The Talent Show Story
Victoria Wood (narrator)
Shiver and TalkbackThames for ITV1, 7 January to 4 February 2012 (5 episodes in 1 series)
The Talent Show Story set itself a big task - to give the full explanation of how talent shows came to dominate Saturday nights. The titles trace a trajectory from Opportunity Knocks to The X Factor, as though the triumph of Little Mix is the culmination of everything John Logie Baird ever worked for. Victoria Wood narrated.
Each episode contained four individual stories, generally independent of each other, and showing a variety of theme and time. The brief summary of these segments:
Episode 1: Susan Boyle / Popstars / Marti Caine and Nina Myskow / Pop Idol '02
Episode 2: New Faces / Britain's Got Talent / Simon Cowell / Worst auditions
Episode 3: Hosts / Opportunity Knocks / Hughie Green / Bad performers
Episode 4: The X Factor / Lena Zavaroni / Child stars / New Faces '87
Episode 5: Judges / Pop Idol / Fame Academy / Dancers
The first programme told the story of Susan Boyle on Britain's Got Talent 2009. There was a brief clip of Boyle on Michael Barrymore's "My Kind of People" in 1995, and her unsuccessful audition for The X Factor. "It's the moment I live for," gushed Simon Cowell. Would that be the moment where the entire world saw Boyle on the internets, and the meteoric rise to fame took her by surprise? Or the moment when Dec's earpiece said, "Diversity"? Still, Susan Boyle's gone on to make some records, learn a few words of Chinese, and she's going to be present on telly for many years to come.
So, that's the success story. What of this past? The narration tells us that talent shows were big in the 1960s and 70s, became unpopular in the 1980s, and by the turn of the century was almost entirely relegated to niche channels. Then Nigel Lythgoe went to Australia, bought up the Popstars format, and sold it to ITV. Claudia Rosencrantz (head of ITV) said that the novelty was to see the manufacture of the band. Lythgoe had suggested Jonathan King for the panel, but Rosencrantz preferred Lythgoe himself. Simon Cowell turned down the opportunity to appear on the panel. Those judges were seated at the far end of the room from the door, just to provide five seconds of walk to raise the tension. Popstars produced their winning band, and completely over-promoted them. "You couldn't move without seeing Hearsay somewhere", recalls Kym Marsh; "it's inevitable the only way was down," said Danny Foster. ITV's house band lasted just eighteen months before splitting, allowing them to concentrate on projects like Top of the Klass with Myleene Klass.
Time's arrow continued to move backwards, with Nina Myskow revisiting the Birmingham Hippodrome of New Faces. She was surprised to be jeered by the audience, something encouraged by the producers. Kelly Fox, a former contestant, reckons that Myskow was being destructive and only looking to make a name for herself. Myskow recalls her banter with host Marti Caine, who dubbed her "Never Intentionally Nice to Anyone". Then time rewinds further, to the time in 1975 when Marti Caine faced Lenny Henry in the New Faces of that era. There are tributes to Caine, who died in 1995.
Joss Stone's moment on Star for a Night appears for no obvious reason, and then we relive the Pop Idol final of 2002. Gareth Gates tells us about his stammer, and Nicki Chapman says how she was smitten. "We've found a great story, we've found a star," recalls Simon Cowell. Will Young? Nicki says that he only went through because he auditioned at the end, and they needed more blokes in the next phase. The spat between Cowell and Young, about the quality of the latter's performance: "I thought he was obnoxious and full of himself. You don't like me, and I don't like you," says Cowell. Gareth Gates was The Anointed One, and Will Young the roadblock on Cowell's superhighway. Will had the popular backing, 4.6 million votes from the Great British Public. "I felt sick," says Cowell. "To this day, I still can't watch the final back."
We begin with the judging panel. New Faces came over from Australia, ITV's rival to Bruce Forsyth and the Generation Game. Unlike Opportunity Knocks, there was a panel to criticise the performances, and both Tony Hatch and Mickie Most wasted no opportunity to criticise. "The Hatchet Man" said that he was only being honest. Most of this segment is taken up by a clip reel - Showaddywaddy, Les Dennis, Roy Walker, Rod Hull, Marti Caine, Victoria Wood, Lenny Henry - there's rare footage of his debut from the Bob Monkhouse Archive.
Britain's Got Talent, then. Simon Cowell was watching Fame Academy, and thought that, actually, he'd rather like to see a performing dog. As one does when watching bad karaoke. There's unseen footage of the Britain's Got Talent pilot, with Paul O'Grady hosting, Piers and Simon joined by Fern Britton on the panel, and the audience made up of performers. ITV decided they didn't want it, but NBC reckoned they could make a go of this show. They did, and Cowell managed to sell it back to the UK. The gimmick of stopping an act in its tracks was borrowed from The Gong Show, and the piece ends with a diversion into those performing dogs, because young Cowell wants to sign a mutt playing an instrument.
