As Robbie Williams’ debut solo album Life Thru A Lens turns 25, Radio 2 marks the occasion with this two-hour special in which Scott Mills chats to his old pal, Robbie, about the creation of that album and the eventful twists and turns of his career which followed, right up to the present day.

There’s a lot of ground to cover, as their friendship goes way back to when Scott was a fresh new presenter introducing a new boyband called Take That onto the stage at a local radio roadshow. Their meteoric rise followed, then the eventual break up and Robbie’s solo career, which then became yet another meteoric and record-breaking phenomena.

Alongside the smash-hit albums and singles, Robbie faced personal struggles with high-profile girlfriends, the record-shattering three nights at Knebworth, then marriage, fatherhood, Kylie, Britney, Elton, The X Factor... they talk about it all! This is one of the UK’s biggest pop stars of the last 30 years as you have never heard him before, opening up to his mate. It’s an essential listen for Robbie and Take That fans, as Scott guides Robbie into his past and they open a world of nostalgia.

Presenter: Scott Mills
Producer: Ste Softley for Mostest

On why Robbie left Take That:
Robbie: ‘I think that I was in the middle of a nervous breakdown, my first of many. All the information going into the computer had made the computer overload. Things weren’t great at home, things weren’t great with my job, and then I was new to this phenomena of extreme fame. [I was] doing my GCSEs, which I failed at, to then all of a sudden being in Japan and having 3000 fans outside and then that being the case everywhere that we go. It was unsafe and it was surreal and that, mixed with what I was ingesting to cope with my life and the way that my body and mind reacts to it, didn’t mix well. So it felt like I was in some sort of burning building and I needed to get out. That’s how it felt at the time. And then I was like, ‘okay, I’ll do this tour and then I’ll leave.’ And they actually went, ‘Actually, if you’re going to leave, can you go now?’’

On chart rivalry in the 90s:
Scott: ‘Was there any chart rivalry between you and Gary?’
Robbie: ‘I made sure that there was. Because that’s what the 90s was about. This is what was happening in my camp – I say my camp I mean my head – it’s like wrestling or boxing.’
Scott: ‘It’s a contest.’
Robbie: ‘It’s a contest. It’s competitive. The chart in itself, when you watch Top of the Pops and you had your own several different teams and you’re like ‘Come on, move up! Oh it’s moved down, its stayed!’
Scott: ‘It was so important.’
Robbie: ‘Yeah. And it’s your tribe against their tribe, and my tribe was me and their tribe was Gary Barlow, and I was all up for that kind of conflict because I got some sort of kick from it. Unfortunately Gary didn’t feel the say way and he didn’t get a kick from it, because he was a well-rounded grown up that didn’t need that sort of inflammation in his life. I so badly wanted him to respond in kind, but like I say, he’s a well-rounded grown up.’

On Life Thru A Lens:
Scott: ‘It wasn’t an immediate success was it?’
Robbie: ‘No it wasn’t at all. It sold 33,000 copies, not the first week just over several months and I was about to be dropped.’

On Angels:
Scott: ‘Did Angels save you?’
Robbie: ‘It gives me anxiety thinking about what would have happened if [Angels] hadn’t have happened, sat here on this sofa now, it actually scares me to think of where I would’ve gone and what I would’ve become and how I would’ve dealt and managed with my best years being behind me already at 21, that’s terrifying.’
Scott: ‘Do you ever think about it?’
Robbie: ‘I do in these moments because there’s an anniversary and people are saying ‘How do you feel about 25 years?’ How I feel about it is a sense of relief. There’s no sticking my chest out and going ‘Look at me! The numbers of people that turn up and watch me, and the numbers that I’ve sold!’ I actually just feel relief that I get to inhabit this world and not a world where it was over by the time I was 21. That feels good.’

On Harry Styles:
Scott: ‘You know when you see Harry Styles? I see a bit of you in him, the way he owns it on stage.’
Robbie: ‘Absolutely. I see a lot. This is inconsequential but the algorithm on my YouTube threw up a video of Harry Styles talking in between songs and what he was talking about was a bit of nonsense, like I talk about, just a bit of banter. And it was like, I see what he’s doing. He’s trying to fill a space.... That stage is massive and it’s a lonely place. You’d better throw some shapes or you’re just going to feel awkward.’

