'The Talent Show Story', a series screened on British TV in early 2012 tells – quote - 'How the Talent Show came to dominate Saturday Night TV'. Well it’s Saturday night, and we’re between seasons of 'X Factor' and 'Britain’s Got Talent', so if there are none in the ratings right now, then why not make a Saturday night show about talent shows?
You can’t talk about TV talent shows without the debate being dominated, like the rest of TV generally, by Simon Cowell and there are some real gems on this show. There’s a weird clip from a 1990 UK edition of TV game show 'Sale of the Century', when the off screen announcer introduces - ‘Our second challenger, a record company director from London. He enjoys watching motor racing, and is a keen go-cart racer. Please welcome Simon Cowell!'
With his off white ‘English’ (aka normal!) teeth, and an urbane look reminiscent of Hugh Grant minus the uptight angst, the young Cowell inevitably won star prize. To the immortal words ‘Let’s go shopping’, he was ushered behind a golden screen into the presence of a red sports car, and into the lifelong pursuit of fortune and fame.
They say nothing is new under the sun, and here Cowell reveals that in his youth he was inspired by music-biz supremos, record producer Mickey Most and songwriter Tony Hatch, from the judging panel of 70s/80s UK TV talent show, ‘New Faces . ‘I really looked up to Mickey Most, and I thought they were both hilarious judges.’ Dubbed ‘The Hatchet Man’ by the 1970’s British tabloids, Tony Hatch caused a stir by, as he explains - ‘just being honest. Sometimes I had to be smuggled out the back door after the show.’
Louis Walsh, X Factor judge tells us ‘Simon was always a good A&R man, he always sold records.’ He also knew that television made stars. Robson and Gerome, actors from 90s TV drama ‘Soldier Soldier’ gave Cowell his biggest ever hit. He saw them sing on the show, signed them up to record Unchained Melody, and made a fortune.
Not long after in the year 2000, and in a rare moment when his uncanny business instincts failed him, Simon Cowell turned down the chance to be a judge on 'popstars', a new TV singing talent show. It was a huge success. ‘We had to get it off the air and quick,’ says Cowell. ‘My competitors had the recording rights and it was actually making me feel sick.’
Together with former Spice Girls manager Simon Fuller, he created 'Pop Idol'. Cowell made his prime time TV judging debut in late 2001, and with such choice phrases as ‘Without being unkind, you will never in a billion years be a pop star’, he became more famous than all of the competitors put together. Soon whether or not to be unkind was no longer a consideration – more a career choice. The viewers just loved him. ‘How can I improve my voice?’ asks one erstwhile singer. ‘Pray for a miracle,’ responds Simon. Another asks ‘Which aspects particularly didn’t you like?’ Simon answers ‘The beginning, middle and end.’ So just like that, a star is born, and the show was a record breaking success.
When Pop Idol headed to America in 2002, Simon was worried. ‘The American market is very difficult to crack,’ he explained. In 'American Idol' he was if anything, worse. ‘Imagine a bag with 9 cats in being dropped into boiling water. Mieouww!!’ he said to one girl. Paula Abdul was not amused. ‘Shall I hit him for you?’ she asks. She told him to shut up. She told him ‘You can’t do this in America.’ His reply? ‘Yes I can’. And he did. The American viewing public loved him. The rest, as they say, is history.
Fresh from causing an on-screen sensation in America as judge of American Idol, Simon wanted a slice of the action for himself. His next foray into Saturday night entertainment was his new creation 'X Factor' – basically 'Pop Idol' but with the judges as well as the singers competing against each other, and in 2012 his stab at world broadcast domination carries on. 'Britain’s Got Talent', Series 6 is on soon this year. 'Britain’s Got Talent' is the biggest variety show on TV.
According to Cowell he just wanted to find a good dog. After all, Britain is a nation of animal lovers. In 1973 Harold Gum and his singing dog Jack won the TV talent show daddy of them all, Opportunity Knocks.
‘I live to find a dog that can play an instrument. I’m imagining the album sleeve and booking this dog. I will find it one day or I will die trying.’ Cowell tells us, and there’s a great clip of a contestant on the show telling the audience ‘My dog Laica strums the guitar.’
‘Are you serious?’ says Simon, perking up and looking excited – you can almost hear his tail wagging. 'Simon! Her dog plays the guitar!' says fellow judge, Amanda Holden, getting all excited.
Laica wears a scarf round her doggy neck that looks like a bandage, and her technique consists of sitting down and yawning while her owner grabs a paw and assaults the guitar strings with it. Simon is seriously disappointed.
‘I was watching a TV talent show called Fame Academy, and for some reason remember thinking ‘I’d actually like now to watch a dog act. I don’t know where this idea came from but I thought if I would, then someone else would. I was a fan of variety shows Opportunity Knocks and New Faces, and to be able to update that tradition, really was a buzz,’ Simon tells us. He produced a pilot show for ITV, which featured Piers Morgan and himself as judges.
‘ITV didn’t want it, nobody wanted it, but somebody from NBC in America heard I was making a pilot, met with me in LA and literally bought the show in the room. When 'America’s Got Talent' was doing well in America, I sold the show back to England.’
In 2007, when the inaugural episode of 'Britain’s Got Talent' hit the road, 50,000 people in the UK were desperate to take part. ‘Everyone in Britain thinks they have a secret talent. Most of them are wrong.’ Says Piers Morgan.
Like the talent shows of yesteryear, anything went. The red buzzers and big crosses (though Simon seems to think they were his idea) were actually cribbed from The Gong Show, a TV talent show in 1970s America. Judges used a giant gong and a mallet – with a red blob on the end of it – to express disapproval. Rather than being pelted with rotten tomatoes, this was the new way to say ‘Gerroff!’
‘If Simon could lower people into a bowl of tarantulas, he’d probably do it.’ Says Morgan. Not that he's jealous, or anything.