The contestants for the 13th series of Britain’s Got Talent, the variety show which starts on Saturday, certainly showed variety: next to me in the queue underneath the London Palladium are small children, a singer boasting about knowing Robbie Williams’s dad, and a Chelsea Pensioner in full Scarlets. A young researcher tries to put us at ease: ‘Have you come far?’ The Pensioner stares at her. ‘From Chelsea,’ he barks.
Britain’s Got Talent is event television, the sort of show audiences still watch live and talk about, on Twitter or even while sitting together at home — it’s like Question Time for ITV on Saturday nights. And like Question Time, there is some element of contrivance: as the QT audience can, shockingly, include political activists, those shots of long queues of people waiting to be auditioned are actually often of the audience. Most contestants at the Palladium auditions had been invited by the producers to jump the queue: you can do something as un–British as that if they think you have talent.
After signing my paperwork— certifying that I have no mental illnesses — I am filmed walking upstairs and preparing to go on stage with my stand-up routine, all this hours before the judges are even in the building. I am swiftly hustled past their star dressing rooms to the holding room where we wait. The holding room, where everyone sits looking bored and anxious and making desultory conversation, is pretty much the only part of the day which is exactly as it appears on television.
We eavesdrop on each other’s interviews to camera. Some of the contestants are as focused on capturing the narrative as anyone on Question Time — I listen to a group of young black kids answer every question with an inspirational message about young black kids — and I wonder if I should have got someone to draw up a grid for my narrative. I don’t really have one. I have a vague story about how I had given up comedy and then got pulled back in to do BGT — the basic rule of narrative, as taught in film schools: if in doubt, steal from The Godfather trilogy — but I have nothing as eye-catching as the white stick of the blind singer or the service medals on the Chelsea Pensioner’s chest.
A friend was on last year, and told me not to worry about the narrative — the producers will have decided on that already. He had been delighted when they filmed him preparing to go to Afghanistan to entertain the troops, which he was sure was going to earn him some votes. But they didn’t show any of that. Instead, they showed him looking glum in service stations. Looking glum in service stations is, to be fair, a far bigger part of any comedian’s life than flying to a war zone, but it is not a winning narrative. His only advice to me was ‘Take snacks.’
After six hours in the holding room, I am led to the main stage. I bump into a comedian I know — an excellent headliner whose audition had not gone well. ‘I had to follow the Chelsea Pensioner,’ he grumbles. ‘He sang. Even the technicians were in tears.’
You stand in the wings on a taped mark. On receiving the nod, a researcher leads you forward to another taped mark where Ant and Dec are waiting. Then, and only then, they have a friendly chat, in one take. I wish I hadn’t bothered learning the difference between them. And then I walk to the microphone. The odd thing is, I can remember next to nothing about this, the biggest gig I have ever done. I know that I got buzzed by Amanda Holden — right before a punchline which I had spent some time setting up — because a researcher tells me afterwards. But like an ex-serviceman who only remembers the boredom of waiting, I seem to have blocked out the terror of action.
Ant or Dec commiserates briefly and I am led away. A producer rushes after me, trying to give me a hug and check whether I am all right. I know she’s thinking about her duty of care, and the criticism the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy has made of talent shows, but all I can think is that if I rush I can catch the 19.03 back home.
She thinks my dreams are shattered. Actually they were fulfilled: in my last gig I played to a full house at the London Palladium. I’m up there with the Crazy Gang, Morecambe and Wise, Jacob Rees-Mogg. That’s not a bad narrative.