But alongside the pop comeback, Barlow has also been repositioning himself as an entertainment impresario. An X Factor judge for three seasons, he’s written the scores for the hit stage musical Finding Neverland, and for The Girls, an adaptation of Calendar Girls due to open in the West End early this year. A third musical, The Band, will tell the story of five young men in the biggest boy band in the world. Not a biopic but “Take That-themed”, the musical is the reason Barlow is about to become the new face of 1’s Saturday-night entertainment.
At 45, trim and well maintained, he’s probably better looking than ever, for his features seem to suit early middle age. Even so, he is one of the unsexiest handsome men I’ve ever met. I think this is down to an indelible and deeply unfashionable quality of earnestness. Worthy to the point of stodgy, the father-of-three’s sensibility has never been very rock ’n’ roll. Happily, however, it makes him uniquely well qualified for his latest project, a show called Let It Shine.
If anyone had told him not to worry, could he have relaxed and just enjoyed the ride? He laughs. “No. Of course not.”
Everyone he auditioned filled out a questionnaire about what they hoped to get from the experience. Barlow’s expression breaks into an almost priestly beam of beneficence. “And a very high percentage of them said, ‘I want to learn.’ I love that. If I was trying to put a boy band together to be in the charts, I don’t think you’d get that answer.”
Barlow’s CV alone would have made him perfect for the job. It’s now a quarter of a century since five gregarious lads from the North West first exploded onto a stage, and such was their impact that when Take That broke up in 1996 – undone by rows and rivalry, chiefly between Barlow and Williams – Samaritans had to set up a helpline for their suicidal fans. Everyone thought Barlow would be the one to make it as a solo star, but it was Williams who went on to dazzle, while Barlow unravelled into what can only be described as his wilderness years.