UK Television Talent Shows Through the Ages: The Not So Perfect Ten

East of the M60′s journey through the most television genre of recent years

Talent shows featuring assorted dog acts, multifarious dance groups and aspiring singers. It is hard not to imagine a typical TV schedule without them. The genre predates television itself, yet has over the last half century been a most enduring format (and I mean this most sincerely, folks).

We have seen them all come and gone like Paul Squire and Steve Brookstein, or become TV legends like Les Dawson and Victoria Wood. This instalment of The Not So Perfect Ten focuses on TV talent shows over the last 50 years.

  • Carroll Levis Discoveries;
  • Opportunity Knocks;
  • New Faces;
  • Search for a Star;
  • Stars in Their Eyes;
  • The Big Big Talent Show;
  • Popstars/Pop Idol/The X Factor;
  • Fame Academy;
  • How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?;
  • Britain’s Got Talent.

1. Carroll Levis Discoveries (1957, ATV London):

Over 50 years ago, among the first talent to gain public consciousness through this new fangled media was Carroll Levis Discoveries (1957). Apart from setting a precedent as ITV’s talent show, it set a further one by having a Canadian presenter (a feat later repeated on Opportunity Knocks). Launched in 1957 it often topped the ratings, knocking Sunday Night at the London Palladium of its top spot. The programme had transferred over to television from radio and hitherto enjoyed proven success with the latter media form.

Famous alumni: Nicholas Parsons, Terry Hall (ventriloquist of Lenny the Lion – not the Specials’ front man).

Gimmicks and landmarks: successful transition of talent show from radio to television.

Spin-offs and imitators: no spin-offs came from this programme. However, there was another talent show which made its television début around the same time, one of the most successful of all time presented by another Canadian…

2. Opportunity Knocks (Associated Rediffusion/ABC/Thames Television, 1956 – 1978)

How can any round-up of talent shows forget Hughie Green’s place in history? Its varied roster of acts from brass bands to comedians was a natural precursor to today’s Britain’s Got Talent. Voting formed an integral part of the programme, where TV viewers could vote for the act they would like to see on next week’s programme. Again, like Carroll Levis’ programme, this made the transition from radio, having previously been aired on the BBC Light Programme and Radio Luxembourg.

Famous alumni: loads. The most successful included the late Les Dawson, Tom O’ Connor, Roy Chubby Brown and Pam Ayres. Less fruitfully, Su Pollard was famously beaten by a singing dog (though she bounced back in Hi-de-Hi! and made several TV and theatre appearances later).

Honourable mentions: Millican and Nesbitt, Stuart Gilles (claim to fame: singer of the Love Thy Neighbour signature tune), Little and Large and Tony Holland (Salford’s famed bodybuilder).

Gimmicks and landmarks: the Clapometer. Points were awarded according to which level the needle would reach on the clapometer from the applause of the studio audience. Postcard voting added an interactive element.

Spin-offs and imitators: the format returned to our screens 9 years later courtesy of the BBC and Bob Monkhouse, then Les Dawson presented the final 1990 season’s set of episodes. The postcard was replaced by a set of 0898 numbers.

3. New Faces (ATV, 1973 – 1978/Central Television, 1986 and 1988):

Whereas Opportunity Knocks had proved to be a ratings winner for Associated Rediffusion, ABC and Thames Television, Lew Grade’s ATV wanted a slice of the action. Enter New Faces. Like Opportunity Knocks, New Faces in its short period of time had quite a decorated alumni. It was also the first talent show to include a judges’ panel as well as a studio audience panel. Their judges included famed record producers and songwriters Tony Hatch and Mickie Most (the 1970s equivalents of Simon Cowell and Cheryl Cole).

Participants awarded the highest marks from the judges’ panel progressed to the next round. Marks were awarded for ‘presentation’ and ‘star quality’ (in later years this changed to ‘entertainment value’).

Famous alumni: loads. Acts have included Lenny Henry, Jim Davidson, Victoria Wood, Les Dennis, Malandra Burrows and Patti Boulaye.

Honourable mentions: Manx singer-songwriter Steve Bent’s ‘I’m Going to Spain’, 1974. The song gained a new lease of life as a cover version on The Fall’s 1992 album The Infotainment Scam. Also Stephanie de Sykes for her sole hit ‘Born With a Smile on my Face’.

Gimmicks and landmarks: Outspoken judges: Tony Hatch was popularly known as ‘The Hatchet Man’ due to his abrasive way of judging participants (remember children, Simon Cowell’s nature as judge is nothing new at all). The 1986 and 1988 seasons had a novel lighting installation known as ‘Spaghetti Junction’, generated by the studio audience voting for their favoured act. This replaced the old Viewers’ Panel.

Spin-offs and imitators: no spin-offs, but New Faces’ influence is indirectly responsible for The X Factor invading the world’s TV screens.

