TThe team behind the 2019 outstanding documentary series Jade: The Reality Star Who Changed Britain turned their eyes to the 1990s with Spice Girls: How Girl Power Changed Britain (Channel 4). He put together a fabulously entertaining look at the girl group who took the world by storm, placing their story in the cultural context of its time, while also putting it to the test in the run-up to 2021.
There are archival news clips, rarely seen home video footage, and interviews with those inside (but not the band themselves), which makes it intimate and close. It began with an open audition for the film Tank Girl, in 1994, in the presence of journalist and host Miranda Sawyer. Sawyer remembers two other young women present: Geri Halliwell and Victoria Adams. Three months later, during another audition for a fledgling pop group, their lives would change for good.
He rushes through the origin story. We see them interviewed on The Big Breakfast, where they recount how they were friends on the audition circuit who decided to move in together and form a band (a massage of the truth, designed to make them appear more “authentic” to a time when it still mattered). It sounds strange in itself. Chris Herbert, who came up with the idea for a more street and creed girl group than Take That, decided they should live together. It was perhaps his biggest mistake. Pictures of the house show their chemistry and charisma were instantaneous, and they seem largely indomitable and practically unmanageable. Before even signing a recording contract, they ditched Herbert and made a racer in Geri’s car.
The Spice Girls are still so famous that it is fascinating to see them during their pre-famous era. They are clearly stars. Mel B “came in like she couldn’t care,” Herbert says, while Geri got through even until the first few laps, aware that her voice was not quite at the level they were talking about. might expect. Herbert shows a chart they created from the auditions, noting the song, personality and appearance of 10 women, with notes. It is, shall we say, of his time. Any notion of sensitivity was finer than a ’90s eyebrow.
The story then becomes more familiar. They hired Simon Fuller as a manager, signed to Virgin and took out Wannabe, who went on to become No.1 in 37 countries and seemed to overwhelm even the team that worked with them. They became the superstars of a lucrative marketing machine that made £ 300million in a single year, thanks to ties to soft drinks, TV stations, supermarkets, crisps and an endless stream of merchandise that was only recently rivaled by the Frozen factory.
The Spice Girls emerged at a time when feminism was an unpopular concept and “ladette” was booming. Sexism was fine, as long as it was phrased in irony. When Geri “borrowed” the term “girl power” from the riot grrrl scene and the Bikini Kill group, he peddled what Sawyer calls “diluted feminism” among the masses. But, as Sawyer also points out, it “could lead you to more difficult things.” The images of stunned young female fans – some captivated by the female power juggernaut, others more skeptical – are brilliant. Even more exciting is a clip that has been around for years online, when Mel B takes a crew member to the test on a set for a Polaroid commercial, after asking to see more cleavage. “Well you can fuck yourself,” she tells him, as Geri and Victoria join in the chorus of disapproval.
Documentaries like this can be nostalgic feasts with your cake and eat it. It’s exciting to remember the rush, but it’s also an attempt to reassess the times. There are often men who take care to write down what they say about what they did with “at the time”. It was acceptable at the time, It was ok at the time. This first episode ends with the group abandoning Fuller and the press turning against them; they become “the Spite Girls” in tabloid headlines and are portrayed as greedy opportunists who lack gratitude for the man who made them. This challenges the notion of who made them in the first place and redistributes the credit. One of his most revealing moments comes from Herbert, who talks about being invited to Italy with Fuller, after the dumping, to “swap stories.” Herbert describes their decision as “the power of the girls getting the better of them.” Times may change, but some things stay exactly the same.