I’ll be honest, my motives for investigating Gary Barlow’s talent show Let It Shine were in part borne of my dislike for manufactured pop groups and TV programmes of this type. Music is a form of artistic expression, and can only really be true when people come together themselves to produce it – and there are more than enough trained actors out there, fighting for roles. Why bring untrained and inexperienced people in when this is the case? And what is the fascination with making what is essentially a job interview into entertainment? This is not the first programme of its kind, and is unlikely to be the last (Barlow, for one, is rumoured to be planning a second series), but that doesn’t mean it should pass without comment.
So I decided the only way to fairly add my voice to the debate was to watch the programme; nobody could then call me out for making a snap judgement on something I hadn’t contextualised. Honestly, the things I put myself through for this blog!
On the face of it, it’s everything I hate about talent shows: rowdy audiences, gimmick overload and clichés galore. As well as the obligatory judging panel. Headed by Barlow, its other two permanent members are Dannii Minogue and Martin Kemp. Both have had careers in music and acting – whilst they have been involved in stage shows, they are largely known for other projects. Dannii, in particular, continually showed her ignorance of how theatre works, with one shocking comment in the semifinals. She took her position of power (being on a prime time TV show) to very publicly demean understudies, saying this of Iron Sun’s performance:
I was absolutely incensed by this, having seen some spectacular understudies in my time, and given the furore over Sheridan Smith and Glenn Close missing shows last year. Thoughtless, insensitive comments from a woman who is not fit to pass comment on a subject she clearly knows very little about.
Throughout the audition stage they were joined by Amber Riley, who at least comes from more of a musical acting background (currently making her West End debut in Dreamgirls). Whilst she wasn’t always the most insightful, I felt she had the most credibility in terms of judging potential musical theatre stars. Following that there was a new guest judge each week: Lulu, Ricki Lake, Ashley Roberts and Peter Kay (Robbie Williams was due to be the final judge but pulled out in bizarre circumstances). The only one who could provide decent, constructive comments was Ashley Roberts in ‘dance break week’. Ricki Lake could only muster hyperbolic and generic comments, I can’t remember a thing Lulu did, and Peter Kay was just plain ridiculous.
They would have been better off having a cardboard cutout in the fourth seat. As well as not being worth their fee, having a revolving door of guest judges meant there couldn’t be consistency in the judging process – as these are people’s careers on the line you’d think that’s the least they were owed.
In many cases, if any criticism was given (and it was generally pretty constructive, to give the judges some due) the audience would immediately start booing. How are the auditionees supposed to get better if they can’t hear the comments? The amount of screaming that went on was also incredibly irritating (it’s a phenomenon I’ve never really understood) – hosts Mel Giedroyc and Graham Norton often had to shout over them as they wouldn’t shut up, and their reactions were (obviously) out of proportion to how technically good the performances were.
Something else that bothers me about this process is that the musical they auditioned for was shrouded in mystery until 10 minutes before the end of the final show. All that was previously known was that it’s a jukebox musical featuring Take That’s music but not telling their story. In actual fact, it is about a group of 16 year old girls, and the band will be soundtracking their lives – the show is being co-directed by former EastEnders actor Jack Ryder and will contain 14 songs. What will be under the most scrutiny is the book; most new musicals have not been up to scratch in this regard, choosing to use dialogue to simply lead up to the next song rather than tell a meaningful story (Beautiful and All or Nothing are good examples).
The selection process seems to have been overcomplicated. Initially contestants auditioned individually, with the best 40 progressing and the next best five kept as reserves. From then on they were grouped together, first in eights and then in the traditional fives. One thing Barlow emphasised was that he wanted to believe in them as a band, so it is quite logical to put them together and begin the process. However, once eliminations began, it was back to individuals being put in the spotlight and groups being reconfigured depending on who was left. Sure, this gave the judges a chance to retain the best talent, but it then makes a mockery of them being put into bands in the first place – and where does that leave weak links who’ve survived by virtue of being in the most popular bands? This was another lack of consistency to further mar the process. It did seem like the rules were being made up as they went along, and it wasn’t completely clear whether the public would be voting for bands or individuals come the final.
Gary Barlow made a big thing about the importance of their vocal and dancing skills, as well as wanting to see band unity, but I don’t think acting ability came into it. Y’know, that thing people are all supposed to do in theatre. They had choreographers and vocal coaches for each stage, but no acting sessions. It took until the semifinals for acting to be acknowledged, with them visiting a West End theatre and being given advice by resident stars – and the final saw them take on a modern musical theatre song to supposedly give them an idea about having to tell a story onstage (I didn’t get that at all). As far as I could tell, there were around 12 actors who got to the audition stage (picked from thousands of applicants) and only five made the final – none of them ended up in the winning band (Five To Five). I’m not saying this is only something that happens in TV talent shows (All or Nothing recently put out a casting call that said acting experiences for the lead role wasn’t essential), but it does set a bad precedent. What’s the point of having people train for years at drama school if an apprentice mechanic can be picked to do the job instead?
And I couldn’t not mention the mandatory feature of this type of show: the public vote. This is people’s jobs on the line, their future careers – and the true talents could be at risk of not getting what they deserve because another band is slightly prettier. Seriously. Personally, I was only impressed by a few of them, and they were all trained musical theatre actors. They would consistently sing in tune, for one thing…
So the eventual winners were Five To Five (Nick, Curtis, AJ, Sario and Yazdan). The Band will begin its life by touring, and they will be in the starring roles. However, understudies will be required (Nick injured himself simply by going through the audition process, so…) and how those parts will be filled is yet to be announced. Would you want to take that on if you were one of the losing bands? Or would a trained musical theatre actor happily understudy a talent show winner? Rehearsals supposedly started today, around six months before the show opens in Manchester, so we will just have to wait and see.