Simon Cowell, a motor-racing fan from London, appeared on Sale of the Century in 1990. He'd subsequently become "the most powerful man on television", a claim disputed by Rupert Murdoch. "Simon's ego is stratospheric, it doesn't belong on the planet," says Piers Morgan, speaking from experience. We're treated to some of Cowell's record successes, like Five, Zig and Zag, Robson and Jerome, and his theory: if television stars can make records, then television can make stars who can make records. Within weeks of Cowell's debut on Pop Idol, they had a pantomime baddie, with high-wasted trousers. Pop Idol went Stateside, The X Factor and ... Got Talent followed. The zenith of his career: a twelve-minute hagiography on primetime ITV, and a 120-word blurb on it.
If the clip of Robson and Jerome in the previous section wasn't enough, we're now seeing the worst auditions. There's a suggestion that the New Faces producers put on something for the panel to attack each week. Should the auditions be televised? Nina Myskow thinks they've gone a bit far, the ...Got Talent and X Factor auditions in theatres are compared to Roman gladiatorial combats. But she'll laugh when it's on. Then there's people who give their comeback, verbal and physical. Edna Moore, the mother-in-law who told Simon Cowell to show some respect; and we end with Robert Unwin, who performed "Barbie girl" in falsetto.
A talent show needs a talent show host. Siobhan Greene, producer of Britain's Got Talent, said that the host needs to do more than read the autocue, citing the moment when Ant picked up a fire extinguisher and used it on a broken prop. The narration reckons that Ant and Dec re-wrote the host's job when they presented Pop Idol. Nigel Lythgoe invited them down to the auditions, so that they could familiarise themselves with the contestants, and found Ant and Dec were helping and hugging the contestants. Since then, every show has had someone backstage. Dermot O'Leary of The X Factor says it's like hosting a party on screen every week. Nigel Lythgoe says there's nothing wrong with the judges having an argument with the hosts, and Simon Cowell actually encouraged Dermot to be disagreeable. Which leads us into a recap of the spat between Patrick Kielty and Richard Park through the second series of Fame Academy. "It threatened to overshadow the show," claims Park. "No, he actually hates me," was the conclusion of Kielty. We should remember Fame Academy as the launchpad for the huge talents of Paris Campbell-Edwards, Alistair Griffin, and Alex Parks. But we only remember it for the clash of egos between Park and Kielty. A tremendous shame.
After the break, more footage of an end-of-the-pier show, with archive footage of Carroll Levis and his Discovery Show. Then to another Canadian host, Hughie Green and Opportunity Knocks. A staple of Monday nights - because Thames Television didn't broadcast over the weekend - OpKnox had contortionists, oom-pah bands, and Tony Holland the Musical Muscle Man. He flexed his biceps in time to music, and this won the show five weeks in a row. Tony built a career out of his act. Freddie Starr, Lena Zavaroni, Little and Large, Cannon and Ball, and Paul Daniels all achieved overnight success. There's also the story of Les Dawson, who was going to give up his comedy but was persuaded by his wife to audition for OpKnox. The rest is history, and it isn't shown. And then the clap-o-meter: was it just a man with a knitting needle at the back of the studio? No, producer Royston Mayoh demonstrates a wooden box actually analysing the sound coming out of the audience.
OpKnox was hosted by Hughie Green, who was born in London, had a brief career as a child actor in Hollywood, then moved to Canada where he served in the war. He attended every audition in person, flying from place to place in a light aeroplane. It was about the only place he was safe from the crowds of fans. Bobby Crush found Hughie to be avuncular and supportive of his acts, but saw at least one flare-up on the set every week. Green's producers recall that he knew what he wanted, and would stop at nothing to get it. Brian Tesler, head of light entertainment for Thames, recalls a doom-laden speech, apparently setting out Hughie's stall to take over from the Callaghan government. Green's eccentricities, and the closure of the clubs and theatres, combined to bring the curtain down on OpKnox in 1978. Green lived to see the revival under Bob Monkhouse in 1987, and died in 1997; since then, he's remembered mostly for his complicated private life.
