In 1986, Central Television saw fit to resurrect New Faces. Hosted by previous winner Marti Caine and featuring the then fearsomely ubiquitous Nina Myskow on the panel of judges, the new series attracted a very healthy 13.5 million viewers and would run for three years. During that time it almost completely failed to discover anyone who would go on to carve a career as successful as Victoria Wood, Lenny Henry, Patti Boulaye or countless other “graduates” from the original run. Indeed the 1988 Grand Final line-up featured Stephen Lee Garden, Steve Womack, Donimo, Tim Murray, Max Bacon and Stevie Riks – none of whom have since become household names.
In 1987 Richard Courtice made an appearance on New Faces. Referring to himself in the third person, he recalls he “went on to win his heat singing ‘Nessun Dorma’ with reportedly the highest ever recorded number of votes for an artiste. Bernie Winters said he was privileged to have heard him and described Richard as fantastic. (A few months after New Faces, the relatively unknown ‘Nessun Dorma’ was chosen for the World Cup football theme, three separate commercials, and released as a single by Pavarotti, coincidence?)”.
Of course, in 1987 the BBC was hatching its own plans. Having secured the services of Bob Monkhouse some three years earlier, the notion of having him front a talent show seemed very appealing. The comedian had already shown himself to be highly supportive of other entertainers thanks to The Bob Monkhouse Show (in which Monkhouse provided a platform for established and new comedians in the guise of a loose chat show) and was able to deal with the complexities of a live show. Monkhouse’s two stints as the host of The Golden Shot had demonstrated his incomparable ability to deal with a highly complex format as well as members of the public and still produce a slick, fast-moving final product. While Opportunity Knocks was never as challenging a format as The Golden Shot it still required a presenter of considerable ability.
“[BBC Head of Light Entertainment] Jim Moir asked me to host the famous talent contest originated by Hughie Green,” recalls Monkhouse. “The producer was Stewart Morris, a giant veteran for whom I’d compered a BBC TV Royal Variety Performance in Edinburgh a year earlier … During our first year, he was to audition over a thousand aspirants and produce a series of thirteen fifty-minute shows.” Indeed the scale of the new series, seemed designed to ensure that New Faces remained the smaller TV talent outfit. In addition, while New Faces continued to make mileage out of cheap put downs from stunt critics such as the aforementioned Nina Myskow, the BBC series (renamed Bob Says Opportunity Knocks) would offer only unstinting support. “The audition process had firm rules,” remembers Monkhouse. “Each successful applicant was allotted an approximate time of day to appear at the venue, usually a local dance hall. Our team sat behind a trestle table facing the performing area. We provided a rehearsal pianist, a microphone, speakers a TV camera and monitor. Morris had decreed that every auditionee should be given not less than three minutes, and not more than six, that all would be treated with respect and, no matter how gob-smackingly frightful they were, none of us should laugh except at those who meant to be funny.”
Monkhouse was an avid supporter of the show’s format. “Someone like Paul Daniels, who’s got the thrust, would undoubtedly rise to the top sooner or later,” he observed back in 1987. “But generally speaking, raw talent needs good advice and good management – and a place to go and be lousy on your way to becoming good. There are very few of those left. I believe in this show because there are so many ways talent can be brought out, as long as it’s there. Costume, pace, presentation – even singing in a different key – can all make the difference to an act, and I myself can certainly help the comics.
Last week we auditioned one who basically had everything going for him, but he came out with a stream of sleazy material that was quite unsuitable for Saturday night on BBC1. Afterwards, we went through his other material together and he had three of four very funny visual jokes which he hadn’t done because he thought they needed a bigger audience. I told him to re-audition and imaginea bigger audience – and suddenly everyone could see something there.
A show like this would never work if it had no heart.”
Thought too was given to the extent to which Monkhouse’s own performance might upstage the young hopefuls and there was a lot of consternation regarding how many jokes he should crack between rounds. In the end it was decided that, like Hughie Green before him, Monkhouse would play the “benevolent maestro,” yet unlike Green, he would also have free reign to crack as many jokes as he saw fit.
Although sticking closely to the formula as defined by Green, the Monkhouse version did offer a couple of departures from that which had gone before. Firstly, a short film showed the auditionee in their day-to-day lives would preface each act. “These are great fun because we’ve got some unlikely people,” commented Morris. “For example, there’s a young doctor and a 737 pilot who are both, for some reason, keen to make it in show business.” Secondly, and more importantly Bob Says Opportunity Knocks would introduce a revolutionary new element of audience participation.
Whereas previous talent shows suffered by either relying only on the studio audience to determine which act should be named the winner, or having to defer that most important piece of business until the following week to allow postal votes to arrive from members of the public, Bob Says Opportunity Knocks allowed television viewers to assert their opinion via a simple telephone call. Such an innovation instantly increased the number of votes cast by the viewing public, as well as crucially allowed the audience at home to determine the series victor without having to show the performers one week and announce the result the next (in the case of the 1987 final there was just two hours between the series finale and the announcement of the overall winner).
The importance of Bob Says Opportunity Knocks in the development of the modern day talent show (and therefore the development in recent years of Saturday night television as a whole) seems to have been overlooked due to the fact that the programme itself was a remake. However there does not exist a television talent show today that does not feature both telephone voting and a focus on the contestant’s backstory.
