There was a time on British Television when the talent show was an integral part of the British Saturday night. By the nineties, however, the talent show format of pulling hopeful musicians, comics and magicians from clubs, pubs and holiday camps and giving them a crack on the telly was all but dead and about to be put finally to rest by a new generation of Pop Idol and Fame Academy. Before it snuffed it there was one last hurrah in the mid-nineties, “Jonathan Ross’s Big, Big Talent Show”.
Sadly I was on it. I had been playing saxophone in various cheesy bands for quite a while (five years or more) and it was beginning to wear thin. I was not quite happy about the progression of my career. At first it had all gone pretty much to plan. I spent three years at Music College and then joined my first pro band. Only a Blues Brothers tribute band but everyone has to start somewhere. I remember being thrilled after playing my first gig, a nightclub in Wakefield one wet Wednesday night. In truth it was a shithole. There were bloodstains on the wall of the dressing room and, more bizarrely, Tom O’ Connor had scrawled an offensive message above the fireplace.
The next few years were spent mercilessly flogging the world of cabaret. Up and down the country in rented transits, playing working men’s clubs, dodgy nightclubs, caravan parks, weddings, student balls. This was supposed to have been only the first rung on the ladder to fame, but soon I was stuck. I thought a couple of years learning the ropes, paying my dues, then the call would come from UB40 or Sting needing a sax player and before long I would own an island in the Caribbean. If not Sting or UB40, at least Chumba bloody Wumba.
While others were soaring, I was stuck in cabaret hell. I played a holiday camp in King’s Lynn whose pre-show entertainment consisted of a sweaty middle-aged man wearing a plastic chicken suit, entertaining aggressive ten year olds. I played a solo lying on my back kicking my feet in the air like a dying fly, whilst children laughed at me. It wasn’t fair. I was an artist. I demanded to be taken seriously.
I left the Blues Brother’s tribute band, just before their moment of glory appearing on the 100th edition of Noel’s House Party (along with June Whitfield, Eddie Kidd and Frank Bruno). I was now playing with a cheesy rock’n’roll outfit from Mansfield. My first gig was on New Years Eve at a Mecca bingo hall. After that, things went downhill. Rock and roll clubs in dingy Working Men’s Clubs, Jive clubs, where the audience were solely intent on dancing and didn’t even acknowledge your presence, Elvis Weekenders at Pontins and holiday parks in North Wales. The average age of the crowd was about 55. I found the only way to survive was to view it with a detached irony, whilst drinking heavily and smoking enough dope to tranquillise an elephant. Introspection, I found, was best avoided.
I was getting desperate, but finally the call came. We had our big chance. We secured a place on prime time Saturday night telly. Jonathan Ross’ ‘Big Talent Show’. This was it!
The first obstacle occurred during rehearsal. We had to go through our number a few times while the crew timed the piece and worked out camera shots etc. The problem was our drummer, a balding middle aged Italian, who had tremendous difficulty keeping a steady tempo. What would start at a brisk yet relaxed beat would, by the end of the song, have reached an almost manic speed and intensity. By the fifth attempt, he was pouring with sweat. In the end they gave up and decided to trust luck. We retired to the pub ready for the recording the next day.
Sometimes I despise London. The pub we went to had a band playing. It soon became deflatingly obvious that they were better than we were. They managed to finish their numbers at about the same pace they had started them for one. I started to get a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. A little voice kept telling me that this experience was going to prove the humiliating final nail in my career, impossible to ever live down. Up until then, most of my friends had never seen the band and so I could retain a shred of dignity and pretence. Now I was going on national telly, this would be blown to pieces along with my credibility. But it was too late. I had to do it. I was desperate.
By the next morning, we had picked ourselves up and were psychologically ready. We had met and heard the competition and weren’t that impressed. There was a sour woman from South Wales who obviously thought she was something special, a really bad, but friendly illusionist couple and a gangly comedienne from the black country whose act involved playing comedy clarinet. I was starting to feel a little more confident. This was my ticket out of this life. Did Sting watch “The Big Big Talent Show?”
Then, in the middle of the sour cow’s rehearsal, Charlotte Church made her television debut and I knew we were fucked. Then a podgy kid, she was doing a little guest spot as she happened to be the Welsh singer’s niece. Looking about nine, she filled the studio with this huge, angelic voice. To make matters worse, her Aunt’s song, which had sounded pretty unimpressive when backed by a guitar, now had the benefit of being accompanied by the BBC studio band, which rather filled it out. We were next and our sound seemed even tinnier than usual.
Come show time and we had changed into our showaddywaddy style zoot suits, made especially for the occasion. They were huge in a putrid shade of yellow. Jonathan Ross introduced us and we were away. About half way through I had to run to the front of the stage and get down on my knees to play a raunchy solo. Although only about two and a half minutes long, the song seemed to last about 2 and a half hours. Finally thank God, it was over.
I knew we hadn’t won and needed a drink badly. We hightailed it to the bar and necked a couple of lagers. Having downed two pints in ten minutes I felt a little uninhibited. All of the acts were lined up on stage to receive the verdict. I was on the end of the line nearest to Jonathan and his sidekick, Gary Bushell who were sat in Armchairs. Their conversation went something like this:
“So Gary, what did you think of the Wock and Wollers?”
“Dated Jonathan, very dated. They made a big mistake doing a non-original number.”
“But they did an original number”
“Oh fuck, we’ll have to do that again”
“So Gary, what did you think of the Wock and Wollers?”
“Dated Jonathan, very dated. They made a big mistake doing an original number”
I was outraged and started to mouth obscenities at him. He carried on mercilessly slagging us off while we stood there with desperate forced smiles for the camera. The worst thing was everything he was saying was true. We were crap and everybody knew it. But being told this by Gary Bushell was somehow hard to take.
The woman from the black country with the clarinet won. We went back to where we
belonged. I have never seen the programme and never want to. Showbusiness. Fuck it.