From the sublime to the ridiculous, such as the man who hit himself over his head with a metal tea-tray, or the woman who believed her drivel was poetry. From Popstars: The Rivals, footage of The Cheeky Girls. "They'll be next week's fish and chips," said producer Nigel Hall, master of the instantly incorrect prediction. From The X Factor, there's Chico Slimani - "Not a great singer, but he's got a lot going for him," remembers Louis Walsh. " I wouldn't jump in the water with a live mike," says Ozzy Osbourne. From 2010, Wagner Fiuza-Carrhilo compares The X Factor to a soap opera, with Wagner there to entertain the country, which is why Louis chose songs Wagner couldn't sing. And then there's the 2009 dose of bonkers, John & Edward. "It's a tuneless talentless couple of muppets, but there's something compelling," says Neil Fox. "There's not very good," commented Gordon Brown, but whatever happened to him? "No-one had ever seen anything like us," recalls John. Or was it Edward? Ah, who cares!
The story of The X Factor, beginning with Simon Cowell telling ITV that he was going to make this show, and he wasn't going to do another run of Pop Idol, and if ITV didn't want him, he'd go to another channel. ITV wanted him, wanted the show without an older limit, and gave the judges something to do other than commentate. Pete Waterman said no, Mel B proved just too tough to get, but Sharon Osbourne agreed on the first phone call. Cowell says "we've brought money into the show, we want it to get bigger every year." Siobhan Greene, head of ITV entertainment, said that they wanted the "judges' houses" phase to be all Lifestyles of the Rich and/or Famous. Dermot O'Leary notes how the judges have so many properties around the world, and they never mentioned them before. As fake as that might be, it's the first time when there isn't a barrier between judge and performer, when the two have to look in the whites of the eyes.
Onwards and downwards, because it's child stars next. "Awww, aren't they cute" is the basic idea. Wee Neil Reid won six weeks of Opportunity Knocks singing "Mother of mine", and Bonnie Langford had something of a crush on the lad. Nature took its course - two years, his voice broke, and that was that. There's also footage of Bonnie Langford being irritatingly cutesy on stage. "She was a stereotypical brat on stage," remarks Jane Macdonald of Star for a Night. "People don't want to accept you as something new," remarks Bobby Crush, before the sad tale of Lena Zaveroni unwinds. The daughter of fish-and-chip shop owners from Bute was blessed with a spectacular voice, and won Op Knocks for some weeks in 1975. From there, performances with Sinatra in Vegas, a show with Bonnie Langford, and problems with her self-image. Believing she looked too fat, Lena went on a diet, which manifested into anorexia nervosa and depression. Her career effectively ended around 1980, and she died of pneumonia in 1999. A sad loss.
So, what of children on talent shows these days? There's The Big Big Talent Show (1997), which introduced Charlotte Church to the world, though she was only supposed to be there to introduce her aunt Caroline. Junior Star for a Night (1999) uncovered Joss Stone, and featured a young Alexandra Burke. With the likes of The X Factor unable or unwilling to audition children, it fell to Britain's Got Talent to develop The Cute Factor. There's Connie Talbot, whose father feared a shouting from Simon Cowell. Holly Steel from 2009 rather forgot her words live on network television during finals week, and Simon delayed the news so that she could sing again.
Time to open the ballots. The Fame Game invited 1000 of its viewers to cast ballots through interactive thingummies. There's another piece of technology from the same show - the shepherd's crook - allowing judges at home to extend an electronic hook and pull an unfunny comic off stage. This was adapted from an idea on very early music hall. Then there's Spaghetti Junction from New Faces, a buzzer attached to all 3000 seats in the Hippodrome. The 1987 final produced Joe Pasquale, described by Laurie Mansfield as "a comedy genius". He got advice from Ken Dodd, and won the audience vote. He also had a bit of a fiddle on the postcard vote, by distributing postcards at his holiday camp job. Ventriloquist Jimmy Tamly was the opposition, as the votes were cast in true Eurovision Song Contest style. Jimmy won the public vote, Joe rode the waves of sympathy to become a huge star.
A discussion of the role of the talent show judges began with Nigel Lythgoe and Nigel Hall (of Talkback Thames) explaining how the casting of judges is like a pantomime - the good fairy, the wicked witch, the hero, the baddie. Amanda Holden recalls how she got the job on The X Factor - one mention of Simon Cowell and she was in, but then there was needle against Piers Morgan. Popstars: The Rivals is credited with creating the bickering judges, with Geri Haliwell the rose between the thorns of Pete Waterman and Louis Walsh. Walsh claims that Waterman hasn't spoken to him in the nine years since. The final week of the show "was the worst performance of my life," says Waterman. Cough. That sounds good to me. Dannii Minogue claims it was difficult to work with Sharon Osbourne on The X Factor, but it's not clear if their differences were all for publicity. Carrie Grant implies that pop-stars-turned-judges don't know what they're talking about; Nigel Lythgoe says that they're very different from commercial experts. Richard Park's contribution is dismissed by Tulisa as "a load of rubbish".
