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How Robbie Williams is a conduit for England's highs and lows

08 July 2024, 07:45
Words by Mitch Stevens
Original Photography by Dave Hogan

Robbie Williams - the UK’s all-time greatest entertainer - is the perfect representation of what it feels like to be English, writes Mitch Stevens.

In 2024, England is in a state of flux. Politically, the nation is potentially more divided than it’s ever been.

Last week, the Conservatives were ousted from their fourteen-year reign as the government’s ruling party amid mass discontent over their handling of the country; competing parties are leaning more towards the right wing than ever before in a bid to display a hardline approach, which led to a staggering amount of seats being won by perhaps the UK’s most divisive party, Reform UK, and a new Prime Minister in the form of Keir Starmer, who has left the typically left-wing Labour party unrecognisible from its roots and alienated many of its lifelong supporters.

What we’re experiencing right now feels like a division on a mass scale, but if there are two things I know of that can unite the country as one, it’s England playing in a major football tournament and Robbie Williams – and luckily, both are in the spotlight on the same day. England are through to the quarter finals of Euro 2024 after some seriously rocky performances in the tournament so far, while Robbie Williams is continuing his eternal victory lap at London’s Hyde Park; the definitive nation’s sweetheart who himself is enjoying an even further resurgence (if it was needed) thanks to a career-spanning Netflix documentary last year that delved deep into the life of one of the UK’s most intriguing artists.

In the lead up to his headline performance, cross-generational crowds are coming together, sharing patchy 5G signal on cracked phone screens to watch England scrape themselves from behind to beat Switzerland on penalties. You didn’t even need to be watching the match; pockets of cheers erupting from the masses led a chorus of joy, or maybe relief, from those waiting for the party to really get started.

Robbie Williams credit Dave Hogan

By the time the man himself enters the stage, flanked famous friends Gaz Coombes and Danny Dyer (more on that later), he’s clearly in a celebratory mood. To the opening bars of "Let Me Entertain You", he reintroduces himself with "I’m Robbie fucking Williams, and you better be good, because I’m phenomenal" - luckily, the crowd are up to the challenge. England flags immediately fly, singalongs envelop the main stage area to the point where Robbie himself barely has to sing into the mic, conducting the throng to practice his own dance moves and strut across the stage’s comically long walkway.

The show itself plays like a Vegas residency; a whirlwind trip through one of the most illustrious careers in pop history, as told by one of the genre’s most beloved names. Beginning with his years in Take That – a moment that, considering his solo success, would feel like a footnote were it not for their own immense ubiquity – Williams blends insightful candour about the tribulations of that time with expert comedy that reduces the sheer scale of this outdoor performance to an afternoon hangout with an old friend who’s lived through it all. The infamous trip to Glastonbury that led to his ousting from the group is explored also via a surprisingly rousing version of Oasis’ "Don’t Look Back In Anger", Gaz Coombes joining him to perform Supergrass’ "Alright", and most rewardingly in Danny Dyer pulling out all the stops to embody Phil Daniels in a genuinely excellent take on Blur’s "Parklife". It’s a multitude of emotions in one short burst that perfectly typifies the nostalgia of the Britpop era: silly but totally sincere. The whole thing is extremely English and could only be pulled off by Robbie Williams. Amongst all the division and discontent of the last few months, if only for a moment, you’re reminded of how brilliant it can sometime be to live here.

Robbie Williams credit Dave Hogan 2

For the rest of the show, chronology takes a backseat in favour of an open therapy session. Anyone who felt concern for Williams after sitting through the lows of his Netflix documentary can be assured that he’s never been happier than right now, telling stories of how he rejected his own addictions and self-loathing before dedicating "Love My Life", a genuine later-career highlight, to his family. And then the hits really begin to roll out: glorious singalongs for "Supreme", "Millenium", "Feel", "Kids" and "Rock DJ" provide a stunning sub-plot for the celebration occurring onstage. It’s a beautiful reminder of the family parties I would be staving off sleep at in the early hours as a child, only this time on a much, much grander scale. That experience unifies the 65,000 capacity crowd – we may have differing views and opinions on current events, but for the show’s two-hour run time, we’re all singing from the same, multi-million selling hymn sheet.

After a brief intermission, Williams returns onstage for one final dip into a neverending well of classics. "No Regrets" amps up the drama with some gorgeous orchestral work, while his most famous cover "She’s The One" is dedicated to a pair of friends who have travelled from Italy to the show – one of many times he picks out members of the audience as if they’re old friends.

Finally, "Angels" is unveiled in its full glory to a sea of bright lights within the crowd. Undoubtedly one of the most evergreen songs to have come from the UK, the song’s presence in a British household feels as common as a box of PG Tips in the cupboard or the Eastenders Christmas special. That omnipresence is felt within Hyde Park by feeling like each member of the audience is witnessing something truly life-affirming alongside family, friends and any single one of the 64,999 other people in that moment with them.

Robbie Williams - the UK’s all-time greatest entertainer - is the perfect representation of what it feels like to be English. There are incredible highs and excruciating lows, but through it all, we will overcome, and that feeling of resolve in itself is not just good, it’s phenomenal.

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