Above: Stephen Mulhern as Buttons in Cinderella at the Ashcroft Theatre, Croydon. Photo: Frazer Ashford
Paul Johnso’s star interview with Stephen Mulhern
Whether it be high drama, comedy or a musical, the skill sets an actor needs to turn in a successful and memorable performance onstage in front of a paying audience are vast.
One step removed, and only a fool (or Silly Billy) would presume a top-notch panto performer requires any less talent than his or her classical counterparts when delivering the goods.
The simple fact is that the thought of tearing down the fourth wall terrifies the living daylights out of your average board-treading thespian.
As one of the country’s top TV presenters, ITV’s golden boy, Stephen Mulhern has mastered the art of live TV broadcasting and working with the public. With the constant threat of the unexpected rearing its head at any moment coupled with the continuing requirement to live off one’s wits, Mulhern is also a pantomime regular attracting the highest bounty afforded to only a handful of top A-listers.
Paul Johnson was lucky to grab half an hour with Stephen in one of those rare moments when he wasn’t being whisked off to one TV studio or another…
Making his third panto appearance to date at Croydon’s Ashcroft Theatre, Stephen has once again delivered a master-class in the art of holding an audience in the palm of his hand. From his dressing room deep in the bowels of the Fairfield Halls, Stephen tells me how he loves to swap the studio cameras for the stage every Christmas. For Stephen, you can’t beat the atmosphere of pantomime: “I prefer a panto audience to a TV audience. I think a studio crowd has to have a lot more discipline; there are right places and wrong places to applaud, and the audience virtually gets told what to do because they’re pretty much managed. A panto audience can do what they like. That’s why it’s a joy as you never know what’s going to happen. Like today for instance, we had the sad scene between Cinderella and Buttons and all the kids started booing Cinderella. One shouted out ‘You picked the wrong one!’ Of course he was right, which is beside the point, but you could never predict that.”
Stephen’s ability to think on his feet has made him a household name on shows such as Britain’s Got More Talent where he exploits the opportunity to improvise segments not only with the judges but also the auditioning public. It’s surely these skills and his likability factor that make him such a popular pantomime star. He did of course start out as a magician, and it’s here that Stephen acquired his confidence and rapport with people: “You know, for two years I used to be the resident magician at Hamley’s toy store,” he recalls. “I was working with members of the public all day long and I remember thinking that I really enjoyed this.” When you’ve only got a few seconds to grab the attention of a passer-by, Stephen quickly honed his act to be as effective as possible, “You’re obviously performing to thousands of tourists each day many of whom don’t speak any English, but the bonus with magic is that it doesn’t have to be vocal. So if someone is from Dubai for example, you can still perform to them because it’s all visual and that’s what I loved developing.”
From the bright lights of Regent Street it would be Stephen’s regular childhood holiday destination that would further prepare him for the glittering career that lay ahead. “I’ve still got some very good friends at Butlin’s. Your roots are really important; I worked at Minehead. It gives you that initial confidence because being a Redcoat you’re out there and you have to do it. I was terrified but over the years you build your act and, with that, comes confidence. My family went to Butlin’s for years and years, and I remember back then that I used to love seeing the Redcoats perform as well as some really good entertainers. I recall seeing Noel Edmonds there and Michael Barrymore and again, I remember thinking ‘this is what I want to do.’ There were audiences of two or three thousand people and they were making them all belly-laugh. Butlin’s was really important.”
We can all see how well Mr Mulhern’s life apprenticeship at Hamley’s and Butlin’s has paid off as he’s hardly off our TV screens. Apart from his success on the popular Britain’s Got More Talent, he also presents many of ITV’s other primetime shows such as Catchphrase, Big Star’s Little Star, Pick Me as well as his appearances on This Morning Hub. It’s working live which he adores the most. “I love the unpredictability of it,” he reveals. “I’ll tell you a secret, whenever I do a live TV show I’ll always carry a pack of cards in my breast pocket just in case something goes wrong, or in case I need to fill some time. Because I know I’ll always be able to just do a trick and it gives me that bit of security.”
