15 seconds of shame

Television - Andrew Billen on the talentless who, one way or other, are bound to be stars

A decade ago, John Guare wrote Six Degrees of Separation, a comedy in which sophisticated New Yorkers were duped by a professional conman promising them a part in the Broadway production of Cats. Even more hilariously, Soapstars (Monday and Thursday evenings, ITV1) offers as its prize five roles in the least respected and least talked- about of the prime-time soaps, Emmerdale, once a sentimental pastoral comedy, now just another teen-struck melodrama stuck in the rut of domestic violence and unauthorised libido. Soapstars, to be sure, will not be recording anything in the league of David O Selznick's quest for Scarlett O'Hara.

It started ominously with the words: "My name is Annie and I want to be famous." Channel 4's Celebrity: the rise and fall analysed this neurotic fantasy a couple of weeks ago. Jennifer Saunders, in the new series of Absolutely Fabu-lous, treats it satirically: celebrity is the new designer label. But Soapstars, a fly-on-the-wall documentary that is also a game show, squares up to the wannabe epidemic at its own knee-height, and, although it follows on from Popstars and will be followed by Pop Idol's search for a solo singer and Model Behaviour's pursuit of the next supermodel, it may be the format's purest manifestation.

Significantly, in the first two episodes, not a single contestant spoke of wishing to be an actor, only of becoming famous. Equity members are not banned from entering, but they are not encouraged, and any professional would surely shrink from being associated with the likes of, say, Kimberley, a whey-faced redhead whose performance was judged to be "scary" and who, following her inevitable rejection, sobbed: "It's hard to explain what is going on inside me, but fame in my life is something I want so badly. I just want to be famous so much. It's inside me just bursting to get out." The internalisation of celebrity - the delusion that one already is famous and the world has simply failed to notice - is the mass delusion of our time.

The art of Popstars was that it turned from being a talent contest into a documentary about musicianship and marketing. From Soapstars, we will no doubt eventually learn something about acting and the process by which a soap is made. For the moment, it revels in the agony of the process by which the talentless attempt, and largely fail, to unburden themselves of their nonentity. The search, at this stage, is virtually indiscriminate, contained only by a cabalistic preoccupation with the number five: five winners will be selected from 5,000 contestants auditioned in five cities. Each, as Warhol would have enjoyed, has 15 seconds in which to impress the judging panel.

During these moments, they will, and do, do anything. One hopeless hopeful offered to give the judges a full body massage; another bared breasts painted with the words "Choose me, Nigel" (a reference to Nasty Nigel Lythgoe, the Popstars impresario). There was a fire-eater, a number of bottom- barers and a whole Kitchener's army of duds who thought that acting meant finger-pointing. The most ill-judged bid for attention came from a woman who told the judges that the building was on fire. Escorted from the premises, she admitted: "I thought it would go down a lot better."

The three great beasts sitting in judgement talk among themselves through each 15 seconds and reach their verdicts well before they have passed. Their thumbs-up echoes a Dick Emery catchphrase: "Oooh, we like you." Their thumbs-down is "not for us" - suggesting that, somewhere out there, another soap has just the part for them. The judges are a camp casting director called Paul de Freitas, a frazzle-haired Emmerdale scriptwriter called Bill Lyons and a graceless gorgon called Yvon Grace, a former EastEnders producer whose put-downs have already surpassed Nigel Lythgoe's inhumanity. ITV has scored an ace by casting these three: not since the combination of Tony Hatch, Clifford Davis and Arthur Askey on New Faces has there been such a panel of contrasts.

The producer, Tim Miller, has not let the network down. He has a journalistic eye for following the stories - the kid willing to sacrifice her holiday in Greece for her callback, the mother-and-daughter combo of which the panel selects only half - rather than the talent. Those who reach round two get to act out old Emmerdale scripts. Intercut with their attempts are clips from the original performances. These are augmented by commentary from the real actors. Soapstars could prove bigger than Popstars.

It is, nevertheless, built on a lie. Soaps, as a rule, do not make actors famous. They make characters famous. Who's the best soap actress in the country? Probably the tarty waitress Marilyn on the original Crossroads, who became Audrey in Coronation Street. Superb character, but have you heard of Sue Nicholls? The recent successes of Ross Kemp, Martine McCutcheon and Susan Lancashire have misled ITV's ego-jangled 5,000 into thinking these are typical career trajectories. Yet the winners may have the last laugh. If it is beyond Emmerdale's modest abilities to deliver them the fame they so crave, the addictive tackiness of Soapstars just might.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The love of a robot