, as quick with
the one-liners as any Scouser, a court jester, up for anything.
'If Rob wants to go out, we go out,' he says. 'I've got no opinion
one way or the other. Ideal tag-along material I am, because
if you want to stay in, I like staying in too.'
The rest of the band travel on their own bus, under the eagle
eye of tour manager Andy 'Franksy' Franks. Known to all backstage
as the Prince of Darkness, Franksy is another crucial member
of the touring machine. Once a performer himself, in Bristol
punk band The Wild Beasts, Franksy has long since lost the desire
for the limelight. These days he prefers the anonymity of the
powerful backstage fixer. 'And in a way, now I'm getting older,
I feel like I've got to give something back. So if I can help
people go out there, then that's fine by me.'
As well as making sure the band get from A to B, wake up in
time, get on the bus, get to their dressing rooms, get changed,
get on stage and perform, Franksy also has an unofficial role
organising activities for Rob and the entourage on days off.
'We call him Mr Extra Curricular,' says Gabby Chelmicka. 'Because
he sorts out distractions.' One day it'll be a group outing
to a cinema, the next a Go-Karting trip, the next a football
match, with a local side provided. 'Rob's brain works really
quickly,' adds Gabby. 'He finds it difficult to relax and sit
in silence. He needs to be encouraged and stimulated, otherwise
he goes mad with boredom.'
On the arena tour of Europe, the band number eight: Guy, Chris,
guitarists Fil Eisler, Gary Nuttall and Yolanda Charles, keyboard
player and singer Claire Worrall, and backing singers Tessa
Niles and Katie Kissoon. In the summer stadium tour of the UK,
you can add to that six rumbustious brass players and four lissom
dancers plus choreographer. All have to be found hotel rooms
and got safely to the gig.
All that remains now of the touring operation is the little
matter of the set, which has to be erected from scratch every
gig day, and then taken down and packed off into the five huge
stage trucks, before being driven on overnight to the next venue.
As anyone who's seen Robbie live will testify, this is not a
matter of a few old amps and speakers being loaded into a transit
van, it's a mammoth operation involving three huge lighting
trusses, a moveable band 'riser', Rob's counterbalanced luminous
throne, steps, a cage, a slide, giant inflatable Brit awards,
a full programme of video projections on a massive screen, drapes,
an enormous kabuki front curtain, quite apart from the countless
instruments and monitors and computers and other hi-tech processing
equipment necessary to provide the kind of high quality sound
required by the contemporary gig-going audience.
This high-speed unpacking and assembling process, known as the
'load in' and its reverse, known as the 'load out', is managed
by a crew of twenty-six, under the supervision of Production
Manager Wob Roberts, another forty-something ex-performer. There
are guitar, keyboard and drum technicians to set up the instruments
on stage; lighting crew to erect and focus lights; sound crew
to set up and monitor sound, one lot on stage for the band,
the others down in front of house for the audience; a video
projection expert; riggers to hang the whole shebang from the
roof of each new venue; carpenters to build the set; not to
mention four caterers and a chef to keep everyone fed with restaurant-standard
nosh. Add to this the six truck drivers (one spare), two band
and three crew bus drivers, and two merchandise salesmen (travelling
in their own lorry), and you've got the full Robbie complement.
In each new venue they are assisted by a 'local crew' of a further
twenty or so.
Ultimately, as Jonathan Wilkes observes, they all work for Rob.
But 'the turn' (as the crew call him) is genuinely modest about
his position at the top of the touring army. 'I've never seen
myself as the boss,' he says. 'I always see myself as the bloke
at the front. The big difference is I get paid more. But they've
always been so fucking nice to me that's it's always been like
a group effort. It's not me and them or them and him. They've
always wanted me to do well and I've always wanted them to do
well as a group.'
Up to a point, this is true. Even though a good many of the
crew only know him to nod at ('all I know about his personal
life is what I read in the tabloids,' says one), Rob inspires
enormous loyalty among his backstage team. 'OK we want the shows
to be successful,' says Franksy, we want Rob to sell lots of
records, we want him to be the number one star everywhere, but
above all that we want him to be OK. There's this thing that
people want him to be all right because we love him to bits.
There's a real sense of love and concern about him. As there
is in a family.'
Unlike some other pop stars, Rob does make the effort to bond.
A good many of the crew play football with him, and when he
sees them again after a break, you'll notice him going round
shaking hands and catching up. It's a happy family, they echo.
But like many another happy family, it doesn't really tolerate
dissenters. 'I know they regard me with respect,' Rob says revealingly,
'but I don't think any of them are scared of me. I think they
all genuinely like me. That's important to me. If there was
somebody on the crew that didn't, I wouldn't have them on.'
Though the boss is, within his world, as all-powerful as a Renaissance
prince in his court, there's genuinely little desire among the
crew, at least, to be under the pressure that the star faces.
'It's one of the few industries,' says stage carpenter George
Osborne, 'where no one aspires to be the boss.' Lighting crew
chief Mark England goes further: 'I think he's the reluctant
pop star. I feel he'd like to be a normal person and he can't.
I've worked for a lot of bands and I've seen what being a star
can do to you. Robbie's a lovely geezer, down to earth, but
I think he'd just like to be an ordinary person.'
He would, and then again he wouldn't. In a confessional interview
towards the end of our time together, Rob spoke frankly of the
yearning for fame that got him where he is today. 'If I wasn't
Robbie Williams right now,' he said with a laugh, 'I'd probably
be auditioning for the Big Brother household. I would. Because
I've always wanted to bigger and better myself. I wanted the
dream: the glamour, the fame, the celebrity.' Why so badly?
I asked. 'I just wanted people to like me, basically, but on
a grand scale. The world has to adore me or had to adore
me.' And now they do. 'They do. I've got what I wanted.' So
was it worth it? 'I'm still learning to cope with it. Be careful
what you ask for,' Rob said, leaning back, green eyes shining
as he smiled his famous curling smile. 'Because you might just
Under all his offstage anxiety he is genuinely happy to be the
front man for this army of diversely talented travelling folk,
all with music in their bones. And when you see that easy figure
on stage, you realise it's what he was born to do. He comes
alive up there, in a way that he sometimes finds hard offstage,
and in a way that most of his hard-working entourage never could.