At Sardines we’ve quickly realised that the more successful the interviewee, the easier they seem to make everything look, whereas the real truth is success rarely comes without a great deal of hard graft. I ask Stephen if he ever considers himself lucky: “It’s interesting, I remember seeing an interview with David Jason where Michael Parkinson said to him ‘You’ve been very lucky with the roles you’ve got haven’t you? Only Fools and Horses, Open All Hours?’ To which David Jason replied ‘It’s really funny, Michael, but you know the harder I work the luckier I get.’ I think there will always be what appears to be luck, or good fortune. If I hadn’t been at Butlin’s or Hamley’s then would I have met the same people? The answer is obviously no, but you have to believe you make your own luck happen, and that takes hard work.”
Stephen has a close relationship with Paul Hendy and Emily Wood who jointly run Evolution Pantomimes (Emily’s father being Kevin Wood who himself runs First Family Entertainment – ATG’s pantomime production company) and have, once more, broken all box office records this year in Croydon. Stephen enjoys the freedom afforded to him at Evolution: “I’m quite fortunate really because all of the big panto companies make offers and, I don’t know, but there’s something about Evolution’s pantos. All the other companies obviously care, but I have a very personal relationship with Evolution. I can put my own tricks into the show as well as various routines which are done in my own shows, so we work together on the script rather than just being given one and told, ‘Okay so that’s what you’ve got to say.’ We meet up a couple of months beforehand before the rest of the cast have seen the script …and I’ll sit down with Paul – you just don’t get that with other companies.”
The role of Buttons is also a prerequisite for our favourite magician. “Cinderella is my favourite pantomime. I think it’s one of those pantos that ticks every box, especially playing Buttons. You get to do the comedy side of things, the pathos side of things and you get to keep story moving.” The lynchpin for any Cinderella production, the role of Buttons also provides the gateway through the fourth wall. Stephen talks about what he initially looks to achieve after walking onto the stage for the first time – and how he sets about doing it: “The first thing is to get the audience onside, and the way I do it is by being honest really. It’s important to make sure they’re with you from the start; if they are then they’ll be with you throughout. So you always want to come on and introduce yourself properly with something like, ‘Hiya, gang! My name’s Buttons and every time I come on and shout Hiya, gang! I want you all to shout back Hiya, buttons!’ … it’s sounds so simple but it works, and gets them all involved straightaway.”
With the crowd on your side there’s no end to the potential mischief. “You’ve also got to make sure they absolutely hate the Ugly Sisters!” he gleefully tells me. “I did a thing the other day where virtually the whole theatre was made up of school parties and I said: ‘When the Ugly Sisters come out give them a boo, but keep booing, don’t even let them talk,’ and I didn’t think it would work… they didn’t stop. When the Uglies came backstage after they said to me ‘why would you do that?’ It was every single time they went on. In the end there was no point in them even trying to speak. It did get embarrassing for me to the point where they admitted ‘there’s no point in us even going out there!’ I felt terrible afterwards but it just shows the power of getting the audience on your side.”
I attempt to get Stephen to forget that he’s a nationwide TV celebrity for a moment and put himself in village halls up and down the country where hundreds of fellow Buttons will also be getting audiences to boo the Ugly Sisters. What would he do in their place to win over the audience? “I think the secret is to talk to them and not at them,” is his initial reply. “Also you’ve got to gauge it. Timing is so important; if you get the timing wrong then lines and routines just won’t hit. But the trouble is you can only learn that by doing it, I don’t think you can teach it. You can have two Buttons performing the exact same script and exactly the same jokes and one will get a big cheer and the other won’t, so there must be a reason for it, and the reason is usually experience.”
Despite the fact that he’s almost certainly right, we’ve all got to start somewhere. So what tips has he picked up along Experience Avenue? “The last time I was here in Croydon, Danny La Rue was in the show and he taught me two amazing things. The first was during a cod laughter routine that we did together, when he said to me ‘you’re getting a good laugh on that routine but I’ll show you how to get a round of applause too.’ He told me when you’re about to laugh just give a single clap to the audience and put your hands on your knees just as you start laughing… and the audience will clap too. Unbelievably it worked! The second thing he said was when you do the walk down at the end of the show you’re bound to get a big cheer from the audience but keep looking down at the stairs until you get to the front of the stage and then look up and raise your arms… and the cheer will go up. You’d never work that out by yourself would you? You need someone experienced, who you also respect, to tell you. Honestly he was like Mr Miyagi from The Karate Kid. That was my second panto here, with Danny La Rue – my first was with Mr Blobby!”
