Greatest Days – A feel-good and universal story of love and friendship

The seed for Greatest Days was first sown around the end of 2017, when Take That and producers Danny Perkins and Damian Jones met in London, driven by a dream they’d shared for over 15 years – of having a movie based on their music. Their dream became reality when they met screenwriter and songwriter Tim Firth.

Featuring the hit songs of British pop icons Take That and adapted from the smash stage show The Band by Tim Firth,, who has been behind such huge stage hits as Calendar Girls The Musical and the Olivier Award-winning Madness musical Our House, Greatest Days is an epic movie musical that marries the heartfelt story of a group of women who grew up loving a boyband with a series of fantastical song and dance sequences that take us from 1930s MGM-style musicals to Magic Mike-style modern moves, set to the songs of one of the UK’s most successful and loved musical acts

Greatest Days is a movie about many things. It’s a movie about life, love and loss; how the mates and memories we make as teenagers will stay with us always, somewhere deep inside.

“It’s a love letter to friendship,” is how its director, Coky Giedroyc, describes it in a nutshell.

It’s also a movie about music. Specifically, the power that songs have to transport us, wherever and whenever we are in our lives, back to the moment we first heard them. The moment we first felt them. A movie that reminds us to never lose sight of the person we were in that moment, and the person we could maybe still become.

It’s a testament to Take That, the British pop legends who have sold over 14 million albums in a career that, over 33 years, has featured 28 top 40 singles and eight Brit awards amongst a host of other accolades, that they never wanted this film to be about them. Instead, they insisted it is about the people they say are ultimately responsible for their myriad successes – their fans.

“That was always important to us,” says Mark Owen, who along with Barlow and their fellow bandmate Howard Donald has worked closely with this production as it has reimagined their music for cinema audiences. “It was only right that this story would turn the spotlight on the fans. Without them, we wouldn’t be here.”

Producer Perkins had been collaborating with Universal Music Group, who work closely with Take That, on a number of other projects, and found himself in a conversation that would shape the next six years of his life

“UMG had invested in the Take That stage show, but it hadn’t opened at that point,” Perkins says. “We were invited to go up to Manchester to see a workshop of it, with me and a couple of colleagues and 300 female Take That fans, who were very excited to see it, in the audience.”

It’s fair to say everyone that day was blown away. “This was the stage show in its earliest form, remember,” Perkins says. “And we were sat there amongst an audience that laughed at all the right points and sang at all the right points and cried at all the right points. And then they were up and dancing in the aisles at the end. There was something about this story and its connection with the music, and the fact that this audience could see themselves and their own story on stage, that just worked. We thought, ‘There is absolutely a film in this.’”

Take That (Howard Donald, Gary Barlow, and Mark Owen) had known Tim Firth for years, Firth having been a close friend of Gary Barlow’s ever since the pair met backstage at the classic BBC show Pebble Mill At One’s ‘A Song For Christmas’ competition when Firth was 19 and Barlow was 15. (They bonded when they discovered they were both from the same hometown, Frodsham, in Cheshire).

“When we first watched the stage show [at the run-through], it brought out so many emotions for us,” says Howard Donald. “We watched these actors at this little rehearsal studio in London and it really made me choke. I had tears coming down my face. I’m quite an emotional person anyway, but when we saw the
music along with the acting, it brought out a new life in those songs. It made us see the songs in a completely different light.”

For Firth, the reaction of the band to, well, The Band, was a vindication of his creative impulses. But that’s not to say he hadn’t been nervous about them first seeing it

“There was very clearly a point at which they could have said no,” Firth says. “Ultimately, it’s their call, it’s their songs, it’s legacy of their music. But they just sat there and said, ‘Wow.’ We’d used their songs in a way they just hadn’t expected.”

Firth vividly recalls the three bandmates sitting there, slightly dumbfounded. “I think because they’d been presuming like everybody else at that time was presuming, that if you were going to write a musical about Take That, it would be a biopic,” Firth says. “From the first moment, when somebody came on stage
and it wasn’t them but a woman approaching 40, talking about not what it was like to be on the stage but to be in the audience, the whole thing shifted.”

As a songwriter himself, Firth appreciates the delight you can feel seeing your work interpreted by different artists, in different ways. “I think and hope there’s always a thrill in seeing your songs used in a different way,” he says. “For people to come along and say, ‘Right, there’s a song that you only thought was going to be on radio or performed by you in arenas. But we’re going to use it in a different way…’”

Firth smiles, warming to his theme. “And then they say, ‘You’re not going to sing it, by the way. Oh, and also, what you thought was the verse is now going to be the chorus. We’re going to throw it up in the air and it’s going to come down a mosaic and it’s going to help us tell this other story.’ You can imagine that’s quite a thing. You hope it’s quite a magical thing. But they weren’t prepared for it.”