A brief clip of Stars in Their Eyes, a show encouraging people to impersonate their favourite stars. Producer Nigel Hall says this was a groundbreaking show, introducing the bigness - big doors, big stage, big smoke, actually having something of a budget, and the televote. Half-a-million people voted for a Chris de Burgh lookalike, for goodness' sake! All of this brings us to Pop Idol, where the viewers chose their winner, albeit from the lists selected by the judges. Pete Waterman was employed as the series baddie, a role usurped by Simon Cowell when he realised the completely ludicrous spectacles before him. And he wasn't even looking at Neil Fox's face! The ingredient X was the hosts, Antan Dec were fresh from the success of SM:TV Live and the failure of Slap Bang, with their quick wits and comedy skits. The other surprise was the return of Darius Danesh, whose bizarre cover of "...Baby One More Time" had been a talking point in Popstars. He took rejection on the chin, came back later in the year, and learned a lot from his experiences. Third place allowed Darius to claim the number one single he'd always wanted. And remember Pop Idol 2 from 2003? Louis Walsh says Michelle McManus won the vote for being the person rather than the singer. Pete Waterman said from the beginning that McManus was completely wrong, and left the Pop Idol production before the closing credits.
"The BBC's never found a successful talent show," claims the voiceover. Which brings us to the UK version of Operation Triunfo, renamed Fame Academy. Merging elements of Pop Idol and Big Brother, the objective was to combine performance and fly-on-the-wall footage, including live streaming and the characters of the contestants. It was a big operation - the house is as large as Buckingham Palace, it required a huge staff. Inevitably, the BBC was slammed for actually spending a bit of money on something slightly entertaining. "The pupils believed they were students, the teachers believed they were teachers, and the headmaster really believed he was a headmaster," recalls host Patrick Kielty. "Top international pop stars came in to see the students," according to the voiceover, showing Mariah Carey and Ronan Keating. They did get a duet between Lionel Richie and Lemar, which is rightly described as TV gold. The first few shows were TV iron pyrites, but it did manage a decent set of finds - Lemar, David Sneddon (now working for Lana Del Ray and Matt Cardle). Richard Park claims that Fame Academy led to the BBC's subsequent talent programmes, possibly in the same way that forests led to coal. Our good friends at TV Cream summarised the segment thus: "Patrick Kielty turning up to show he still doesn't realise that if you continually pooh-pooh a judge's viewpoint and make out they're an idiot, you're just making people wonder why he's on the show in the first place and making the whole thing look a waste of time."
Are they going to mention Come Dancing? They are. Strictly Come Dancing and Dancing on Ice will get a glancing mention. There will be a long discussion of Stavros Flatley, a bizarre take on the "Riverdance" phenomenon that entered Britain's Got Talent in 2009. They lost to Diversity, the inventive dance troupe. Lenny Henry is amazed at how witty and funny they were, actually putting jokes into their choreography. "There's no words to describe how it felt" says Perri from Diversity. Then came Spelbound, the rhythmic gymnasts / dancers, who decided to begin their final routine by firing themselves over the judges' heads. Nigel Lythgoe - originally a dancer - is pleased that there's been an uptick in attendance at dancing classes.
Looking back over talent shows, Lenny Henry says they're for the moment when the whole country says, "Wow. That's good. They're great. They'll be big." There's previews of the new Lloyd Webber casting show, and The Voice, and a prospect of sending a winner into space.
If we're to believe The Talent Show Story, almost all the best shows were shown on ITV, and primarily made by Fremantle Media companies. This is to be expected from an ITV series, especially one made jointly by Fremantle's "Talkback Thames" subsidiary, and jointly by the Yorkshire TV factual department. The series didn't set out to tell a linear story, but concentrated on the memories, and the cultural impact of the programmes. It did its best to set out facts, and was prepared to demolish rather than re-inforce urban legends, but didn't dare criticise when it could celebrate.
The Great British Public voted with its remote controls, and voted no: viewing figures remained below 3 million, and the final episode was shifted from 8pm to 10pm. Perhaps it was more suited to its repeat slots, late on Thursday evening and at teatime on Sunday. The Talent Show Story was an entertaining piece of nostalgia that worked both as a collection of clips and as an oral history of the talent show. It's not definitive, it wore its biases almost as a badge of honour, but was worthwhile viewing.
Candy Studios composed the theme and incidental music.