Graham Norton is hosting a BBC1 show that is searching for the stars of a new musical theatre production. Have we woken up in 2006?
Over a decade ago, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria became the first in a quadruplet of BBC / Andrew Lloyd-Webber TV talent vehicles to find West End performers.
After 7.7 million people tuned in to see Connie Fisher win the role of Maria, Any Dream Will Do, I’d Do Anything and finally Over the Rainbow followed to find a Joseph, Nancy and Dorothy.
We had Lloyd-Webber in a giant throne, ridiculous themed outfits, singers eliminated via a flying moon and Graham Norton being completely outrageous and often borderline cruel. In short, it was bloody amazing.
Norton is now back hosting Let it Shine – the Gary Barlow show to find five boys to star in a new touring theatre production called The Band based on the music of Take That.
Initially, the opening sequence had all the hallmarks of hilarity. Barlow penned a four-minute mini musical about the perils of fame which included self-aware lyrics like “if it doesn’t work out then don’t worry / ‘cos they’ll find somebody else”. It also featured co-host Mel Giedroyc telling him to hurry up before the show started running into Casualty. Top marks.
But no sooner had the introductions been done and the judges took their place behind the desk, it started to feel like we were in all too familiar territory. Territory that is now the property of ITV.
With The Voice UK and Let it Shine going head-to-head in the schedules and launching on the same day, comparisons were always going to be inevitable. But, red chairs aside, they’re also made very easy to draw.
Gary Barlow, Dannii Minogue, Amber Riley and Martin Kemp are all about the positivity. Heck, even Mary Berry would be more critical of one of Candice’s lemon drizzles.
This is probably because the singers who have been invited to audition in Manchester are very good – some arguably too good (yep, Jason Brock, we’re looking at you). And those singers who are perhaps a little below par (trainee firefighter Jamie Ryan) have a brilliant personality and cheeky smile to make up for it.
It means you end up with four judges all delivering wholly positive / constructively critical comments to a studio audience. Remind you of anything? Perhaps the BBC were smarting a little too much after losing their big (and more to the point, only) singing show to ITV last year. Visually it’s also familiar ground… literally. Let it Shine was filmed at the same studios as The Voice UK at Salford’s MediaCity.
OK, so reverting to vintage Cowell levels of character assassination is not the best way to make great telly, granted. But with such a high standard of performers, there’s little room for discrepancies between the judges’ marking and the result is as middle of the road as a Gary Barlow album released just in time for Mother’s Day.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing actually wrong with Let it Shine. The glossy BBC1 talent show is a pleasurable hour and a half of TV, with good singers, a good judging panel and a good format. But that’s also sort of the problem. Everything is just kind of…good.
You know what you’re getting with Barlow and Minogue (just watch any episode of The X Factor from 2007 – 2013). Meanwhile Martin Kemp will make your mum smile with his unintentional hilarity, whether he’s revealing his score prematurely or drawing an analogy to which Graham Norton retorts: “Not sure I got that”. Remind you of anyone? (cough, will.i.am).
West End star and Glee actress Amber Riley brings some much-needed life, enthusiasm and emotion to the panel, so it’s a shame she’s only on the show for the first round. We have Lulu to, erm, look forward to for the second stage, whilst the guest judge for round three has yet to be confirmed.
Graham Norton and Mel Giedroyc’s irreverence is easily the best thing about the show. The duo are a genius pairing and are the most natural, watchable and enjoyable element of Let it Shine, taking the piss out of social media (“they’re platforming”) and out of Martin Kemp.
The Star Way is also an interesting innovation on the simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision format that’s been such a mainstay in TV talent shows, and gives a dose of jeopardy and suspension.
There was an added bonus with the rest of Take That popping up (we say the rest of Take That, there’s only two of them) and waiting in the wings to gee up the boys before and after they went on stage. Mark Owen and Howard Donald (wearing an H cap, just in case he forgets his name) were giving the double thumbs up and advising the lads on which way round to hold the microphone. Given that Barlow has said before that they’ll both be lurking on the show every week, it seems strange that more hasn’t been made of their involvement. This is sort of A Big Deal, right?
The thing is, though, it’s clear Let it Shine is yet to find its voice. It will need to choose whether to be a daft sing-a-long fest with contestants plonked in fancy dress and Barlow perched on a giant ‘TT’ chair, or a very earnest singing competition with teary mums and ‘This means everything to me’s.
Barlow has said that he’s looking for the 1992 version of Take That so hopefully, come the live shows, the last boys standing will be made to squeeze into those revolting crop tops and vests to reenact the Relight my Fire video. Now, that’d be entertainment.