Tim Firth

If watching Take That watch the show was everything Firth hoped it would be, it didn’t entirely surprise him. “They sat there a bit jaw-dropped and tearful,” Firth says. “But they also felt that this musical was a way of giving something back to their fans, who I know mean so much to them. They felt it was a great way for a story to acknowledge what it means to be a fan.”

With Greatest Days, that opportunity to give something back to the fans has been magnified tenfold.

“The challenge for anything coming from stage to screen is how you can build it out, how you can take it bigger,” Perkins says. “There was the kernel of something so great and emotional [in the stage show] that we knew we could build out in a cinematic way. Musicals are complicated. They’re not straightforward films to make. It was a gamble in that we knew we had to do something ambitious, especially when it came to the musical numbers.”

Danny Perkins

And so began a process that saw Perkins and his fellow producers, Jane Hooks and Kate Solomon, soak in as much information and first-hand experience as they could about the band, traveling to watch their stage show with different sets of fans around the country. From the Odyssey tour at the O2 to Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, where Take That played in front of a raucous crowd of 60,000, they saw up close what makes them, and their audience click.

Joining them on this reconnaissance tour was Coky Giedroyc, who the band had met in Los Angeles just after the director had completed How To Build A Girl. “That film”, Perkins adds, “with its mix of charm, humor, down-to-earth characters and escapist flights of fancy was the perfect calling card” for the kind of film they all knew Greatest Days could become. Thus began a journey that Owen describes as “really special and magical, insane, terrifying and beautiful all at the same time”. A journey that has ended
up in a movie that has delighted its makers, and those whose music inspired it in the first place.

In Greatest Days we follow five best friends who have the night of their lives seeing their favorite boy
band in concert. Twenty-five years later their lives have changed in many different ways as they reunite for one more epic show by their beloved band, to relight their friendship and discover that maybe their greatest days are ahead of them.

Greatest Days is also something unique, a musical that will appeal not just to fans of Take That but to anyone who ever loved any band. In other words, everyone

“Greatest Days is not another jukebox musical about a band,” says producer, Danny Perkins. “It’s about an audience’s relationship with a band. We’ve seen a lot of films about the journey of what it means to be a rock star. What’s interesting here is what Take That wanted to say with their film. That they wanted to turn the lens on their audience.”

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It was that angle that first drew Giedroyc to the production. Fresh off shooting How To Build A Girl, her acclaimed adaptation of the novel by Caitlin Moran, the director had been looking for her next challenge. And in Greatest Days she found not just a chance to return to the musical arena she had always loved
(Giedroyc co-directed The Sound Of Music Live with Richard Valentine in 2015), but to tell a story that also resonated with her personally.

“Greatest Days is a movie basically for anybody who loved their friends when they were growing up, and anybody who loved a band. So, we’ve all been there,” Giedroyc says. “And that universality is so important. Sometimes in a musical, you’ll find that the songs can lift you into another state that perhaps the story isn’t doing. But here everything is at that high bar. We’ve got a story that works without the songs as well. The songs and the dance numbers just lift it.”

That story focuses on five teenage girls, Rachel, Debbie, Claire, Zoe and Heather – played by Lara McDonnell, Jessie Mae Alonzo, Carragon Guest, Nandi Hudson and Eliza Dobson respectively – living in the north of England in 1993 and bonded by their collective adoration of the hot young boyband they tune into religiously each week on Top Of The Pops.

“The film is about these five girls,” says its writer, Tim Firth, who also wrote the stage show – The Band – on which Greatest Days is based. “These five fantastic, brilliant, dangerous, odd girls, who sometimes don’t get on but who are the very best of friends, who are blown apart by an event that splits up their friendship group when they’re 16.”

Torn apart by what happens, the girls go their separate ways, not seeing each other for nearly 30 years. When we meet them again, now in the modern day, they are living very different lives. Rachel is now played by Aisling Bea (This Way Up, Home Sweet Home Alone), Claire by Jayde Adams (Alma’s Not Normal, The Outlaws), Zoe by Amaka Okafor (The Sandman, Upon The Edge) and Heather by Alice Lowe (Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, Prevenge).

“And these women come back together because one of them – Rachel – enters a competition on a local radio station to fly to Athens to see a reunion tour of that band they were all massively into when they were teenagers,” says Firth. “In all that time they’ve not met, have not seen what they’ve become. And
suddenly there they are, meeting at the airport to go on this trip. A trip on which they will rediscover each other and be forced to address why they have not been friends for that intervening period.”