Whether it’s panto or TV, it’s obvious from speaking with Stephen that he genuinely loves what he does. With Croydon’s box office record smashed once more, one also begins to understand just why these celebrities are paid such vast amounts of money each year. “I just really love it. I genuinely love it,” Stephen confesses. “And I think if you didn’t, it would be very obvious, especially on a show like Catchphrase when you’re working with members of the public. If you don’t like working with the public people will tell. I’ve seen TV presenters and thought to myself ‘you don’t enjoy it.’ I can tell, and the public aren’t stupid. Take panto; if you don’t enjoy it then don’t do it. But people say, ‘Oh, but it pays so much money,’ but you know what, it’s really not that important, it really isn’t. I’ve obviously been very lucky and when you don’t need to do it for the money any more then it’s really important because it’s too hard – don’t get me wrong, it’s not like working down the mines, but if you’re going to do it then you’ve got to do it properly.”
So, with the experience of live TV, performing to the public and the security blanket diguised as of a deck of cards in your top pocket, I wonder if it’s still possible to render our man speechless. “I don’t know about on TV but, funnily enough, we had a moment onstage the other day where I thought ‘Oh my God, I’m not going there.’ We had the kids up at the end to do the Old MacDonald Had a Farm sing-a-long and I asked this boy what his name was and he said, ‘Ben.’ Then I said ‘and who have you come to the panto with today?’ and he said ‘My mummy… and Mummy’s special friend.’ And I heard the whole audience go ‘oooooh!’ And I thought ‘I can’t say anything else to this, because I don’t know where it’s going.’”
It’s also a little reassuring to know that even the most confident of us still get nervous before walking out under the spotlights: “Yes, I get nervous. Especially during the live shows of Britain’s Got Talent. Those doors at the back of the stage are enormous, and you’re just back there completely on your own. Peter Dickson will start announcing ‘Please welcome live on stage…’ and you think, ‘Oh, my god!’ and then the doors open, and of course the first person you see is Simon! So, yes I do get nervous. I heard a great story about Frank Sinatra the other day, that before every show he would be physically sick through nerves; now who would have believed that? It’s always before you go on, once you get out there it’s fine, as all your readers will know. At the start of this panto when I’m waiting in the illusion, in my head I’m thinking ‘just make sure the trapdoor doesn’t open,’ because it could, it’s only held shut by magnets.”
With so many shows in production, Stephen’s diary is completely booked up for 2016 and, even on his days off during December’s panto he was more often than not being whisked away to a TV studio. “This year, I’ve been busier than ever. I’ve been working every day off. Yesterday we did Text Santa and tomorrow, after the second show, I’ll get picked up on a motorbike and taken to the studio live… it’s pretty mad!” He goes on to talk about some future plans, “There’s a big surprise that we’re doing with Ant and Dec which starts in February. That’s very, very exciting, and it’s live! In 2017 I want to do my own stage show which I’m writing at the moment. In fact when I’m not onstage in the panto I’m here writing stuff down. Once I’ve done my first appearance I’ve got about three minutes until my next one and then seven minutes until the one after that.” Well I guess every second counts!
The earlier mention of Ant and Dec prompts memories of last year’s undercover panto prank that Stephen fell for hook, line and sinker. Even Evolution’s Paul Hendy was in on the joke as anything that could go wrong did, and all in front of a packed auditorium. Stephen is biding his time: “Well, they’re going to get it, one day, I don’t know when, but I’m going to get them back – without question! They are at the top of the list, both of them!” Now there’s a dream panto cast… “And and Dec would make amazing Ugly Sisters but they have only ever done one panto. You could have Holly Willoughby as Cinderella and David Walliams as the Baron – he would be brilliant because he’s so unpredictable. It would never happen; there’s not a budget big enough! …But you have just given me an idea!”
So how much has our magician changed since those early days in Hamley’s and Butlin’s? Is magic gently making way for the diary-filling world of TV presenting? I ask Stephen what he would consider the worst nightmare: screwing up a live broadcast or a big magic trick going wrong. “It’s interesting that you say a ‘big’ magic trick, because if it’s close-up I can always get out of it, whereas if it’s a big trick then you’re stuffed. There’s nowhere to go,” he says, amusingly dodging the question slightly. “There was a guy called Doug Hemming who did a live TV magic show in America. He showed this big empty box, he walked inside, and said ‘what you’re about to see you’re not going to believe. I’m going to make something very special appear.’ And as he said that you heard this big elephant give the loudest trumpet from behind the box, and he totally blew it.”