4. Search for a Star (ITV, 1980 – 1982):

At the start of the 1980s, ITV was looking for a replacement show to compensate for the much-maligned Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night. So what do you do? Have another talent show with lofty ambitions and the use of new technology. You ensure that all the ITV regions are fully involved and have their own presenter announcing the results Eurovision Song Contest fashion.

Search for a Star did away with the judges and opted for a much larger viewers’ panel. Instead of a select number of viewers travelling to the ATV studios in Birmingham, each ITV franchise would be represented. For example, one act may have flopped in ATVland, but went down well in Granadaland. The winner would get their own one-off TV special (fully networked across the ITV regions) with the winner being top of the bill with a few other supporting acts.

Famous alumni: lacked the success of New Faces and Opportunity Knocks. Paul Squire was the most famous, though left TV altogether through his volition in the mid-1980s returning to theatre. Dave Wolfe, the first winner in 1980 had brief success in sketch show Copycats.

Honourable mentions: Steve Jones (presenter for the LWT results), prior to hosting The Pyramid Game.

Gimmicks and landmarks: Eurovision Song Contest style switching between ITV franchises.

Spin-offs and imitators: none of note.

5. Stars in Their Eyes (Granada, 1990 – 2007):

After finding new stars, Granada capitalised on the then-new fad of Karaoke performance. That of ordinary persons convinced they could sound like Cliff Richard or Madonna et al. Another knock-on effect of karaoke was the popularity of tribute acts. Invented by Joop van den Ende (of Endemol fame), Stars in Their Eyes fulfilled that need in July 1990 with Leslie Crowther the show’s first presenter of the UK show. The show was an instant hit for Granada running till 2006.

Famous alumni: Gary Mullan progressed from Stars In Their Eyes to becoming one of the UK’s leading Queen tribute acts.

Honourable mentions: Endemol. Who would have thought that almost 10 years after the first Stars In Their Eyes that they would inflict Big Brother on us all? Still, there could be another Not So Perfect Ten entry in the pipeline on the Collected Works of Endemol.

Gimmicks and landmarks: ordinary people impersonating their favourite singers.

Spin-offs and imitators: Stars In Their Eyes spawned a wealth of special celebrity orientated editions, along with thematic editions and a junior version. Imitators included the Les Dennis vehicle Give Your Mate a Break and Canada’s answer, Star For a Night.

6. The Big Big Talent Show (London Weekend Television/Channel X, 1996 – 1997):

1996 saw Jonathan Ross present what would be seen as a natural precursor to Britain’s Got Talent. Entitled The Big Big Talent Show, its aim was add variety to the ITV schedules, whilst adding a phone-in element. The lucky winner would get a coveted spot at the Royal Variety Performance. Sounds familiar?

The series only ran for two years with its first winner ventriloquist Paul Zerdin. Opting for the rugby ball shaped head doll as Ron Lucas did before then, he soon became a staple act around the UK’s seaside resorts and holiday camps. The following year, Lydia Griffiths won the final. There was also a change of format where only the final round had a phone-in element.

Famous alumni: Omid Djalili, Ed Byrne, Charlotte Church and (future The X Factor winner) Steve Brookstein.

Spin-offs and derivatives: none really, though the format of Britain’s Got Talent owes a massive debt to Wossy’s programme.

7. Popstars/Pop Idol/The X Factor (London Weekend Television/19 Productions/Talkback Thames/ITV Productions/SYCO Television 2000 – 2002; 2001 – 2003; 2004 – to date):

From the famine came the feast. An overhyped one at that which started life as a fly-on-the-wall documentary/reality TV services before becoming the worldwide behemoth it is today.

Popstars was billed as a fly-on-the-wall documentary which followed the fortunes of the resultant band Hear’Say. Prior to being whittled down to the last five contestants, judges would mark wannabes on their performance before making up the final group. Whereas Hear’Say got their first single to Number One in the UK charts, the runners up Liberty X had a more fruitful chart career.

This was followed up by Popstars: The Rivals which led to the formation of Girls Aloud. With greater emphasis on vox populi, this mutated into the successful …Idol franchise. By 2001, Pop Idol was born. The emphasis was shifted towards phone voting and the candid judges a la New Faces style. By then, the in-fighting between judges became as compelling to UK viewers – and did particularly well abroad (hence American Idol, Canadian Idol and Zairean Idol).

Whereas the ‘…Idol’ franchise remains an export success, Cowell’s next project proved to be more lucrative for the UK market. Enter The X Factor.

Compared with Pop Idol and Popstars before then, this swept the two shows with them. The audition process became much bigger; there was more padding, hype, special effects, squabbles, melodrama, sympathy votes and column inches involved. The judges’ panel was retained from the Pop Idol franchises, though there was greater emphasis on phone and online voting. 2009 saw more people vote for Joe McElderry than that of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party in this year’s General Election.