As Monkhouse himself remembers, the first series “was nothing short of sensational. The ratings went sky high.” The first episode reached 14 million viewers and featured acts such as Frankie Allen, The Gravy Brothers, Kyriacos Kikis and Zeitia Massiah. In fact, arguably it is that first series that lives longest in the mind of the viewer, featuring as it does such memorable acts as Debbie Stephenson, the Balfour Chorus (who on one programme performed a splendid rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” just as Canned Rock had some 10 years earlier) and Rosser and Davies, whose song “Friends Till The End” was enough to secure them the series title on 20 June 1987. However, of these performers, only Debbie (now referred to as Debra) Stephenson has gone on to secure lasting fame. Then she was a teenage comedian, but now she is better known as an actress from series such as ITV’s Bad Girls and the BBC’s Playing The Field.However, Bob Says Opportunity Knocks would turn up other acts who would go on to sustain careers in show business, such as series two winner Jane Harrison, series three winner Brenda Cochrane and also Darren Day.
For most though, life after Bob Says Opportunity Knocks would see a return to some kind of normality. “Disconcertion came in threes for me at [the] Aubergine [Restaurant]” wrote The Daily Telegraph’s Restaurant critic Nigel Farndale in 2000. “First, the flower arrangement in the brightly lit reception area was so large that the room seemed out of perspective. Equally perturbing, I couldn’t seem to catch a waiter refilling my glass of water … My composure was disturbed a third time when one of my companions, a former chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant, let slip that in 1987 he had made it to the grand final of Bob Says Opportunity Knocks, singing an a cappella version of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. I mean, you think you know someone. My demeanour when he told me was like that of the aunt in PG Wodehouse who, picking daisies on a railway line, catches the down express in the small of the back.”
As well as creating future stars and Michelin chefs, Bob Says Opportunity Knocks also managed to produce some controversy too. First of all the show had to contend with Hughie Green’s attempt to prove that he held the copyright to the Opportunity Knocksformat. Green had already suffered a loss on this front when back in 1983 he had attempted to win damages against a New Zealand television series (also called Opportunity Knocks) for infringement. “’In the year 1956 I wrote the scripts of Opportunity Knocksshows” he explained during the case, “such as they were, because we would have what we would call the introductions, our stock phrases like ‘For So-and-So, Opportunity Knocks’, phrases such as ‘This is your show, folks, and I do mean you’. The other part of the writing dealt with interviews with the people and one could not really call it writing because you were really only finding our what the artistes wanted to talk about … The script of Opportunity Knockshas continuously been the same for the catch-phrases, the interviews each week which the artistes had differed, the script for the past 17 years and long before 1975 contained the words ‘make your mind up time’ using the ‘clapometer’ and bringing back the five people.”
However on the basis of what he deemed as flimsy evidence the trial judge concluded that “the scripts as they are inferred to be from the description given in evidence did not themselves do more than express a general idea or concept for a talent quest – and hence were not the subject of copyright. In the absence of precise evidence as to what the scripts contained, their Lordships are quite unable to dissent from this view.” As such the makers of the New Zealand series (which broadcast from 1975 to 1978) were not obliged to provide Green with any form of acknowledgement or remuneration.
The situation with regards to Green versus Bob Says Opportunity Knocks was destined to end in much the same way. However, Green did at least succeed in having himself billed as the show’s “Programme Consultant” (even though he played no active part in the BBC series). The second controversy to hit the series would also peter out in a similar fashion. “My family watches Bob Says Opportunity Knocks every week,” commented Mrs Selvidge in the 23 May 1987 edition of Radio Times“but one thing we don’t agree with is the fact that some of the acts are already professionals. I thought Opportunity Knocks was meant to give newcomers a chance of getting into the business.” Stewart Morris was happy to confirm to the readers of Radio Times that in fact “Mrs Selvidge is incorrect in assuming Opportunity Knocks is meant to give newcomers a chance of getting into the business. Professional, semi-professional and amateurs were auditioned for the series.”
With that issue straightened up Morris next had to contend with viewers’ concerns regarding the abolition of postal voting (“The highest average postal vote on the original ITV series was approximately 16,000 postcards, whereas the current BBC series attracts almost half a million telephone calls,” he rebutted), and accusations that telephone voting was inherently flawed as one individual could make multiple calls for their favourite artiste. To this latter charge, Morris observed “if a viewer chooses to vote dishonestly more than once then this is indeed unfortunate, but they could equally write more than one postcard if we had a postal system. I believe the number of viewers doing this would be one in half a million telephone votes whereas with the postal system they would have more effect.”
Bob Monkhouse stayed with the show until 1989. Successive series fared well enough with the 1988 final pulling in 9.6 million viewer and the 1989 one 11.6 million, but Monkhouse’s agent, sensing that opportunity was knocking for the comedian elsewhere, encourage Bob to hand over the reinsafter the third to fellow comedian and previous Opportunity Knocks winner, Les Dawson. Dawson presided over the show for one final, arguably less memorable year in 1990, and then the format was once again consigned into television history.