I try again: ‘What’s your first love these days?’ “It used to be magic, but now I think it’s presenting, and I think the magic now has become a bonus,” is Stephen’s honest answer. “I love presenting, I absolutely love it. But the magic is always great to have because it’s something that not everybody can do.” And I guess at the end of the day, Stephen, you’ll always have that deck in your top pocket to call upon.
Above: Amanda Holden. Photo: Simon Turtle
Amanda Holden, together with her best buddies, is currently in the middle of a four-week whistle-stop tour with one of am-dram’s favourite shows, Stepping Out, ahead of opening the production in the West End next March.
Paul Johnson caught up with the super-busy TV personality at the Theatre Royal Bath in between rehearsals and emergency mugs of coffee to find out a little more about BGT’s most popular judge, and the story behind those tap shoes…
Amanda Holden’s status as a national treasure is strongly supported not only by her straight-talking honesty, but also of her image of that of an everyday (albeit glamorous) working mum. She is probably one of today’s best known and popular television personalities. However, the forty-five-year-old, who has been a judge on Britain’s Got Talent throughout its entire ten-year history, has plenty more strings to her bow than simply winning the hearts of the nation wearing designer dresses and sitting next to Simon Cowell.
Trained at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, and with television and West End credits to her name such as The Grimleys (ITV), Wild at Heart (ITV), Shrek the Musical and Thoroughly Modern Millie (Olivier-nominated), it may surprise many readers that Amanda is every bit a product of amateur theatre. With the amateur sector’s affinity to Stepping Out, she is passionate to talk about her early days: “That’s how I started, at Bishops Waltham Little Theatre, an amateur dramatics group set up by a lady called Angie Blackford. It was a godsend to my mother because I was doing plays in the back garden and, back in those days, we didn’t have any money and no-one knew about how to get your daughter on the stage; we just didn’t have the funds.”
It turns out the Holden family were similar to a myriad of other am-dram families around the country, immersing themselves into the art form, “So my dad started off as the set designer, he painted the backdrop; my mum ran the bar; my sister was in the chorus. And then my mum turned into the Wicked Witch and my dad turned into Buttons. I was Cinderella and my sister was still in the chorus because she likes to mess about. They used to call us the Von Trapps because our whole family was involved. So, amateur dramatics, for me, is everything because it fed what I knew I was going to do aged nine. I turned my hobby into my profession, and that’s a blessing. It’s massively important, for everyone.”
Anyone reading this who was a little dubious of Amanda’s ‘national treasure’ credentials prior to our interview can rest assured as she continues: “When you go to drama school you learn all about sound and lighting, but I always used to bugger everyone’s cues up. I think you learn more from amateur dramatics, you learn about people’s temperaments and what goes on, the kick bollocks scramble of backstage, the excitement. I can honestly say that putting the show on in the church hall with Bishops Waltham Little Theatre gave me the same feeling in my tummy as it did when I opened in Thoroughly Modern Millie or Shrek. It’s the same feeling of getting up onstage.”
Next month, in between touring Stepping Out and opening at the Vaudeville Theatre on 1 March, TV’s favourite personality will be appearing as panto’s favourite fairy godmother at the London Palladium. But right now Amanda’s (Mandy to her TV chums) head is living, breathing and dreaming ‘tap-dancing’. “I’m completely forgetting about the Palladium at the moment, right now I’m being Vera and, in a couple of months, I’ll turn into to a fairy godmother. But, yes, I have had a few tap-dancing dreams. I had a massage this morning and apparently my calves are in a really bad place, ha ha! But it’s fine, that’s just my age. We are all the same age in the show and we are all feeling the same aches and pains.”
The four-week tour, which started at Theatre Royal Bath has also just stopped in Amanda’s home town at Richmond Theatre before moving on to Cambridge Arts Theatre (31 Oct – 5 Nov) and then Chichester Festival Theatre (8 – 19 Nov). But be warned, if you’re hoping for tickets for the latter venues you might need to join the returns list. Amanda: “We’re previewing at the moment; it’s definitely a work-in-progress. But it’s going really, really well. We’re still plotting loads of things in and, obviously because each theatre has got different sightlines, for things we’ve already plotted, some people can’t see, so we’re sometimes having to change everything. Also relighting certain things so it’s clearer, but the first night we got a standing ovation and a massive reaction. I have to say we are sold-out for the tour; it’s doing really well. I’m just hoping the West End is going to reflect the same kind of response.”
