Our performers could teach Simon Cowell a thing or two

The queue for Stoke's Top Talent auditions at the Victoria Hall, Hanley.

The queue for Stoke’s Top Talent auditions at the Victoria Hall, Hanley.

Sunday was a long day. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Even as we neared the finish and the clock struck eight o’clock, I didn’t want the auditions to end.

At that point, the frantic early morning registration for this year’s Stoke’s Top Talent competition was a distant memory.

Yet people were still huddled in groups around the auditorium, cheering and clapping enthusiastically: paying punters who had sat there for the best part of 10 hours and wanted to see it through to the bitter end.

I didn’t need to be there. I don’t start judging until the week of the heats when 50 finalists will battle it out in Hanley for the ultimate prize.

I was on a reconnaissance mission. I know that, come the week of September 7, this competition will be on everyone’s lips, and I want to be ready.

Sixteen months ago, the idea of having a variety contest here in the Potteries was just that… an idea. But anyone who witnessed last year’s dramatic climax at The Regent theatre will tell you that this concept, this show, is here to stay.

Even our Editor was left genuinely speechless by the standard that night (and that’s saying something).

Yes, the world and his dog might have gone potty recently over a certain Susan Boyle who came a close second in the final of Britain’s Got Talent.

Not me. I’ll let you into a secret. Whisper it quietly, but Stoke’s Top Talent is better.

OK, we may not have the pyrotechnics of ITV’s ratings winner and the trousers of our resident ‘Mr Nasty’ – Kevin Wood – may not be quite as tight as Simon Cowell’s.

But, by the same token, audiences who pay good money to watch our final 50 acts later this year will certainly get their money’s worth.

There will be no deluded, talentless individuals selected for the judges to belittle; no blokes who think that chucking wheelbarrows around qualifies as entertainment; no random picks to be humiliated in front of a live theatre audience.

Every single one of the finalists will be there on merit.

Of course, for many entrants, the auditions themselves represent their moment in the sun.

For countless youngsters, their minute-and-a-half in front of Jonny Wilkes and the other judges is just the spur they need to carry on singing or dancing – and to maybe try to improve for next year.

No-one leaves in tears. Everyone exits the stage with endorsements, advice and applause ringing in their ears. Which is just as it should be.

Take it from me, it takes some bottle to stand on that stage at the Victoria Hall and belt out 90 seconds of vocals or throw yourself into a street dance routine in front of hundreds of people you don’t know and judges who do this kind of thing for a living.

I saw every act and all the emotions etched on the faces of young and old alike.

I sat on the side of the stage and yet I confess I still have absolutely no idea how Birches Head magician Ben Cardall could predict which playing cards the three judges would choose out of his pack of 52.

I’m also not too proud to say I shed a tear when six-year-old Magenta Lee, of Madeley, sang Where Is Love? from Oliver!

You could have heard a pin drop.

Apparently, they’re doing a similar competition in Milton Keynes this year where the local theatre is owned by the same group.

I wish them luck. They’re going to need it.

I dare say the spies from down south who were watching our auditions on Sunday would have hit the M6 with their tails well and truly between their legs.

Why? Because nowhere else in the country can do what Stoke-on-Trent does with a competition like this.

We may be an introspective little city comprised of six disparate towns, but by God we know how to come together to champion the underdog.

When the final 50 are announced in next Monday’s Sentinel, I suggest you book your tickets for The Regent pretty sharpish.

Even if you never normally visit the theatre, it’s time to shop local and support the acts from your communities.

It’s Sneyd Green versus Kidsgrove, Longton versus Alsager, Tunstall versus Biddulph – and it’s bloody marvellous.

In fact, I’d like to extend a personal invitation to a certain Potteries pop superstar who just happens to have moved back to the UK.

Come on, Rob. Get yourself up Hanley with Jonny and your dad for the finals night on September 12.

You’d be really proud and we’d all love to see you.

Just for once, let us entertain you, Mr Williams.

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Panto star Wilkesy has had his day? Oh no he hasn’t…

It’s A straightforward question: Do you want Jonathan Wilkes back again this Christmas at the Regent Theatre?

‘Oh no we don’t!’ cry a vocal minority. ‘Oh yes we do’, answer his legion of fans.

And so the debate rumbles on in The Sentinel’s letters pages.

As we struggle to get to grips with the worst recession since the ’30s, I suppose who stars in this year’s premier Potteries pantomime is hardly a pressing issue.

Then again, you’d be surprised how exercised people can become when threatened with the Chuckle Brothers or Joe Pasquale.

This will be Wilkesy’s fifth year taking the starring role at the Hanley venue.

Critics say they’ve had enough of Baddeley Green’s finest and they want, nay deserve, a change.

They claim his local-boy ‘Ay up, me ducks’ is wearing thin and point to other cities where the cast is fresh every year and a new headliner attracts first-time theatregoers.

Well, even if I didn’t know the bloke, people would have a hard time convincing me that his star is waning just yet.

We could go round in circles debating the quality of the pantos. (I think last year’s was Wilkesy’s best to date.)

However, the facts speak for themselves. The 2008 production of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs broke box office records for a Regent panto for the fourth year running.

And isn’t that, ultimately, what it’s all about? Yep… bums on seats.

If the Ambassador Theatre Group which runs the Regent thought for a second that Wilkesy couldn’t bring home the bacon, don’t you think he’d be looking for work elsewhere over the festive season?

Of course, the Regent isn’t alone in having a star return year after year.

Other examples include Gerard Kelly in Glasgow, Billy Pearce in Wolverhampton and John Barrowman in Birmingham.

It is also interesting to note that when the Regent surveyed 100 random pantomime ticket buyers this year, none of them said they wanted rid of Wilkesy.

It seems that here in the Potteries, the punters keep on coming because they love the star turn and are happy with the parochial nature of much of the comedy.

I think they have learned to appreciate the huge amount of work and the incredible attention to detail which gears each production to the local audience.

Presumably they also love the use of upcoming talent in the form of local youngsters who take on the roles of dancers, etc.

Certainly, the warm reception afforded to the winner of the inaugural Stoke’s Top Talent competition (Daniel Hewitt), who went on to star alongside Wilkesy for three months, underlined the appetite for home-grown performers.

Indeed, I think the unique selling point of the Regent’s panto is that it is, perhaps more than any other festive theatre show in the UK, tailored to its audience and brimming with talent from North Staffordshire.

Sure, you still get the fantastic costumes, the slapstick humour and the singalongs, but we also get video messages from the likes of Robbie Williams (the genie of the lamp), or a magic mirror voiced by Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor.

If we didn’t have Wilkesy, we could, of course, have a big name from soap land to head the cast.

But, hang on a minute… we had Corrie’s Shobna Gulati in 2007 and the lovely Claire Sweeney last year.

So, for my money, we are getting the best of both worlds.

In short, I’m not really sure what the detractors are bleating on about.

More to the point, they can boo and hiss all they like – Wilkesy will still be compering Stoke’s Top Talent in September and stepping into Dick Whittington’s well-worn boots this Christmas.

And, as far as I’m concerned, that’s no bad thing.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel