“I can breathe out of my left eye,” boasts BBC Radio 5 Live presenter Richard Bacon. “There seems to be some sort of pathway between my nose and my eye. I discovered it at school when I used to try and disguise my laughing in class. I’d hold my nose and this squeak would come out of my left eye.”
“It’s hard to build a whole career out of your left eye,” he says, mock-sorrowfully.
Perhaps. But Bacon would be a top-notch candidate in Britain’s Got Talent, where dancing dogs and Dalek impersonations are light relief amid the brain-numbing parade of Leona Lewis wannabes. What he wouldn’t qualify for is his new Channel 4 show, Hidden Talent. Nor would the dancing dogs.
“It’s the antithesis of other talent shows,” explains Bacon, his enthusiasm palpable. “Take Britain’s Got Talent or X Factor: people go along who are largely delusional; who think they’ve got this ability to sing that they haven’t actually got and who are dying to be famous.
“People came to our show not thinking they were better at something than they are, not wanting to be famous; they came along because they wanted to try and realise their potential.”
Last May, 800 people attended auditions around the country for they knew not what. Every one of them was tested in nine disciplines encompassing physical, mental, sensory and creative talents. The top ten in each discipline were then selected, tested again and whittled down to one. The best of the bunch – who had no idea they possessed this talent, never mind any experience – were then set a momentous challenge.
“With other talent shows, they essentially cast them,” points out Bacon, who clearly has very little time for Dalek impersonations and Leona Lewis-alikes. “They audition people off camera and if they are borderline mentally ill they go, ‘right, you’re on, get in there’. But with our show, we couldn’t cast them: whoever was the best became the person that we focused on.”
There may be no heavily contrived sob stories but there are some astonishing results. 19-year-old James was living in a homeless shelter when he attended the auditions in Birmingham. He dropped out of school at an early age and had only ever been abroad once – to Spain when he was ten. Imagine his surprise when the tests reveal he’s a gifted linguist.
Within months he learns to speak and write Arabic – one of the most challenging languages to master – fluently. “We took him to Jordan and put him on Jordan’s answer to This Morning,” chuckles Bacon. “He spoke to Jordan’s Holly Willoughby live for 20 minutes on mid-morning television.”
Then there’s Maggie: an unsporty grandma who exhibits an aptitude for rock-climbing. Within weeks she’s shinnying up the Old Man of Stoer, a perilous 200ft sea stack off the coast of Scotland that makes climbers with decades of experience quake.
Another chap, who works in a tractor factory in Essex and who had never set foot in a gallery in his life, displays an extraordinary sensitivity to art. He’s challenged to distinguish a real Monet from a very accomplished fake – a task that would defeat many a Monet expert.
Meanwhile, a retired wedding boutique owner is flown to Florida to be trained up by the FBI after revealing a superhuman ability to detect lies. “If MI5 doesn’t hire her this week, they are missing out,” declares her mentor, ex-FBI agent Jack Schaeffer.
“It’s the most interesting project I’ve ever worked on,” enthuses Bacon, who clearly has high hopes for the show. “I think it taps into dreams that many of us have; that you could suddenly be really good at something. We’ve all thought ‘I’d love to play the piano but I can’t be bothered to spend years practicing.’ The people we found here go from a standing start to being incredibly proficient in no time at all.”
Hidden Talent doesn’t just promise to be a welcome antidote to the Britain’s Got Talent treadmill. Bacon hopes teachers and educators will be tuning in, too – “I think it’s a really good idea to do it in schools. These tests are quite scientific.”
As well as algebra and physics, perhaps one day in the not too distant future schoolchildren will also be tested on their ability to detect lies and spot fakes.
And if Bacon were to possess a hidden talent, what would he want it to be? Does he yearn to be an Olympic sprinter or a gifted musician, maybe?
“I’d love to be able to tap-dance really proficiently,” confesses Bacon. “I was watching The Artist thinking ‘God, I’d love to be able to do that.’ It looks so exciting.”
Hidden Talent is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.
Discover your hidden talent at Channel4.com