Amanda goes on to tell me of how her involvement in this particular production came about, where I wasn’t surprised to hear she personally played a large part in bringing the revival to the stage. “I watched the movie with my children on TNT last Christmas and I’d just been to see the opening of Funny Girl at the [Menier] Chocolate Factory where my friend, Jason Maddocks, works. He was my flatmate while I was at drama school; we both went to Mountview together and lived with each other for about three years. He’s always been saying to me, ‘When are you going to come back on the stage?’ I told him it would have to be a really special thing because it’s such a huge commitment doing anything when you’ve got children, onstage especially. So then I watched the movie and rang him up, ‘What about Stepping Out?’
I knew it was also a great play, and he thought it was a really good idea. So I bought the play from Amazon, sent the script out to a few friends and asked them to choose a part if interested. We then took it to Danny at the Royal Bath who loved the idea. Then my management team, James Grant who also look after Ant and Dec and basically anyone else you see on the telly – turned around and said, ‘Why didn’t you come to us?’ So they are now co-producers. And that’s how it happened. and all my friends are in it!
How wonderful it must be, to be so famous that you’re able to cast your best mates! …At our amateur level, just the very hint of pre-casting friends would set off a peasant revolt and at least twelve months’ of gossip. As it turns out working with her friends (Angela Griffin, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Tamzin Outhwaite and Nicola Stephenson) was only part of Amanda’s journey: “It’s a dream come true, but the biggest dream I think was to get the right director. Jason knew Maria [Friedman], and I’d seen Merrily We Roll Along and loved it, I just think she’s amazing and I’ve seen her in several productions where I thought, ‘Oh my God!’ Anyway. she said yes and I couldn’t believe it.
“It’s just been ridiculous. I was in the bath last night and my husband said to me, ‘You must be happy because this is a dream come true?’ And I said, ‘Yes it is. I’m just a bit stressed out at the moment to actually appreciate it,’ because of Debbie and everything else I can’t really relish it all with so much going on. But I will sit down, probably at the weekend when my children arrive, and probably go, ‘Oh my bloody God! We’ve done it!’ ”
That’s often the way I guess, when you are engrossed in the middle of something; it’s hard to get an outside perspective, a bit like being a member of the Royal Family! “Exactly!” replies am-dram’s new best friend, as she takes a swig of coffee and a bite of her sandwich. “Yes, so it’s been a dream. It’s amazing because we all know each other, we’re all mothers, we’ve all had girls so we know each other’s children, and they are all coming up this weekend. We’ve got a huge dinner booked on Sunday. We’ve all got the same aches and pains. Some of the women are going through the menopause; the air-conditioning is on, it’s off, it’s on, it’s off. We’ve all got the same injuries. We’ve all got the same memory problems – so it’s all been brilliant!”
The ‘Debbie’ who Amanda mentions earlier is her younger sister. Just a week before our interview, Debbie was involved in a serious car accident in Cornwall which saw the forty-four-year-old put in intensive care. With Amanda leaving rehearsals to rush down to the West Country, for a few days, everything was up in the air and no-body knew whether the production would need to be postponed. Luckily, Debbie was out of danger fairly early on: “It’s going to be a long journey and it’s made everything… not as joyful as we wanted it to be. Of course I want to be with her, but my mum is there and she sent me off. Debbie’s going to be fine,” Amanda reassures.
LIFE IMITATING ART
The more Amanda describes the ailments and inevitable challenges running through the cast, the more the production feels like life imitating art. “It absolutely is!” Amanda agrees, accidentally banging her knee against a chair which makes her wince. “I mean none of us are brilliant tap-dancers – which we are not supposed to be. We’ve been told to keep eating and keep being rubbish at tap. It’s like a dream job really. The director doesn’t want us all to be skinny minnies onstage, except for me of course… my character has to be slim, ha ha!”
I point out that Amanda’s ‘working mum’ and ‘national treasure’ image sits nicely alongside, not only the characters in the play but also the thousands of women in amateur theatre – many of whom will inevitably have already been in Stepping Out. After all, the play features an everyday group of people meeting up in a village hall for their weekly tap class – it’s probably the perfect play for a busy mother of two to be in? “That’s very nice of you to suggest I could be a national treasure, but I don’t feel any of those things at the moment, except ‘working mum,” she tells me, counting down the days until her daughters arrive. “At the moment I just feel pure guilt; I’ve literally just got them both new Barbie dolls.”
