It was the moment heard ‘round the Pop Culture world – 5, British, brassy babes standing atop a staircase screaming, “Zig-a-zig-ah!”, solidifying themselves as Pop Icons for decades to come. Of course, we’re talking about the Spice Girls – Ginger, Sporty, Scary, Baby and Posh – or more specifically Geri Halliwell, Melanie Chisholm, Melanie Brown, Emma Bunton and Victoria Beckham.
But, before the mass hysteria that followed their triumphant explosion onto the music scene, (in fact, more than 2 months before their first single, ‘Wannabe’ was even released), the Fab 5 descended on an old, dilapidated hotel in Central-London, the Midland Grand – later transformed into the now-iconic, St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel to create music video magic.
They weren’t the first, or the last to film in the 207-room mammoth, with shots of the hotel used in the 1995 film Richard III starring Ian McKellen, Christopher Nolan utilizing the same staircase as the Spice Girls for his 2005 film Batman Begins, and even making an appearance in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – but show almost any person alive in the ’90s a photo of that staircase and they’ll tell you one thing, “those are the Spice Girls stairs!”.
The history of this magnificent piece of architecture can be deeply explored in our feature article, but today we’d like to tell you the full story of how the Spice Girls spent a cold, summer night on the property back in April 1996 – changing the history of the beloved hotel forever, (and annoying hotel-staff to this day with hundreds of fans sneaking in to take a quick photo on the staircase every week.)
“[The hotel] was a right old mess,” said Carole Burton-Fairbrother, Director of Video at Virgin Records in 1996, the girl’s record label while Ashley Newton added, “..the girls were freezing cold, which showed itself in various different ways”.
The video was the very first of his career for Swedish-born director, Jhoan Camitz. His initial idea for the clip was “a one-take shoot of the group arriving at an exotic building in Barcelona, taking over the place and running a riot – the same way they did when they were looking for a manager and a record company…” he recalled, “The script came in and we all a bit, ‘Gosh, I hope this is going to work’.” But, as fate would have it, a few days before the scheduled Spanish shoot on April 19th, 1996, he was told the production company was denied permission to use the building, so the location was changed to the now-infamous, St. Pancras in historic King’s Cross.
“The idea for the video was to re-create the same energy and dynamism that we showed when we crashed into record companies and did the frenetic hard sell,” Geri Halliwell would later write in her first memoir, If Only following her shocking exit from the group in 1998. “We invaded places and left people breathless. We had to bounce through the place singing Wannabe and sweeping away the cobwebs.”
The video appears to be one, long continuous take (although there were two easily-missable edits) of the girls creating havoc throughout the hotel (a single cameraman strapped to a steady cam captured the insanity), but was actually two continuous shots pieced together.
“We did a run-through of the video, how we’re gonna do it, how we’re gonna choreograph it,” said Ginger Spice, Geri Halliwell back in 1996. “You’ve got to be in certain positions at a certain time.” with Burton-Fairbrother adding “It was rehearsed quite a bit, but it has that feeling of being just as they came. It was quite reflective of them.”
The budget for the single-day video was roughly $160,000 USD, yet according to Emma Poole, the Spice Girls’ early creative director, hardly any of it went to the girl’s wardrobes. “In that first video they weren’t wearing expensive, gorgeous stuff at all,” she says. “I think Emma’s dress was probably Topshop, Melanie C wasn’t in any fancy sportswear. Initially they weren’t keen to get stylists involved.” Halliwell wore a showgirl outfit picked up for £20 at Notting Hill market.”
When the video was finally delivered to executives, it wasn’t exactly what they had in mind – or in line with the style of video most all-girl groups of the 90s were doing. It also lacked the “sensuous, Mediterranean light the original Spanish venue was expected to have brought,” Carole Burton-Fairbrother recalls, adding “When this video was delivered, everybody at Virgin and I, were like, ‘oh gosh, I’m really not sure about this.’ The label personnel were not sure about it. There were discussions of shooting another video – especially for America.”. Luckily for us, those re-shoots never happened as the girls were sure of the video, and it’s in-your-face look and feel. “In hindsight, it really didn’t do them any harm at all. They were really quite right.”
With the help of the video, ‘Wannabe’ remains the best selling song by a female group in both the United States and United Kingdom… of all time.