On Kylie:
Scott: ‘You know you and Kylie? What was going on there?’
Robbie: ‘Not as much as I wanted to be unfortunately. Messed that up […] by being 13 whenever I was around her. It was like the girl from the year above me: ‘I don’t know how to speak to you!’ But she’s my crush, my crush of all crushes.’

On his confidence while performing:
Robbie: ‘What is incredible about any performances that I’ve ever done is that I make it look as though I’m extremely confident. And the most confident I look is when I am most terrified. And it’s not just something that I own, because I spoke to Michael Bublé about this and we had a long conversation on the telephone once which was great because…’
Scott: ‘I love him.’
Robbie: ‘Me too, I love him up. Because you exist in a place where not many people exist, you then judge your own neurosis and getting to speak to him for that half an hour just laid everything to rest for me. [I thought] ‘Okay, somebody else is going through this, somebody else feels exactly the same way I do.’ And he was saying, when he feels and looks the most loosest on stage or in a TV performance is actually when he feels the most vulnerable. And I’m like, ‘Oh thank god, somebody else is doing it too.’

Robbie: ‘If you could hear what my brain was doing as opposed to my outside actions, its sociopathic in a way.’

On his ‘I’m rich beyond my wildest dreams’ comment:
Robbie: ‘The real story [behind this quote] is this. I feel like a charlatan. I’ve got charlatan syndrome, I feel like I don’t deserve anything that’s happening to me. And then you are thankfully signing the biggest record deal the world has ever seen. And all I thought was ‘A) Well, I don’t deserve that. B) How do you perform like somebody that’s going to make 80 million quid?’
Scott: ‘What do you wear? What do you look like? Everything.’
Robbie: ‘What do you say? Very talented people deserve that, not me. Prince deserves that, George Michael deserves that, Michael Jackson deserves that. I am somebody from Stoke-on-Trent, how on earth is this possible? So then you go in to do this meet and greet with the press and I do this signing. I’m also, to combat that, full of bravado too.’
Scott: ‘It’s almost like signing some kind of a presidential order.’
Robbie: ‘Yeah, signing a presidential order! And in my mind, I’m like, ‘all that’s missing is a giant cheque from the lottery.’ I’m in my head going, like that lady that said […], ‘I’m going to spend spend spend.’ And that became her catchphrase and that defined the life of the lottery at the time. What I thought she actually said was ‘I’m rich beyond my wildest dreams.’ So I’ve got paparazzi going ‘give us a quote’. And I’m like ‘I’m rich beyond my wildest dreams!’. And I’m thinking, ‘that’s what she said, right? Everybody’s going to understand that that’s what she said?’
Scott: When did you realise you’d got it wrong?
Robbie: When it came out of my mouth! And it didn’t have the reception I was hoping for.

On the Take That documentary:
Robbie: ‘What I thought I was doing was being very magnanimous. I thought, ‘Yeah I’ll come down from my mountain. I’ll help them out. Look at me being incredibly gracious.’ What happened with the documentary was, the Take That ‘where are they now’ thing is happening, [they asked me] ‘will you get involved?’ And I’m the guy that’s just got the cheque, I’m the guy who’s just done Knebworth, I’m the guy who’s about to sell the most tickets out in a day. I’ll do that for them, ‘cos I’m nice. But we all got a bit stitched up in the documentary. Because [the producers told us] ‘all the lads are leaving messages for each other, can you leave a message for everyone?’ and then an individual message would go out. What they don’t tell us is, ‘in this documentary we’re going to pretend that you may be turning up and we’re going to get them all in a room and they don’t know whether you are or you aren’t. But they think you might.’ So they all get in a room and then a screen comes down and its me on the screen leaving the boys these messages like I’ve been asked to do, thinking that everyone’s leaving messages for everybody. So it was kind of a stitch-up. But subsequently that documentary was watched by 7 million people, 8 million people, which is massive ratings for the UK. And then, Take That are back.’

On Scott watching The Bachelor at Robbie’s house in LA:
Scott: ‘I also remember watching loads of reality TV at your house in LA.’
Robbie: ‘That’s what we do.’
Scott: ‘You’re well into it […] what was that one?’
Robbie: ‘Was it The Bachelor?’
Scott: ‘It was The Bachelor! And me you and Ayda each had a score card I believe.’
Robbie: ‘Right, that makes sense.’
Scott: ‘And we were rating them, like he’s going to get together with her and he’s going to get together with him.’