Amanda wholeheartedly agrees about the characters in the play: “Even though I love Richard Harris’s screenplay, I think his stage play is much better. The play is raw and has more honesty – and isn’t stupidly set in America, which I never understood. I think it’s relatable, the women are so relatable, everyone’s got something going on in their life and by the end of the night you really care enough about them all to want them to succeed in that tap dance. And I think that’s the joy of it. I read the play and loved the part of Vera; she’s very outspoken and very funny. But probably my favourite parts are Maxine and Dorothy who are both very sweet and funny. I think you recognise somebody you know in every single one of the characters in it.”
There’s also a parallel to be drawn with her big ‘day job’. In Stepping Out surely Amanda also gets to feel a little of what all those Britain’s Got Talent hopefuls have to go through. “Ha ha. Yes, I’ve never forgotten what it feels like to audition, believe me,” she joyously reveals. “And Simon’s probably going to come and see it in the West End next spring. I said the same thing to him, I said, ‘I think if we came along to audition for you, you’d probably buzz us, but David would definitely put us through. Ha ha. That’s what it feels like. And I know Alesha would put us through too. But we really are like one of these groups of women who comes on BGT… We should probably turn up and audition, but they might wonder why I wasn’t in my seat.”
CALENDAR GIRLS IN TAP SHOES
It’s ironic that around the same time Stepping Out will be competing for bums on seats with Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s new musical The Girls also opens in the West End next spring? If you swap the tap shoes for naked photographs, the characters and village hall scenarios are, in fact very similar. “I know! It’s really funny because I’ve always said Stepping Out is Calendar Girls in tap-shoes,” exclaims Amanda. “But I’m sure there’s enough audiences to come and see both. We certainly wish each other well, the Calendar Girls musical will be brilliant. And I love Gary Barlow. But I’m going to make him come and see me first.”
Before next March, however, there’s a little matter of a major six-week run Amanda will be doing in the UK’s biggest panto production this year, Cinderella at the London Palladium. The epic show (and it really will be epic) features a truly star-studded cast including Paul O’Grady (Wicked Stepmother), Julian Clary (Dandini), Lee Mead (Prince Charming), Paul Zerdin (Buttons), Nigel Havers (Lord Chamberlain) and Count Arthur Strong (Baron Hardup) …as well as Amanda as Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother.
How on earth does her diary cope? “I just think of myself as any other working mother, except I’m in the public eye,” comes the cool reply. “I experience the same difficulties with childcare and feelings of guilt as I’m sure most working mothers in this country feel.” If we were in America I might have suggested she runs for president at this point.
Then again, unlike most families, at least Amanda’s daughters will get to see and maybe even believe their mum is Cinderella’s real Fairy Godmother! “Yes, my littlest one already thinks her aunty is a mermaid (Debbie teaches scuba diving), so it’s quite normal for her to believe her own mother could be a fairy godmother! Ha, ha.”
Somehow, even before Amanda picks up her fairy wand or goes near a pumpkin, and way before the aches, pains, massages and sore feet return in the New Year for the run up to March’s big West End opening, the other big love in her working life will already have kicked off its eleventh series. Being a judge on arguably TV’s biggest talent show obviously keeps her profile at the very top of the pile. So, presumably it’s not only important but essential to maintain the crazy schedule balancing both career areas – even if it does mean a trip to Birmingham’s ICC right in the middle of Stepping Out’s current ‘preview’ tour? “I love all genres of this business,” replies Amanda, and you’d be foolish to doubt her. “I think in order for me to continue being a judge on Britain’s Got Talent I have to continue to put myself forward and up for judgement!” Well that’s an annoyingly well-observed point and one that perhaps we might all dwell upon. When push comes to shove, weighing the whole work diary up, it is indeed the TV work which gets the Holden vote: “I love live television best of all, with theatre a close second!”
Stepping Out (Cambridge):
31 October – 5 November 2016
Stepping Out (Chichester):
8 November – 19 November 2016
Stepping Out (West End):
From 1 March (press night 14 March)
10 December 2016 – 15 January 2017
Julie Miles, vocal coach
If you’re one of those cynical types who can’t stand X Factor, BGT or The Voice then read on. Julie Miles is a vocal coach and founder of Vocal Ovation. You’ll often find her – if not one of ‘the hundred’, in All Together Now – she’ll be giving some one-on-one coaching to the many ‘amateurs’ who are appearing on our screens as they attempt to wow the celebrity judges.
