The Ingrid Pitt column: talent shows

Ingrid remembers how she got her break, and how she's glad she didn't have to make her mark in the era of The X Factor

I never did a lot of television. When I was a gel it was considered not very nice. The prostitution of the arts! Critics used to talk like that. Theatre was still considered the grand media. It you could summon up a penetrating voice and some lovely sounding vowels you were onto a winner. There were a lot more theatres about then. Especially in England.

My first venture into theatre was in the early ’60s, as a ‘muckefuckmacher’ in East Berlin for the Berliner Ensemble (it’s less painful than it sounds). When I went to live in the States and flashed my CV around with the Ensemble prominently hilighted, it got attention. Well at least it got me a job in the Pasadena Playhouse. A thriving touring theatre when I arrived. Unfortunately I hit it at a bad time and I was forced to do a moonlit flit from my lodgings, still owed money by the company.

I sold my car at JFK Airport and winged my way, penniless, to Barajas Airport in Spain. I wasn’t found standing in a queue for fish and chips, a la Christine Norden but I suppose it was the Spanish equivalent. I was emoting over the death of a toro in the bullring when a press snapper took my picture and it was seen by a Spanish producer and it kick-started my movie career.

My move into television began when I returned to Los Angeles three or four years later. American actors had caught onto the fact that TV wasn’t that bad and a few hours work could buy you a sprossy new auto. I was lucky. I now had a few films behind me, Spanish it is true, but feature films nevertheless. I had a big mouth, an interesting accent and walked the walk. The big shows, like Ironside and Dundee and the Calhane were now considered OK as long as you didn’t overdose. If you did it was assumed that the film producers would look the other way and spit on their toecap when they passed you in the corridor.

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By the time I came to England TV had come out of the closet, although my agent still found it hard to articulate the word and would mutter ‘box’ if he had to tell me he had a job in the despised end of showbiz. But he did manage to line me up some pretty good shows for a while. Appearing in a drama automatically fed you into the ‘Guest’ category. One of which was New Faces.

New Faces was the successor of Hughie Green’s Opportunity Knocks and was extremely successful. Hughie would ladle on the condescension and make weak jokes at the contestants’ expense before letting them loose on the air. Winners were chosen by the TV audience, although there was a controversial ‘ClapOmeter’ which claimed to show the reaction of the people in the studio. It was a successful format but getting a bit dated. New Faces was the new face.

The regular panel consisted of Tony Hatch, a successful songwriter, providing the likes of Petula Clark with highly rated material. With him was record producer and talent spotter extraordinaire Mickie Most. Hatch and Most were considered the hard men of their day. Keeping the party clean was Derek Hobson. I was one of the Guest panellists. I’m not sure how many times. Six maybe?

I was lucky enough to be hooked up with comedian Arthur Askey. Arthur had a long and distinguished career going back to the 30s. When I met him he was getting on a bit and not in the best of health but he never let it show. He was always joking and delivering hilarious one-liners.

We were both staying in the same hotel next to the studios in Birmingham. One night in the restaurant I went to get some food at the carvery counter and was joined by Arthur. He couldn’t miss the opportunity of putting on a show and did a stand-up comedy routine that must have lasted for a quarter of an hour – at my expense. There were other panellists but as much as I exploit the Lotus position I can’t remember who they were. The show disappeared for a few years and when it returned it had the comedian Marti Caine helming it. The show produced a lot of the names that are top stars today. Besides the late Marti Caine, who went on to actually present the return of New Faces, there were Lenny Henry, Michael Barrymore, Victoria Woods, Les Dennis and many others.

The reason I bring this up is I watched the X Factor. For two reasons. One is that I have read a lot about it being a prime example of ‘Cruelty TV” and two it is master minded by Simon Cowell. Cowell is responsible for bringing Il Divo together. I think they are wonderful. Nearly bankrupted myself going to see them at Excel but they were worth it. I thought it only fair to have a look at the man who took them on.

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I do my best to avoid watching talent shows. They make me feel nervous. I hated The X Factor. I know that puts me in the minority but the whole thing is so ugly. Both Opportunity Knocks and New Faces exploited the ambitions of wannabe entertainers but at least, before they got before the public, the talentless ones had been weeded out and saved the humiliation of being allowed to perform before an audience. No such nicety on X Factor. Those auditioning are subjected to ridiculed and degraded by a bunch of oafs with no claim to highly honed performing talent. I know from long experience that show business is a ruthless profession. But for many people it provides inspiration. They may never meet the their targets but at least they fail honestly. Not to boost the egos of a group of hyenas urged on by the braying mob.

I don’t think I will be watching the X Factor again. The same goes for that other exploitative, nasty show, Big Brother. But I’ll keep the faith with Il Divo.

Read Ingrid’s column every Tuesday at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.