Britain’s Got Talent: semi-final one

We go behind the scenes of the first live semi-final this year

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It wouldn’t have mattered if there’d been a hundred angelic pop toting choirboys or an entire legion of BMX bandits on stage last night – the biggest cheer of the evening was always going to be reserved for Simon Cowell.

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After what’s been a difficult few weeks for the media mogul in America, the sartorially gifted Cowell couldn’t have looked more comfortable as he settled down into his seat and casually draped an arm around Amanda Holden. He was home now; the nation’s talent shows were safe once again.

I must admit, after my last foray into audience membership (see video below), I wasn’t expecting to be invited back to The Fountain Studios, let alone seated where I could potentially be seen on camera again. Acutely aware that nose picking was off-limits for the next hour and a half, I settled down a few rows behind the judges to the first live semi-final of 2011.

The most striking thing about being in the studio is its size. Although on television, the BGT set looks like a cavernous arena, it is in fact not much bigger than a medium-sized petrol station forecourt.

You can’t help but feel part of the show, because you are on top of the show… something that is rather disconcerting when the first act involves a liberal smattering of fire and accelerant.

Aloft a giant metal scaffold, scantily clad fire gorging temptresses, Girls Roc, set the spectacular tone for the evening. They wowed the studio audience with their 21st century interpretation of what Celebrity Squares might look like if it was remade by ITV in hell.

Despite an impressive performance garnering a well-deserved partial standing ovation (commonplace amongst the BGT punters), it was a studio runner who undoubtedly displayed the most talent with his un-gloved handling of five burning torches into the corner of the studio, where he proceeded to extinguish them valiantly without recourse to a fire extinguisher.

How do you top that? I’ll tell you – with an ad break and then a couple of dancing dogs, that’s how.

After watching Simon Cowell greet David Hasselhoff’s daughters and then play with Amanda Holden’s Blackberry, Ant and Dec welcomed 11 million odd people back to our little Wembley soirée and Donelda Guy took to the stage.

It’s easy when you’re at home to be sceptical about such acts. Perhaps this homo-canine threesome is the product of clever camera trickery. It’s not. Those dogs really do deserve a pat on the back.

Despite the best efforts of bizarre Terminator karaoke clone, Stuart Arnold, to bring us down, spirits remained high in the cheap seats.

Paul Gbegbaje’s three-minute musical mash-up was certainly accomplished, but in my mind lacked any genuine flair. The crowd disagreed with me and went nuts… I guess that’s why Gary Barlow got the call for The X Factor and not me.

Personally, I was far more enamoured with Bruce Sistaz, a musical martial arts combo from the fair county of Essex. Their high-kicking, metal pole-spinning gymnastics had me on the edge of my seat… partially because I half expected to get said steel rod in my face at any moment. The risk assessments on this show must be essays.

Cue two more risks…

There was Ted, a 92-year-old man who risked perplexing the audience to death with his act. Why he was singing with his 21-year-old granddaughter, Grace, was no clearer at the end of the performance than the beginning.

Partially deaf and obviously a little confused by the whole experience, old Ted did his best to hit his cues, but sadly the musical result was worse than a Cheryl Cole B-side.

Equally risky were the daredevil antics of Joe Oakley, a BMX stunt rider who had gone down the more traditional route of nearly killing himself to get on the telly.

There’s no doubt if you’d seen what we’d seen in the studio, you would have voted Joe through to the final. His incredible command of the bike, even at towering heights and balanced on rickety pieces of scaffold, ensured Joe received the second most rapturous ovation of the evening.

But, of course, the best was reserved for last.

Cutting a tiny and lonely figure against the empty stage, little 12-year-old Ronan Parke sang Make You Feel My Love, the Bob Dylan song popularised in recent times by Adele.

From the moment he opened his mouth, it was clear he was the winner. Ronan may look like the anti-Susan Boyle, but in fact he, just like BGT’s biggest success story, has the same talent show genes required to become a star.

There’s a reason 11.3 million people tuned in to last night’s show. It’s the same reason I enjoyed being in the studio so much. This is because Britain’s Got Talent live (just like its X Factor cousin) has an infectious energy about it, filled with characters you want to love, or love to hate.

Where Mr Cowell fits into that dynamic is hard to say. On the one hand, the crowd enjoyed booing him, but then again, he was the only judge they positively cheered when he left the studio at the end. One thing is for sure, the people are glad to have him back…

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And with ratings on the rise, it looks like there’s only going to be one guaranteed winner every night this week – and he won’t be on the stage…