“Because of places like Butlins and these holiday camps, audiences were primed to watch in a particular way, with empathy and humour, and they were also primed to audition for [these shows] too,” Hill adds. “There was a strong passing down of an entertainment history to audiences from this and the reality talent shows really just mined this cultural history.”
In 1949, the simple premise of discovering ordinary people who have hidden, extraordinary talents came to prominence in the UK with Opportunity Knocks, which started out as a nationwide touring radio show, before moving onto TV in 1956. A series of undiscovered acts would perform on the show every week, with the audience responding with cheers that were counted on the clap-o-meter, before viewers at home were then invited to send in a postal vote for the winner, who was announced the following week.
In the US, talent show The Original Amateur Hour charted a similar trajectory, beginning life as a radio series, before being adapted for TV in 1947. It’s estimated that up to one million people auditioned for the TV version until it was taken off air in 1970, and it regularly pulled in 10 million viewers. While undisputed talent occasionally burst onto its stage – like Frank Sinatra and the opera singer Maria Callas – it was not seen as a launchpad for big stars, but rather a light-hearted way to offer ordinary people 15 minutes of fame.
By the 1980s, there was still huge appeal for what became known as ‘shiny-floor’ talent shows, especially during weekend primetime. In the US, Star Search ran for 12 years in its original run, from 1983 to 1995, and as searches went, it did genuinely uncover some A-list talent, including Destiny’s Child, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Alanis Morrisette and LeAnn Rimes.
In the UK, fans were also still tuning in to these simple talent contest-as-entertainment shows – including New Faces and My Kind of People – but then come the 1990s, the nation became obsessed with impersonating already famous singers. Stars in Their Eyes ran for 16 years from 1990, and had the “wow” factor moment of transforming a pub singer into their idol, as the contestant said the famous words: “Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be…” and then stepped out from a puff of dry ice as their musical doppelganger.