It's that time of year again - when Simon Cowell and ITV attempt to convince us of the merits of good old-fashioned variety. A week of primetime commercial television like no other: a celebration of British eccentricity, offering a voice to those, who for the other 51 weeks a year, are rarely heard.
But while you struggled to decide which possesses more intrinsic talent, a performing canine or a malodorous man with a five-octave voice, you missed some proper undiscovered talent.
That's because Channel 4 has once again pulled a blinder with an understated talent show format you shouldn't miss.
Students of modern television will be familiar with the groundbreaking Faking It (2000–2006) - if you liked that whole Pygmalion thing, you won't struggle to understand and enjoy Hidden Talent.
The new show, fronted by sartorial genius Richard Bacon, attempts to hide its true identity behind a veil of pseudo-science. But its simple aim, which is to develop a hidden talent in an unlikely candidate, is both familiar and welcome.
Whereas Faking It would attempt to transform the subject into a “polar opposite” (eg painter and decorator to fine artist), Hidden Talent uses a series of aptitude tests as its device to find a likely candidate. The result is a fascinating and often emotional journey into the depths of the human spirit.
Last night's episode focused on a 19-year-old man, James Whinnery, who lived in a homeless hostel. His quest? Learning to speak fluent Arabic in just 19 weeks. Laced with more drama and emotion than Simon Cowell could get into a whole series of BGT, the hour-long show detailed James's struggle with the practicalities of retaining 100 new words a day, challenging his own inner demons and the reality of moving to the Middle East when the furthest he’d ever been from home before was a family holiday to Spain as a child.
Here stood a vulnerable yet determined young man, willing to overcome these fears in order to better himself. There was no karaoke, no greasepaint and no spotlight – just talent and resolve on display. He didn’t want to be famous for the sake of it, he wasn’t after a large cash prize or the right to perform in front of the royals or their loyal subjects – he just wanted to do something better with his life.
Because the viewer was allowed to spend a whole hour with James, we were given a chance to become emotionally attached to him and his task. Unlike BGT, where the contestants come and go so quickly - or The X Factor (and The Voice) where the hopefuls are constantly battling against one another for attention - this was a very personal and deeply moving film.
When it came to James's final task – to be interviewed for 20-minutes live on the Jordanian equivalent of Daybreak in Arabic – the viewer was left teetering on the edge of their seat, willing him to succeed.
Of course, James Whinnery chose to be on television, went to an audition and agreed to be filmed. He allowed his personal life to be profiled, and the makers of the show used his troubled background as emotional fuel to drive the episode on. But the way in which his talent came to the fore still seemed so refreshingly innocent and honest against a backdrop of big-budget talent shows.
Hidden Talent is a back-to-basics talent show – much like its predecessor Faking It, which concentrates on the subject and their talent above the “noise” of the show around it. It’s a refreshing antidote to all-things shiny-floored.
BBC1 and ITV1 could learn a lot from this simple, yet exceptionally well executed show. After all, when the laughter stops, when the audience has left, when the make-up is removed – what is left of the clown?
Hidden Talent is on Tuesdays at 9pm on Channel 4