Take That's 'underground society' of teenage fans

By Pav Bhatti
BBC News, Manchester

image captionJoanna Howes said fans used the same stamps for years to keep in touch with each other

As thousands of Take That fans head for the first night of the 2011 tour, Facebook and Twitter feeds are buzzing with frenzied excitement.

Later, photographs and comments sent to the sites during the Sunderland concert will provide live updates for those without a ticket and an immediate link with millions of fans around the world.

But how did the legions of "Thatters" connect before the dawn of the internet?

Sociologist Anja Lobert has curated an art exhibition that delves into the complex world of fandom before the arrival of the web.

The showcase will include an array of colourful fanzines and frivolous letters exchanged between teenage Take That fans in the 1990s.

Friendship books

Ms Lobert was a part of this "underground society of girls" who used the band as a starting point to make friends with people around the world.

For the project, Ms Lobert surveyed 500 fans across 40 different countries, who are now in their early 30s.

"That was just a small number, I don't think anyone can tell you how big the network was," she said.

Talking about anything from their love of boy bands to the problems of teenage life, Ms Lobert said they would spend hours "using glitter pens and gel pens to write the most creative letters".

To become a part of this social network, fans would reply to pen-pal advertisements in magazines such as Take That Official.

Networks then grew by word of mouth and the sharing of adorned and homemade address books, known as "friendship books" (FB - now being the abbreviation for social networking site Facebook), were circulated to gain more pen pals.

'Digital madness'

Ms Lobert said: "They were the social networking tools of those days.

"Although it was about the band, after a while it became a way of talking to people that were the same as you.

"In this age of digital madness you appreciate what was going on back then."

image captionFans would reuse stamps to contact each other

As a 14-year-old from Liverpool, Joanna Howes' bedroom walls were covered in Take That posters and memorabilia.

She remembered the innovative ways the fan network saved money.

She said: "We used the same stamps for years, we used to put Sellotape over them so that we could reuse them.

"I think the postman finally clocked on to it and sometimes you'd receive mail saying you owed them money."

Now aged 33, Ms Howes' love of Take That has not subsided.

'Soulless' email

She has bought tickets for 10 dates of the tour, their first as a re-formed five-piece, including one in Amsterdam.

However, more than a decade on from the fan network, the exchange of letters has been replaced by social media.

Anna Boffa, 30, from Italy, said: "Facebook and emails are soulless, it's just not the same.

"Our letters were great, we'd write pages and pages. It was like a stream of our consciousness.

"I am still good friends with at least 10 people I met through writing letters."

Ms Boffa also used the Take That fan network to develop her skills in five European languages.

After the band split up in 1996 the fans gradually stopped sending each other packages and letters.

The "Take That Fandom" exhibition will open on 2 June at the Kraak Gallery in Greater Manchester.

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