Sardines spoke with Julie in July and uncovered a few home truths about some of the most popular TV talent shows…
How are you, four months into lockdown?
“I’m actually pretty good. Life has adapted nicely to being at home; I’ve got back-to-back online lessons, Monday to Friday, so it’s all good! Even though I should have been teaching in Poland now, and that had to be cancelled… then I was involved in the Little Mix tour, and that had to be cancelled… Onwards and upwards; I’ve not got too much I can complain about compared to what some people have been going through.
“It’ll be seventeen weeks on Thursday since I called it a day with face-to-face lessons and decided to take things online. I thought, ‘Oh, great, I’m going to have loads of time on my hands to get all kinds of things done,’ but I couldn’t have been more wrong! I’m really not complaining. Ha, ha!”
When do you think things will get back to normal?
“Well, I am getting more questions now about when I’m going to resume face-to-face sessions. I’m going to start staggering it. Towards the end of August I’ll start some face-to-face lessons and, in terms of performances – I deal with a lot of people who want careers in the industry – I’ve been lucky to have people who are either doing it part-time or their parents are still paying. So, I haven’t been hit in the same way that people in the West End have, who are completely reliant on their jobs. Plus, West End performers simply can’t afford to pay for vocal coaching at the moment. Some of my singers who are semi-professional have started to perform outside now – being booked for outdoor parties and that kind of thing. But in terms of ‘normal’, I really think we’re going to be quite a way away from what we know as normal.”
Have you been spending much time people how to produce a great sound via Zoom-type platforms?
“Yes, absolutely! A lot of singers I work with have also got a large presence on social media and they’re already used to posting videos online via YouTube, Instagram or Facebook etc. Because I’ve had so many students who have done that, the ones who have been a bit scared to dip their toe in the water have really been forced into it. These are the available platforms on which to show off their talent.
“The other thing that’s been brilliant is that I’ve always been involved in competitions. And the one that I’ve been involved the closest with went completely online this year. That gives singers an outlet and a goal to actually work towards. It’s a weird situation because I think really a performer wants to perform, they want the audience. When you’re doing a ‘live on Facebook’ you can see how many people are watching but you’re not getting that instant audience interaction – no matter how good the technology gets. That’s what feeds the performance, by having those people sat in front of them. You can see their faces and how they are reacting to you. So, while it is good to be able to do it, it’s essential to be able to do both.
“X Factor was originally acapella before they switched the auditions into much larger venues. I think in that situation, when you have – hopefully – got thousands of people really rooting for you, it is on one hand nerve-wracking but you can also see that immediate gratification of a crowd cheering. You can’t get any better than that. In an acapella audition scenario, you have got judges and potential employers sat in front of you. So you are at least getting a sense of how you’re doing, but I think with the old X Factor process they were really there to kind of intimidate rather than anything else. And I know that in terms of going for big musical theatre shows in the West End, the people who are doing the auditioning are absolutely brutal. They take no prisoners, their purpose isn’t to make you feel really, really comfortable. They just want to get the numbers in and out and find ‘the one’.”
Many musical ‘lockdown’ performances on YouTube look and sound great. has more work gone into their production than people realise?
“Oh, my goodness, yes! The amount of work that goes into producing something like a video for YouTube is absolutely huge! Unlike a live performance where any little glitch is over in a split-second, when it’s a pre-recorded video you’re leaving yourself open for every minute bit of critique… not only from the audience but also from YOU. You don’t usually get a chance to watch yourself immediately with a live performance. So with these recordings I know people who have literally spent all day, doing thirty, forty, fifty takes to get something that they’re really happy with. Perfectionism gets taken to a crazy level! So, when there are more people involved they have to get it right, quickly. That takes a lot of work, to produce something viewable for the public – and to a standard the public is used to.
You spend a lot of time working on TV talent shows. Does this usually involve inexperienced amateurs or professionals?
“It’s definitely a mix. Again, years ago, when the whole X Factor thing was a lot more popular, you would definitely get queues and queues of people who were complete amateurs – and, in some cases, delusional. We’ve all seen that and I think the whole focus on mental health, empathising and being kind to people has exposed that it’s not entertaining but cringe-worthy, in my opinion. So the queues – where people just had to click on the website to enter – used to include a lot of amateurs. The reality NOW is that on any of the serious stages, the people who get in front of the cameras, have been scouted and invited to audition.”
