BBC4 does have form when it comes to talent shows. Although outside the rarefied world of the Cardiff Singer of the World and Young Musician competitions, this new series has more in common with a Simon Cowell-helmed talent pool dredge.
But instead of a young hairdresser from Pontypool dreaming of Cowell turning her into the next Beyoncé, we have her granddad in a band that supported the Who. And because this is BBC4, there is no huge cash prize, recording contract or opportunity to perform in front of the royal family. As host Rhod Gilbert tells us gleefully, the winner will get “F*** all!”
In common with the Cowell juggernauts, for the auditions Gilbert travels around the country in a battered Transit van (so not much in common with Simon there) hearing bands who play together once they’ve finished their day jobs. The best five get to perform in regional heats, where two are put through to the final.
This week he’s accompanied by Midge Ure on an epic road trip to judge bands in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Along the way they hear Scottish ska, Irish bluegrass and Welsh rock from the aforementioned band that supported the Who in 1966 —Rhod jokes they have a combined age of 850.
That’s one of the winning aspects of the series, the irreverent humour of not just Rhod, but also Midge Ure (surely he’s too arty and pretentious in a mac, trilby and wispy moustache to joke around?) and the musicians they meet. As none of them rely on their music for their wages, the bands all have a fun-loving approach to it. There are no artful musos here — sorry Midge.
It’s the bonhomie, passion and musicianship that Rhod and Midge find among bands that can’t make a decent living from music that leads the latter to rant about the wider industry being “hijacked by…mediocrity”. Are you listening, Mr Cowell?
Yet, in common with Mr Cowell, this series is turning art into a competition — trying to pit the subjective judgements of Midge Ure, Peter Hook and Jazzie B against each other. In later episodes you’ll be able to guess at least one of the bands Hooky and Jazzie put through to the final, just based on their musical heritage. And its short run suggests it’s not that interested in being a decent showcase of the sort of bands who play the back room at your local pub.
And finally, if you do think Vienna is the height of 80s indulgent twaddle about nothing — does it mean nothing to you? — Midge reveals the rather banal meaning behind the lyrics. That’s pop gold, right there.
UK’s Best Part-Time Band starts tonight at 9pm on BBC4