On Elton John sending him a note:
Robbie: ‘I remember I was in a hotel in Australia and Elton John was upstairs and I was downstairs in a hotel. […] I’d have gone round to see him but I was in such isolation at the time and so unwell, I just didn’t want to see anybody. And he sent me a note down and it was just like, ‘Take That, funny how things work out isn’t it?’’

On UFOs:
Robbie: ‘I was thinking my career and me are not compatible. The makeup and what I need to facilitate isn’t working out for me because I’m terrified by everything. So I need to not do what I do for a living anymore. So I retired in my head. And after a while of growing a beard and wearing a kaftan and eating Kettle chips and watching reality TV, you go ‘Hang on, that’s something happening to my being here which is not healthy. […] I’m agrophobic. I can’t let that happen to me’. And then I heard that saying that goes ‘if you find something you’re passionate about and you can make a living from it, you’ll never work a day in your life.’ And I thought, okay I still need to do something, and what am I passionate about? And I thought I’m passionate about UFOs. I’m passionate about the paranormal. I’m passionate about the unseen. I’m passionate about this thing that could exist. I thought I could do a TV show about this. I wouldn’t have to do much, I could just sit on a porch, introduce the TV show, give my thoughts and feelings on it, and then off into the weird world these magical adventures could take the audience.’

Robbie: ‘In my head, ‘I was going to be the chav Arthur C Clarke. Completely uneducated, taking a stab in the dark, Arthur C Clarke of Stoke-on-Trent.’

Robbie: ‘The newspapers were sending people dressed as little green men to wait outside my house.’

On reconciling with Gary Barlow:
Scott: ‘I came round [to your house ], James Corden was there, Peter Jones, and Gary Barlow, and loads of sushi. And we played games. It was really fun. But after years of the press talking about bad blood, you and Gary that night seemed the best of friends.’
Robbie: ‘Look, we are family. And it’s like blood family for all the good and all the bad and we are intrinsically locked together on this journey on the planet. All of us - me, Jay, Howard, Mark and Gaz. I will always be the younger brother and he will always be the older brother. And I did things that I’m not proud of and said things I’m not proud of as a reaction to things that I hope he’s not that proud of either. That being said, taking the mickey out of Gary, he didn’t deserve that.’

Robbie: ‘I’ve got this film coming out next year, it’s a biopic of my life, and its about a period in my life where I was all the things that we’ve discussed previously in this interview. So I’m going to say and do things in that film that I would’ve said and done at the time that I said and did them.’ [...] ‘But if I put a biopic from 2012 onwards, it would be a love letter to Gary Barlow.’

On TV presenting:
Robbie: ‘Basically I’m a TV presenter that found himself in music. That’s what I do, if I’d have been lucky enough, I’d have got to do something like you do. And here I am, on TV and I get how exciting it is and also how easy it is. It’s way easier than what I do for a living and I want more of that please.’

On Fairytale of New York duet with Britney Spears:
Robbie: ‘I didn’t understand that [Britney] was under some kind of conservatorship. I just thought because of my ego that she was just saying no. I wouldn’t want to work with me either, Britney! But she wasn’t in charge of anything. I don’t know who said no. I wanted to do Fairytale of New York with Britney Spears. Can you imagine? I would still love to do that if Britney’s out there.’
Scott: ‘Well she’s with Elton.’
Robbie: ‘I know! But there’s nobody who plays their cards better in this industry than Elton John and he’s well into his 70s. And he does things like that all of the time. The way that Elton John has played his career is a masterpiece.’

Answering quickfire questions:
Worst moment on stage?: ‘Well, I won’t say which country and I won’t say why, but there was a time when I’d been awake for 48 hours because of things and I then had to go and entertain 78,000 people. That was my worst moment on stage ever.’

Will you ever be part of Take That again?: ‘Hopefully I will.’

Who do you really want to do a duet with?: ‘Dolly Parton and Britney.’

Who is the next Robbie Williams?: ‘Harry Styles is the person who’s going to do what I did and probably more. He’s taking massive swings at everything and I’m super proud of him and he should go for it. The one bit of information I’d give to Harry is advice: I didn’t dream big enough. He can go out and dream way bigger than me. And he’s in the process of doing that. But I wouldn’t say he’s the next Robbie Williams, he’s the first Harry Styles.’