The Fringe stars who got their big break on Britain's Got Talent
‘ Isuspect he cares more about what the huge ITV family audience think about him than what anyone else does,” posted someone called Guy Lambert on Facebook, of Britain’s Got Talent runner-up Robert White. It brought to mind Mrs Merton’s “what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels” moment. By “anyone else” one assumes Mr Lambert meant his fellow unknowns toiling, frequently unpaid, at comedy’s coal face, and taking their frustrations out online.
“They make their money by stamping on people’s dreams in front of millions,” declared Jack Kirwan, on the same Facebook thread. The discussion was prompted by the posting of an audition call for comedians for BGT’s next series.
“For me, as for a load of comics, BGT was seen as a very Butlins type of thing. For all their protestations that they’re working class, most comics are massive snobs,” says semi-finalist Nick Page. “Last year Daliso [Chaponda] did really well out of it, and this year, what a surprise, there were hundreds of comics auditioning.”
Page is the only comic out of the Talented ones I talked to who had a problem with the show.
“I am quite bitter because it was made very clear to me that I wasn’t supposed to get past the semi-finals early on,” he says. “The show relies on the judges trashing some people, and those people can’t be from areas which would generate a lot of voting income.”
Circuit comics’ biggest problems with the show, apart from “burning material,” seems to be unsubstantiated fears as to what happens when a comedy set is edited.
“Before doing it, I had heard a few myths,” says the comedy canary in the BGT mine, Daliso Chaponda. “They edit you to look bad, I had heard. This to me seemed impossible. If I have a great gig, no amount of editing can make it look terrible. If I have a bad gig, maybe it could look worse, but that’s it.
“‘They change your jokes’, ‘they take all your money if you win.’ I don’t know whose experience these stories came from because I wrote all my own jokes, didn’t change any and nobody has come to take all my money.”
Perhaps Daliso should be more worried that the same Facebook thread called for him and Johnny Awsum (another much-loved circuit figure who took to TV fame’s slippery pole) to be banned from the circuit. Or perhaps not.
But there is scepticism at comedy’s grassroots. Ray Davis shares his worry that the Got Talent empire, the single biggest platform for performers of all types in the world today, is too small-minded to accommodate a “sweary act with a nice line in death, sadomasochism, wank and other family-friendly bollocks”. And Roger Swift worries that he will “have to edit out the entire words that sound like cock, which kind of safety-net the whole act”. Tragic.
Daliso was nothing but impressed. “They have great production team who make you look like a superstar. If you want fireworks as you walk on or to be flanked by dancing girls they’ll make it happen!”
Even Noel James, possibly the least likely of the BGT bunch has no regrets. “I played the room. And what a room – the Apollo! I am proud to say I played it, live, and it’s there for posterity. In the end I don’t think I could have done a better performance. It was a case of distilling all my comedy experience into one five- minute set.”
Page was the only one I spoke to – who actually did the show – who felt badly done by. “The audition set was edited so it looked like I was struggling before the heckle, and the heckle had a huge pause put in before my response, so it looked set up.”
I hate to dash the preconceptions of anyone hoping for a career in TV comedy, but everything from the misleadingly named Live at The Apollo to any panel show you can name undergo the kind of comprehensive, post-production makeovers comparable only to Caitlin Jenner. It is interesting that the live comedy circuit, from which almost all the negativity comes, is what pushed Noel James to do the show
“2017 was a difficult year for me – there is a lot of rejection in the world of stand-up comedy, and at the start of 2017 I received one in particular which sent me into a spiral of depression: a female booker of a big club up north told me to my face that she wanted to book me but then didn’t even return my emails. She made me feel helpless, frustrated and impotent, which led to insane anxiety. I had to go on medication. Other clubs offered me unpaid spots, as if I, a 25- year veteran, am nothing but a beginner. This is why I took a gamble.”
While the nether regions of the comedy circuit continue to be unimpressed (“I’d rather cut off my own arsehole and sit in a bath of vinegar” Mike Larkin, FB), it would seem that, if you know what you are doing, getting a smile from Simon might not be such a terrible thing. But the “Got Talent” thing is the kicker.
“I met some nice, intelligent people backstage – comedians, some of them. They said they were comedians, but really they’d just made their friends laugh in a pub,” says James.
“I would certainly recommend that you do the circuit for at least a few years before thinking about doing it. I think that my experience on my comedy circuit helped me a lot. It’s important that you feel very comfortable on stage if you want to do BGT,” advises this year’s winner Lee Ridley – aka Lost Voice Guy
Has the win changed his life ?
“I haven’t noticed any changes yet, if it has. I do get a lot of kids come up to me now and chatting to me. And that’s really great, because sometimes children can be scared of someone who is a bit different. Obviously, most of my material isn’t exactly child-friendly, so I’m looking forward to the challenge of writing more stuff that is suitable for them.”
Lee has only one regret about BGT: “I only got to meet Ant once!”
James is also happy with his experience. “I am 52 … every dog has his day, and they like dogs on BGT! If you’re happy to risk being humiliated on TV, then go for it. I would say that the BGT judges did not judge according to race, accent, nor age – just purely on performance.”
And finally, a word of advice from Daliso: “Do your best jokes. Don’t worry if you are dirty, because if you write out all your material and you can’t find nine minutes of clean jokes (each round is three minutes) then you can’t write jokes. The only downside is if you have a terrible gig, 16 million people watch it. But when I did it, I had a back-up plan. That year, my Edinburgh show would have been called “How terrible was I on BGT?”