M.J. Simpson ventures forth as a contestant in Britain’s biggest TV talent show.
Like many people, I emerged from the lockdowns determined to carpe diem and actually do stuff I’d been saying I would do one day. Prime among those ideas was to do a stand-up comedy show at Leicester Comedy Festival.
Way, way back in 1987 my teenage stand-up ‘career’ included two open mics at the Comedy Store, Leicester Square. The first went down a storm. The second, identical material, laid an egg. Discouraged, I did a few more odd gigs then moved on. In 2018, a bizarre set of circumstances that I’ll tell you about one day led to me thinking I should give the old stand-up another go, at least once, to see if I still had it. The result (after a pandemic pause) was a one-off show at my local comedy fest. It went quite well. I felt vindicated.
Thus was born #2022TheYearOfMike, a twelvemonth in which I did all manner of interesting and exciting things. One of which was: I applied for Britain’s Got Talent.
BGT is the big name in talent shows. The X-Factor ended in 2018. The Voice has gone and come back. But BGT has been running annually since 2007 and shows no sign of stopping. Here is what happens if you apply.
The actual online application is very basic. It’s literally just contact details, a photo and selecting what sort of act you have (and how many people are involved) from a menu. If you apply to a quiz or game show, there are usually at least three screens of questions, some specific, some open-ended. But BGT doesn’t want much more than your phone and email.
Eventually, an email came through, inviting me to audition at ExCel in London. I booked a train and overnight accommodation and told everyone (including Mrs S) that I couldn’t say why I was going to London, not wanting to get anyone’s hopes up.
A week or two beforehand, I received another email, a more personalised one, asking me to call a number and ask for someone by name once I arrived at ExCel. This was intriguing since it obviously wasn’t something they sent to everyone. I can only assume they picked me out because of my somewhat eccentric appearance (and they get far fewer stand-up comedians than, say, singers or dance troupes).
ExCel is, of course, a vast, soul-less conference centre on the edge of the Thames. Sitting waiting for my contact, I saw an interesting range of people go past, including lots of kids with parents in tow, musicians carrying assorted instruments and at least one full-on drag queen. Eventually, I located my contact and was ushered past a large queue of walk-in auditionees into one of the halls, where I was deposited on a row of chairs.
I have to say that all the BGT staff I interacted with were a joy to be around. Given the vast logistics of the operation, it could easily become a nightmare but everything was managed with commendable (and friendly) efficiency.
A troupe of small girls were practising dance routines to my left. Next to them a juggler was performing. I figured I should also have a quick rehearsal of my two-minute act. This was some observations on why and how people make their bathroom look like the seaside, a repurposed bit from the Comedy Festival gig. I had rewritten it, tightening it up and slowing it down, but nobody had heard it except my own bedroom mirror. I had stuck in an extra gag the previous night.
So I stood in a corner, performing to the wall. On turning round I found two dance troupe mums watching me.
“Are you rehearsing?”
“What do you do? What’s your act?”
“Ooh, would you like an audience? We could do with a laugh.”
So they gathered a few more mums and I did my shtick for an actual live audience for only the second time, and bless them, they really did enjoy it, giving me a tremendous fillip.
That, if anything, was my takeaway from BGT. Genuine mutual support and enthusiasm from and to literally everyone there. Everyone was excited, everyone was having a great day out. And everyone wanted everyone else to do well. There were no divas or egos.
At this point, I was taken to an area in the centre of the hall that was bedecked with balloons, streamers, flags, glitter, giant BGT letters and at least one grand piano. About 200 or so people were here, sitting in small groups but freely moving around. I met singers, dancers, magicians and impressionists of all ages and background, together with supportive relatives. Notwithstanding the absence of food and drink, this felt like a party – and that was the atmosphere they were keen to cultivate.
Roaming cameras picked out people, or runners invited people to be filmed in various locations. With my somewhat flamboyant attire and distinctive moustache, I was picked up a couple of times. They filmed me sitting in a folding chair, adjusting my ‘tache and hat in front of a mirror. And they filmed me walking through a curtain into the room, marvelling at the colour and movement all around me. They filmed a whole bunch of other people doing the same thing of course.
We were there for a good couple of hours. What this was about, of course, was getting footage for interstitial clips and other screen-fillers of ‘backstage’. After some time, they requested everybody get up and dance and whoop with joy in front of a camera on a crane. I think I was beyond the edge of the camera’s field of view, but you might just catch me on the far left if watching in widescreen. Handheld cameras stalked among the assembled wannabes while this was happening.
Eventually, I was called forward, along with a Croatian impressionist and a Malaysian magician with his support team, and we progressed to another hall upstairs. Here we sat with maybe 200-300 other people, split into two groups: singers (maybe two-thirds of those present) and everyone else. Once again, we waited, while entire dance classes of ten-year-olds in sparkly leotards practised their poses and jumps.
It was all very convivial and supportive and no one grumbled about the interminable waiting. We would all get a turn, all get the same opportunity. In the meantime, we entertained ourselves. My new Malaysian and Croatian friends absolutely loved an old routine of mine about how you can judge a language’s difficulty before learning it based on how many words it has for ‘the’. Everyone there was rooting for everyone else, even though we could all see the obvious series winners sitting two rows back. I mean, what chance does anybody stand this year against a group of Ukrainian folk dancers? Might as well give them the prize now.
Gradually, we shuffled forward, row by row. All the singers were taken first, then the rest of us. Eventually (seem to be using that word a lot) I was taken upstairs, along with a 13-year-old girl (and her mum) who was, very ambitiously, planning to do solo improv comedy.
We were sat in a corridor, off which were several audition rooms. People came and went. The runners kept track of who was who and going where. The process was explained to us thus: when called, you go into the designated room, where sits a producer. You will have a brief chat and then present your act. You will get an instant yes or no. In the case of a yes, which is really a maybe, you will be given a golden ticket and taken to another room where you will do exactly the same routine for a camera.
That’s how it works. It comes down to one person, sitting behind a desk (with an assistant beside them). An instant no or maybe. No second chances, no pleading, no camera, no judges, no Ant and Dec. One shot. After hours of waiting.
Which is, frankly, understandable. They have to process thousands of people, many of whom are terrible, many of whom are quite good. They say no to almost everyone. If they think there’s a possibility, you get the golden ticket and get videoed. Several thousand hopefuls are whittled down to a few hundred.
Once the whole two days of auditioning have been and gone, the producers get together and review all those videos. From those meetings, they compile a list of acts for the eight programmes that make up the first round of the TV show. They are looking not just for talent but for entertainment value, and striving for a good range of all factors: age, race, gender, geography, ability and type of act. A few hundred acts are thereby further whittled down to a few score.
Of course, every single auditionee in ExCel that weekend thought they had the potential to make it onto the TV show. I was no exception. And although almost everyone was unsuccessful – in the hour or so I sat in that corridor, I literally saw one act with a golden ticket: a very excited boy/girl dance act – the whole day is such an amazing experience that people aren’t disappointed. (I suppose over the course of the two days there’s probably the occasional arrogant knobhead who thinks they’re being denied their big break, but I didn’t see any.)
Of course, even getting on the stage of the TV show doesn’t guarantee television exposure. More acts are judged and filmed than you see on telly. I’ve seen comments on Twitter from someone who got four yeses and was still cut entirely from the broadcast edit. Though he did appear briefly in footage shot in the streamers-and-balloons filled, fake ‘backstage’ hall, so he now puts “As seen on BGT” in his bio!
Then, as you probably all know, those who get three or four yeses are further whittled down by a judges conflab, with only the five Golden Buzzer recipients guaranteed a place in the semis and thus a chance of being in the final and coming second to a Ukrainian dance troupe. At every stage in the process perfectly good, genuinely talented acts are dropped.
Does it matter if that bored producer, sat in a room in ExCel, watching an endless series of optimistic and/or deluded wannabe stars, makes a misjudgement and passes on a potential winner? No, not at all. They don’t need to find the winner, they need to eliminate all the easy-no acts, and all the maybes to be honest, and just find enough acts to potentially fill the semi-finals, plus some more for the first round. Every year there will be more than enough really fantastic acts (and bizarre oddities) to fill up all the TV spaces. If an absolutely world-class act gets accidentally dropped at the first or second stage without getting anywhere near the theatre, no big deal, they will be back next year.
So – eventually – after a couple in traditional Bolivian dance outfits had done their thing, it was my turn. I told the producer a little bit about the Comedy Store in 1987 and Leicester Comedy Festival, then did my bathroom/seaside routine. The producer and her assistant laughed a bit, then she said she liked my energy but what I needed to do was work on the act for a few years, then collect together my best gags and come back. Which rankled a little, because my act isn’t a collection of gags, it’s themed routines of observational comedy, but I honestly didn’t mind or care. As with almost everyone else there, my only chance of progressing as far even as the videoing was if I happened to just strike the right producer in the right way at the right time. It’s a lottery, as much as anything.
With no golden ticket, it was goodbye and good luck to improv girl and her mum, and straight out of Excel to the DLR and the journey home. All told, I’d been in the aircraft hangar for about seven hours.
So that’s what happens if you audition for BGT. Am I glad I did it? Absolutely. I met some lovely people and had a whale of a time. Did I seriously expect to progress through the competition? Not really, but you can’t ever say no. You have to be, as the phrase goes, in it to win it. Would I do it again? Not sure. Maybe. I do have this great routine about corner yoghurts which they might like.
And next year, there will be no bloody Ukrainian folk dancers.
And that, I thought, was that. Until a few months later (after the TV shows had been filmed) when I received a phone call. Could I travel down to London to take part in some filming for the opening sequence of the first show in the new series? Well, I wasn’t going to say no.
The first show usually starts with a filmed song and dance number (I think – I mostly watch the programme as YouTube clips, to be honest) so I assumed they wanted me as part of a crowd. But when I got to the London Palladium front entrance, bedecked with BGT banners, I discovered it was just me they wanted. Out of – what, four, five thousand auditionees, someone had said: “You know who would be good for that bit where Ant and Dec arrive at the Palladium in a taxi? Mike.”
Mr McPartlin and Mr Donnelly were not there of course. Their close-ups were shot on another day in a studio. Instead, the camera was set up in the taxi door for a POV shot, and I was asked to walk past the Palladium steps, doffing my hat in greeting to the lads. While wearing a sequinned jacket and a union jack bow tie. They then shot a similar sequence with a young lady in a Vegas showgirl outfit.
The crew and I then decamped to nearby Carnaby Street where we met up with some cheerleaders, a party clown, that drag queen I had seen at ExCel, and a rather random family in colourful jumpers. We were filmed dancing en masse down the street (to the Osmonds song We’re Having a Party) and then filmed individually dancing and miming to the same song.
The following day, by which time I had returned to Leicester, some actual crowd scenes were shot (in a studio in Wimbledon) of Ant and Dec being cheered by a throng. Which was probably great fun but I couldn’t manage two consecutive days in London. My work might have allowed it, but my wife wouldn’t.
Of course, nothing is guaranteed until the final edit. Somewhat predictably, all the footage used in the opening sequence was shot on the second day. And the clip of someone greeting Ant and Dec at the Palladium was the showgirl, not the idiot in the union jack bow tie. A bow tie that sits on the shelf behind me as the only evidence of my involvement with BGT.
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