Later heats since the 2007 season have had contestants whisked off to each judge’s house. For example, the girls group would be sent to Danni Minogue’s house. The aim of the retreat is that of moving them away from the media hype at home. This was mercilessly ribbed in Peter Kay’s send-up Britain’s Got the Pop Factor and Possibly a New Celebrity Jesus Christ Soapstar Superstar Strictly on Ice. In one scene, non-PC quartet Two Up Two Down were holed up in a caravan.

The reward for winning Pop Idol and its derivatives is a £1,000,000 record contract. This entails the obligatory single release of the winner’s song, an album and an appearance on the programme’s spin-off live tour. Oh, and as some cynics would say, a Divine Right to the Christmas Number One Spot in the singles chart.

Famous Alumnae: Cheryl Cole (also as judge as well as member of Girls Aloud); Kym Marsh (as Hear’Say member and Coronation Street star); Will Young; Leona Lewis.

Spin-offs and derivatives: see above; also Britain’s Got Talent.

8. Fame Academy (BBC, 2002 – 2003):

Whereas Fame Academy was perceived as being similar to the Pop Idol behemoth, it went further by encouraging its contestants to become more rounded performing artistes in their own right. The retreat concept predated The X Factor where its students would stay in a Georgian house and hone their performing arts skills there.

Instead of starting from scratch, BBC bought the rights to the Fame Academy format from Endemol – creators of Stars In Their Eyes and Big Brother – whence the retreat concept came from. Like Big Brother, viewers could decide which contestant should be evicted. Where Fame Academy differed from most talent shows was its long term development to fostering talent. This Unique Selling Point was the bursary. Though the last series of Fame Academy finished in 2003, the bursary is (at this moment) still supported by Youth Music, the British Council and the BBC.

Famous alumni: Lemar.

Derivatives and spin-offs: the Fame Academy concept was expanded to cover a celebrity version for Comic Relief.

9. How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? (BBC One, 2006):

Challenging contemporary talent shows’ penchant for popular music, manufactured bands and equally manufactured Christmas Number One Spots, BBC decided to aim for the West End circuit. In this case, they opted for the ever-popular ‘The Sound of Music’. As with Fame Academy, this programme too offered a bursary system, co-funded by Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s appearance fee and telephone poll revenues.

The format, as did Popstars before then, led to a series of equally successful spin-offs including:

  • Any Dream Will Do (‘Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’, 2007);
  • I’d Do Anything (‘Oliver!’, 2008);
  • Over the Rainbow (‘The Wizard of Oz’, 2009).

The winner would be given a lead role in the musical concerned, winning a 6 month contract.

Spin-offs and derivatives: see above.

Famous alumnae: Connie Fisher (first winner); Jodie Prengar (actress and presenter); Lee Mead.

10. Britain’s Got Talent (Talkback Thames/Syco TV, 2007):

Realising the need for old fashioned talent shows of the Opportunity Knocks ilk in a modern setting, Simon Cowell brought the world Britain’s Got Talent. As with his previous productions, the phone vote and outspoken judges dominated, but the prize itself wouldn’t have been out of place in anything from the 1960s. That of a spot on The Royal Variety Performance.

Britain’s Got Talent continues the bombast of other Syco TV productions, though eschews the South Bank Studios for city centre theatres and live venues (i.e The Palace Theatre, Manchester for the Northern heats). Instead of trying to rig the singles chart, the onus is on quirkiness and trying to find an act which would entertain both the Royal Family and her loyal subjects sat at home.

Spin-offs and derivatives: the Britain’s Got Talent format has since been rolled out to 21 countries including India and the Philipines as well as Australia.

Famous alumni: Susan Boyle.

S.V., 09 July 2010.

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6 thoughts on “UK Television Talent Shows Through the Ages: The Not So Perfect Ten

  1. Carrol Levis ran a legitimate talent show giving everyone off the street a chance to be seen and heard without personal contacts. Contestents were auditioned privately and the best chosen ones appeared in his variety shows relying on the audience for the best applause. There were no gimmicks or friques on the program, just genuine talent.

    1. Hi Henry,

      Many thanks for your recollection on the Carroll Levis programme. It was such a great contrast to today’s talent shows. Heck! Even Masterchef has gone all X Factor these days.

      Perhaps the same approach as Carroll Levis’ show may attract instead of deter viewers from staying loyal to the programme.

      Bye for now,

      Stuart.

  2. Can anybody out there remember the name of the group of male Harmonica Players from the 1960′s/70′s.
    I think there were either four or five of them. I think they were on one of the early Talent Spotting shows ? Opportunity Knocks or New Faces maybe.
    I seem to remember a large chap playing a massive harmonica about 2 feet long and the shortest member of the group playing a real tiny one.
    Whilst a musical act it tended to be more a comedy routine.

    1. The Morton Fraser Harmonica Gang.
      My brother tried to grow a beard and looked horribly like the “daft” one.He very quickly shaved it off.

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