“That’s where I get involved a lot; having a number of really great singers who are ready to appear on a show like that. I’ll do showcases for all of the main TV competitions and the producers actually come to my studio and watch my singers doing their stuff. And from that they can start sifting the ones who have stood out. There might be very few of them who are actually earning a living from singing, all of them have put a lot of hours into their singing and performing. So, yes, they do tend to pick the cream off the top to make a good show, really.
“It’s all about making television. Going back to your earlier question about what goes into making these YouTube performances; you do see every detail. You can get in a lot closer in with a camera that you can sitting twenty rows back in a theatre, so it really does come down to the minute facial expressions.”
Can you tell us a little about Vocal Ovation?
“It’s my ten-year anniversary this summer. I started out as a professional singer who got involved in the performing arts when I left school. But it’s tough earning a living as an entertainer, so I got a ‘proper’ job on the side until, eventually, I stepped away from performing completely and just worked solely for a FTSE 100 company. I took voluntary redundancy when the opportunity came along and my husband booked me a surprise lesson with David Grant [of David & Carrie Grant] who I’d loved watching over the years with Fame Academy and Pop Idol. That lesson was amazing so I took some more slots, and on the second one David asked me, ‘Julie, have you ever thought of being a vocal coach?’ … and it all stemmed from there; I travelled down to London every month to work with David and I went on from there. My studio, which is on the side of the house, has a stage and everything. I’m actually in the middle of the countryside so when people come up – and you do have to have transport just to get to me – when they walk into the studio they cannot believe it. So the space I’ve got has really helped, plus I do train hard. I put people in the mind-space that they can step onstage with a full P.A. and sing to an audience… and don’t forget experience is everything!”
What is the most important aspect of performing that amateurs need to focus on in a live performance?
“Well, I’m bound to say training and having a coach is very important, but also studying people you admire and, perhaps aspire to, is a powerful tool. Look at how they perform and what they do onstage. Having the mindset that when you are onstage – and it doesn’t matter whether you’re an amateur or a professional – you need to be able to deliver the exact same performance every time. You cannot step onstage and think, ‘well, I’m an amateur; if it doesn’t go right people will understand.’ To want to be on that stage, you could be getting paid thousands of pounds or just because you love it, but at the end of the day the most successful people genuinely love what they do anyway. Don’t get onstage unless you love performing to an audience or you’ll be found out very quickly. And there are professionals who don’t always get that right.”
Has the quality of any untrained contestants on the many TV talent shows you’ve worked on ever shocked you? Likewise, have you ever come across any amateurs with a natural ability?
“Yes to both of those questions. Starting with professionals, going back to the TV shows I’ve been sorely disappointed with some of the ‘special’ guests they’ve had on who do this for a living. It’s a nerve-wracking thing for any famous singer to put themselves on that X Factor stage and perform when there are ten or twelve incredible amateur singers waiting for their moment. Time after time, the likes of Katy Perry and Cheryl Cole, and you think, ‘Oh my, that was absolutely awful.’ These guys are putting themselves through so much pressure every week singing live, and you’ve come onstage and lip-synced. Doing that is really setting yourself up for a lot of controversy. Some of them haven’t even got any idea about who the performers are anyway! They’re getting standing ovations really because of who they are rather than what they’ve just done.
“Equally, bearing in mind I work in quite a detailed way with singers, helping them with their technique and locking the issues that are stopping their voices from working, you will see singers getting up on these shows and blowing your socks off. But then they might say, ‘I’ve never had any vocal coaching.’ Sometimes it’s not quite true. But on the ones where it IS, then it’s a completely natural ability. Some people have the most incredible voice. When, for some reason somebody has a God-given talent and their voice is working so beautifully, I sometimes notice that they may have an amazing voice, but they’ve also got no stage-presence or I’ve not ‘believed’ in a performance of a song. There’s normally something which immediately draws you to it and carries the possibility of boring people. It’s my job then to work on the complete package. This industry is not just about possessing a brilliant voice. I would rather hear a few flaws here and there or a voice cracking from emotions that are coming through rather than give a flawless vocal that can leave you a little bit, ‘Whatever!’”