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There will be revelations, tears, hilarious drunken escapades, and a lot of laying ghosts to rest. “But, also, a rediscovered joy as they suddenly explode into this new friendship,” Firth smiles. “The situation needs them, as women of 40, to listen to and, in fact, be revisited by the versions of themselves at 16, to allow
themselves to move on. In a way, it’s a time travel musical.”

That idea, Perkins says, of the transportive quality of music, its ability to flash you back to another moment or place in time, is not only what gives Greatest Days a set-up that feels fresh, but also provides it with its key musical mechanic.

In both the story’s timelines, whenever Rachel needs their emotional support, she is able to summon up the members of their beloved boyband in her imagination.

“The band in this are almost like a dancing Greek chorus,” is how Firth describes these five fantastical young men. “They represent all bands, all music, from thrash metal to disco. These guys are there to say, ‘This is what music means.’ If you’re 16 and upset about something and you need those band members, those songs, to comfort you, then music can do that. In our story, Rachel has always used the band to shield her, emotionally. In times of trouble, she’ll say, ‘Come on, boys…’ and the band will close around her like an emotional airbag.”

“Those boys are what music means to Rachel, but they’re also more important than that,” Firth says. “In this story, these boys will actually stop to put two teaspoons of sugar on her Weetabix or help her make beans on toast. They’re like a Jiminy Cricket, a safety net. And when she’s 40, she discovers they’re still there, that she’s still summoning them. They’re this magical presence, but they’re also facilitators – they come her rescue.”

Gary Barlow, Mark Owen, and Howard Donald posed for pictures at a photocall at the Cannes Festival. (Elysian Film Group Distribution)

The Message Of Greatest Days

This story, Coky Giedroyc maintains, isn’t just about old friends re-finding a love they’ve lost. “It’s about the power a band has to connect you to when you were a teenager,” the director says. “When we’re 16, everything is developing, growing. I’ve seen it with my own kids – they sort of start to fill their skin. And
you’re so emotional. So emotional. Your hormones are raging. Everything matters a million percent. And you hear a song that chimes with your mood or your feelings or aspirations or yearnings, and it just sticks. Those are the songs that are still in your head all those years later.”

It’s not about Take That, the band. It’s not even about their songs specifically. “It’s about music. About the power of music at one time in your life to absorb everything at that time. Your loves, your losses, your quarrels. What built you?” says Tim Firth. “I look back at the kids I was at school with and think, ‘We went through quite a lot together.’ In our own small ways, when it comes to your school friends, you fought a lot of big battles and you stood on a lot of hills and went through a lot of tunnels with those guys. Your school years are like dog years – each one is worth about seven. When I see those people again, I don’t see them as people I knew 30 years ago. I see them as old comrades.”

For the old comrades from one of the biggest British bands of all time, Greatest Days isn’t just a film either, it’s a moment. “A beautiful moment as well,” Gary Barlow says. “One of those moments where you sit there and go, ‘Wow, this is really, really special.’ How many people get to see a movie made with the
songs they’ve made over their lifetime?”

Barlow smiles. “We’ve made these songs, but they are being celebrated in this movie in a brilliantly new, innovative way. Like Coky says, this film is a love letter to friendship. Think about that for a second. That’s pretty powerful.” Friendship, Barlow says, means everything.

And that, says its writer, has always been precisely the point. “The story of these five female characters in Greatest Days,” Firth says, “is a bit like what happened to Take That, and what could happen to all of us. How you hope that the past comes to rescue your future.”

The film is called Greatest Days as a reminder to us all that what once gave us joy can still help us to find it. “I really believe that we’ve got a lot to learn from our younger selves,” Firth says.

“When we become adults, we become more considered in our judgments. Sometimes we learn to fear. What we sometimes need to remember is how we dealt with life when we were 16, that the brio and brashness that we now look back on slightly scornfully, perhaps, maybe isn’t worthy of our scorn all the time.”

Every time the makers of Greatest Days screen the film, they say, the feedback they get is the same; people telling them that they’re now going to get in touch with old pals they haven’t seen for a while, maybe dig out some old photos and play some old tunes for old time’s sake. “If this film can bring people together then we’ve done our job,” says Danny Perkins.

“It’s a tricky one,” Barlow says, “because you can sit on stage and go [he puts on a cheesy voice]: ‘You know, you guys, you mean so much to us…’ But even though you mean it, it still sounds insincere in a way. So we’ve been wanting to do something to say thank you, something that shines a light on people who have supported us, something that our audience can watch and see themselves.”

He says that Greatest Days feels like a line in the sand. “A representation of all the work we’ve done for 30 years, all in a beautifully told story. It’s going to be in this body of work for people to watch forever. It just feels brilliant to be a part of it.”